Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bringing the DH to the next generation

My thesis work is based on my observation of the need for digital humanities education in younger grades. Digital humanities, which can broadly be explained as “the application of computational tools and methods to traditional liberal arts disciplines,” is an observably large umbrella, under which are grouped tools and methodologies which can be applied to different fields in different ways.

Although the Digital Age is dated within the last few decades, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the average American home housed a desktop computer. Therefore, computers are still a relatively modern technology, particularly in schools. As recently as 2007, it was not required that a high school student have access to a laptop computer during the school day, and PC computer labs were still widely in use. More recently, however, school districts have switched to providing laptops to students, and more typing is done than writing on a daily basis.

All this considered, literary endeavors remain rooted in traditional close reading methodologies and digital technology is merely used for presentations and traditional research, with the rest of its powers delegated to STEM classrooms.

Average English majors stay within the four walls of the English department for the extent of their undergraduate career, where they are exposed to traditional literary criticism and creative writing outlets. Many continue through grad school without ever hearing of the digital humanities. Although interest in the field is growing fast, scholars and DH departments are scattered throughout the country, and across disciplines and, in order for a DH program to grow, cross-disciplinary collaboration is crucial. There is no simpler rationalization for this that the fact than most literary scholars are naturally not well versed in the technological intricacies that could aid their own work.

Although, as noted, the digital humanities can be a daunting field, this does not need to be the case. My mission for this paper is to unpack methodologies and tools within the field, in order to make it accessible to a person with average computer skills, while addressing the following problems.

First of all, I seek to discredit the traditional fear within the literary community that technology stands in opposition to the humanities. Technology, like our eyes’ ability to read, is just another tool in the arsenal of scholarship, and the digital humanities offer methodologies as helpful as the methodologies that are tried-and-true. If it is possible for a computer program to analyze information and deliver a report of word frequencies, or map the use of a phrase throughout an entire corpus, shouldn’t it be available to an inquiring student?

Second, I believe that, in order to build a field, it’s important to start from the ground up. When the digital humanities field is relegated to graduate work, it’s not accessible to students who might be interested from a younger age. For that reason, I seek to educate high school teachers in the use of methodologies and tools that are easily grasped, and therefore easily taught. Methodology categories will be focused on first- visualizations, mapping, distant reading and text analysis- and then broken down into programs that might be useful to the average teacher- such as Ngram, Voyant, and

Third, I believe this is important because it has the opportunity to serve cross-disciplinary purposes. People interested in the digital humanities span the academic spectrum, from computer scientists with an interest in coding, to historians, to literary theorists. If such a field is accessible from a young age, it may be possible to bridge the gaping divides between departments, and inspire students with cross-curricular talents.

I plan to tackle this project through the lens of dystopian literature, a genre I have chosen for a few reasons. In addition to being my personal favorite genre, books such as 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World are often on school required reading lists, however they aren't as commonly required as Shakespeare or Jane Austen. In choosing these books, I choose stories that are familiar, although not overdone. In regard to theme, dystopian fiction is usually born from the fear of uprising, or technological or governmental control-- which I think it’s an interesting frame for a project that is often rooted in technological suspicion.

Ultimately, I believe there is validity in introducing technology to a younger generation in a way that is accessible and interesting, so that we may encourage future scholars to collaborate across departments and use available tools to their fullest potential.


  1. What an exciting-sounding project, Marissa - thanks for blogging and sharing. I look forward to joining your class today to talk more about research and theses. I'll share some DH links with you on Twitter also :)

  2. HI Rissa, and my thanks as well for sharing your project. I am sorry I didn't get to be a shark. Or were you the shark? Or perhaps there were no predators at all? At any rate, DH is an interest of mine as well and I think dystopian fiction is a great lens or subject for your project. I imagine DH strikes many in the humanities as a rather dystopian topic in itself, as you note.

    When I think of DH, I think of two principal modes. One is quantitative, and that's what I think most folks have in mind when they hear about DH. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I've long admired the Google Culturomics project (I think I got the name right) that will demonstrate the waxing and waning of various words and phrases over time, as determined by the corpus of Google-scanned books. It's fascinating to see how Eldorado and Shangri-La change places over time as synonyms for a utopia or a lost paradise. Similarly, I love to use the etymology command in Google to see not only word derivations but also frequency of use over time (another window onto the culturomics project). Various computer-aided stylistic analyses are also chugging away, including the recent Oxford University Press edition of Shakespeare that claims to have identified collaborators for several of Shakespeare's early plays.

    The other strand of DH that's received rather less attention is the digital representation of texts, or the digital environments in which one may read texts, or the digital generation of texts. The Electronic Literature Organization is all over this area and I've found them a useful guide. The Future of the Book folks, ditto. Some cinema studies folks, likewise. I highly recommend *The New Media Reader* for some further background. (I'm a big Bill Viola fan and love his essay in that collection.)

    Good luck with the project!


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How do you write a thesis with no idea of what you want to write about? I'm floundering and I don't see any end to this struggle. If...