Focus on digital humanities: initiatives bring technology to various disciplines


When you think of medieval literature, you might imagine crackling vellum sheets with the flowery black writing of the scribes, interspersed with colorful designs. You probably don’t think about software or coding.

But technological tools and computational methods play an increasing role in the analysis, teaching and preservation of medieval literature and history, as well as a wide range of other fields of the liberal arts, thanks to a emerging phenomenon known as ‘digital humanities’.

In recent years, digital humanities have taken root at Binghamton University, thanks to collaborative efforts that include Harpur College of Arts and Sciences and University Libraries.

“Many contemporary scholars who work in fields such as English, philosophy, history and art history have taken an interest in data-based methods, computation and the use of the Internet for disseminate their work in a very new and dynamic way “, explained the art teacher. History Nancy Um, Harpur Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Inclusion.

Researchers from many disciplines are already collecting data and working on projects that would benefit from the digital tools currently available, said Amy Gay, a librarian specializing in digital scholarships. However, the wealth of options can seem overwhelming, and academics interested in learning more about them may not know where to start.

Enter the Digital Humanities Research Institute (DHRI), which began in 2019. During this week-long hands-on workshop, faculty members and advanced graduate students learn about the tools available to humanities researchers and receive training in their use, generating a visual model of topics that emerge from a corpus of thousands of texts or coding in Python to extract data from the Web.

Other initiatives are also underway, including a possible graduate certificate in digital humanities and an undergraduate minor in digital and data studies. Overall, the humanities should benefit from the influx of new technologies and new ideas that they can potentially discover.

“A great thing about the humanities is the analytical thinking that goes with the project; it really helps when it comes to the technical side, ”Gay said. “You have to look at your research, your data or your texts in different ways. A lot of these tools and platforms are ways to make things more engaging and interactive. “

Digital exchange

Support is the crucial ingredient to the success of digital scholarship, and Dean of Libraries Curtis Kendrick hopes to build that up in Binghamton. Its vision: to build a community of practice around digital scholarship, coordinated by the library and supported by funding.

Prior to arriving at Binghamton in January 2016, Kendrick was Dean of System Libraries at the City University of New York (CUNY) in New York. The CUNY system is strong in digital scholarship, with innovation hotspots sown throughout its 20 campus system.

“It takes time and resources to make things happen, and I think it’s important that the library is the place that does it,” he said. “Otherwise what ends up happening is that little pockets develop in different places on campus and they will choose different technologies that are not compatible.

To this end, the library provides both technology and expertise to the campus. A major initiative is a pilot digital scholarship center, which opened in 2020 in the scientific library. In addition to providing a flexible and open space for collaboration, the center will also offer software and hardware, workshops, training and consultations. The library is also in the process of adding another librarian specializing in digital scholarships, so more help is on the way for researchers looking to access these tools.

“The digital stock market is a pretty big field and no place can be everything for everyone,” Kendrick said. “We need to determine exactly what the digital stock market means here in Binghamton and what we need to invest in. Having a pilot digital scholarship center can help us better understand where we need to make these investments and help grow the community. here at the University before our next digital scholarship center is ready in 2024. ”

“We are only at the beginning of what is possible, in terms of new avenues of discovery and investigation,” Kendrick continued. “For Binghamton academics who want to pursue what is possible, their first stop should be libraries. We’re ready to give them the help they need to get started.


Organized by Um and Gay, DHRI’s goal is to reach faculty members and advanced graduate students who are interested in topics ranging from coding languages ​​to data visualization, but lack the necessary skills. knowledge or confidence to use these techniques.

“We really think we need to provide a scaffolding so that faculty members can develop their own abilities and hopefully bring these methods into the classroom,” Um said.

Digital publishing, podcasting, and digital storytelling have been popular options, along with mapping and creating multimedia exhibits. For literature researchers, there are several web tools that can analyze a body of text, showing relationships between words and concepts through visuals such as bubble charts, word clouds, and line charts.

Databases and tools covered in DHRI sessions included ArcGIS, Python, Tableau, Google Sites, R, GitHub, Command Line, and text analysis tools such as Voyant.

“There is so much rich written material in the humanities. By just using these types of digital tools and calculation methods, you can really see research in new forms and have more engaging projects in the classroom, ”Gay said.

Most of the methods behind the digital humanities involve calculus, an area where computers excel. For example, a human wouldn’t be able to process 10,000 pounds at a time, looking for specific phrases – a task a computer can accomplish in minutes.

University researchers are already using these tools in their research and in the classroom. During her time as an academic in residence at the Getty Research Institute, Um first witnessed large-scale provenance research that involved digitizing recordings of works of art bought and sold in the 19th century. With these recordings, researchers could trace the lineage of particular paintings and the paths they took, perform quantitative analyzes, and collaborate with each other on open source platforms.

In the field of medieval literature, Assistant Professor Bridget Whearty is currently completing a book on the digitization of medieval manuscripts entitled Codicology: medieval books and modern work. Whearty, who attended DHRI 2021, plans to create a digital supplement to his printed book that will include digital color manuscripts – many presses only print black-and-white books – as well as other aspects of his research. .

She will also use digital tools to plot trends in the use of a particular phrase in journal articles over a hundred year period, as well as to execute a long poem written in the 1430s using several tools of the past. textual analysis to see what she learns – about the poem and the tools themselves.

Some of the techniques covered by DHRI are those she currently uses in class, such as having students translate their essay drafts into word clouds to represent concepts. Students also use mapping tools to situate medieval texts in time and space, anchoring their knowledge over a period that spans over a millennium and over a large part of the territory.

“One of the problems with teaching medieval studies is that it all gets a bit hazy and mixed up; it’s a long time ago and a long, long time ago, ”she said. “But if students see how timelines and maps are constructed, if they are the ones who construct them, then they can choose which data points are relevant and meaningful to the work they are doing and the questions they are asking. Ultimately, we all want our students to be empowered and digitally savvy, and able to use these tools to create the future they want for themselves.

Cards and more

The 2021 institute attracted faculty and graduate students from Harpur and the College of Community and Public Affairs with diverse interests that included both research and teaching. In addition to the workshops, 2019 workshop participants returned to share their projects and discuss how they continued to apply the tools and concepts they learned through DHRI.

At the 2021 event, doctoral student Madelynn Cullings discovered a range of digital tools that she can use as a historian to read and interpret primary source texts, including Tableau, which offers unique ways to analyze and interpret textual data. She also learned some good everyday practices, such as using the command line to store and manage files on her home computer.

“It was an incredible experience and one that contributed to my personal growth as a researcher and instructor,” said Cullings. “Having the opportunity to work with and benefit from the experience of Nancy Um and Amy Gay allowed us to discover the direct applications and the impact that technology will undoubtedly have on the development of research and publication trajectories. . “

Medievalist in the history program, doctoral student Jessica Minieri joined DHRI this summer to deepen her research on the history of medieval women. The skills she has developed in Tableau and ArcGIS will prove invaluable to her current research project: constructing a digital map that shows the geographic and chronological positions of the Queen Regents of Europe from 1300 to 1500. The map will help visualize the ‘location and ultimately the importance of women leaders in medieval European governments, she explained.

During DHRI, she also completed a digital timeline creation exercise that she plans to use in the classroom. Minieri is currently a teaching assistant for a course on the Crusades, and she plans to have students outline the chronology, as well as the reigns of the monarchs in the Crusader Kingdoms and other relevant medieval events.

“I have found the DHRI to be a very useful workshop and look forward to continuing to use the skills I learned there in my thesis work and teaching for years to come,” said Minieri. . “I encourage anyone in Binghamton interested in digital humanities to participate next summer! ”

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