Category: Digital Humanities

Will DH Save the Humanities?

Currently, I’m experimenting with text analysis tools such as AntConc and Voyant for topic modeling. Ted Underwood’s blog entitled “Topic Modeling Made Just Simple Enough” introduces the uses and purpose of topic modeling, showing that researchers can extrapolate topics and infer discourse from a great number of texts. This makes text analysis seem more of a superficial close reading, allowing readers to get a sense of topics and themes, while topic modeling allows for more customization and a macroscopic view of a corpus. While certainly not a means to replace close readings of texts, topic modeling enables humanist researchers to conduct wider analysis of many texts in far less time than they would otherwise, which means they will present findings and add to scholarly discussions more quickly or more nuanced than traditional humanists.

Research produced with a much wider scope that breaks traditional disciplinary boundaries, perhaps completed in few years rather than a decade… So this is digital humanities. It has huge implications for academia, as it redefines humanist scholarship, which calls for a re-evaluation of not just the importance of the humanities, but also the system of awards in academia in how scholars are promoted and funded. After all, most funding agencies, in whatever form, seem to fund research that provides quick results. Moreover, it seems that digital humanities can help solve the crisis that has plagued both the humanities and pure sciences in academia.

While I attended Cal State Fullerton, the California State University system suffered draconian budget cuts, forcing faculty to take furloughs, paycuts, while departments had to slash course offerings and suspend hiring, thus forcing students to prolong their stay unless they chose to drop out after even required courses disappeared from registration catalogs. At Cal State Fullerton, the Modern Language Department suspended all but a handful of programs, while other departments cancelled many classes. Suffice it to say that we experienced a metaphorical drought in morale, and the humanities and pure sciences were hit the worst. Now, a few years later, it’s not as bad, but the many in the Cal State system and CSU Fullerton administrators continue to regard the humanities as “esoteric,” less-worthy of funding, and supporting present-est research and preferring STEM to reign. I’m hopeful that digital humanities will reshape this discourse about humanities and show that they are just as worthy of funding and research attention.

After all, digital humanities provides new forms of scholarly communication (I know, I’m stating the obvious). But if it likens to the methodologies of disciplines that our culture deems “more important,” as we see with computational analysis such as topic modeling, maybe the digital will bring a more positive view of humanities.

Matthew Jockers on Topic Modeling

This week, I attended Dr. Matthew Jockers’ talk “Correlating Theme, Geography, and Sentiment in the 19th Century Literary Imagination,” which was yet another great Catapult Center event at IU.

Dr. Matthew Jockers, a leader in text analysis from University of Nebraska, discussed his latest research utilizing topic modeling for geometrization of narrative, that is, the literary function of “place,” in conducting a macroanalysis on over 3,500 British and Irish novels. Topic modeling allows to solve some of the problems with identifying places caused by ambiguity in texts thanks to its name and entity recognition (NER) capabilities, such as shared name places (such as Georgia, which is a country as well as state in the US) or places as concept. Additionally, using LDA for developing word clusters and differentiating contexts of words, Dr. Jockers was able to get a larger sense of place, not in terms of coordinates, but in “placeness.” Primarily interested in representations of place, Dr. Jockers found interesting commonly addressed themes in his data set, including “peasant dwellings,” “war victories,” each discussed under difference words depending on Irish or English author or audience. Generally, Irish spoke more positive of home, while British depicted themselves with a sense of superiority and conversely the Irish with wretchedness. As Dr. Jockers points out, these are macro, general tendencies and so his findings should not be taken to speak for all people’s perspectives.

The greatest lessons learned from Dr. Jockers’ talk, aside from the fact that he enjoys analogies and metaphors related to food when it comes to text analysis or anything for that matter, are 1) that topic modeling via text analysis allows for further confirmation on what one already knows and 2) the process facilitates discovery of new categories of analysis and research questions (for instance, Dr. Jockers found that Irish-Americans were less sympathetic toward free Blacks in the nineteenth century, largely because of employment competition, while Irish people in Ireland related to them, probably because of understanding oppression!).

History and DH as Interdisciplinary

During last week’s session of our digital humanities (DH) course, we discussed the definition of DH, which has been a long and drawn-out debate among DHers for decades. From that class conversation, others dissected the meaning of both humanities and digital, and I found myself at odds with a few assertions:

“The humanities are opinions, not science.”
“The humanities are not social science.”

These are not verbatim quotes, but rather the gist of what I remember being said.

True, the humanities are not “science,” nor are they necessarily social science, but are they not at times scientific? Do we not use the scientific method to develop our hypotheses, to help shape our methodologies? In doing history, our current knowledge and our worldviews will inform how we think about history, but the historian is supposed be objective, not delineating personal opinions. However, history can be subjective, which the objective historian understands. We must shed all of our preconceptions and immerse ourselves into the distant lands of the past to fully engage in what things meant then. History is about perspective, indeed, but what’s most important are the perspectives of the people of the time being studied. Just objectivity is necessary for historians, and perhaps all humanities, so is objectivity for the scientific method. Perhaps they are intertwined.

This leads me to the next point. Why is it so important to differentiate humanities from the social sciences, which also use scientific methods? Humanities don’t rely on just close readings of texts, but they quantify and qualify data. Computational techniques and analysis, for instance, have significant effects on all disciplines, not just the sciences, whether social, hard, or “pure” sciences. In other words, humanities use the same tools as the social sciences, which enriches our studies, research, and findings. Again, I use history as an example: it is interdisciplinary, and it should be that way to assist in informing us about the past and understanding the human condition. It’s more than telling a story, it’s a matter of placing meaning and using a variety of disciplines as tools for creating categories of analysis. For instance, in studying “last dying speeches,” which are accounts of criminals last words before being executed in early modern England, psychology comes into play to inform our understanding of the power of apologies, as the public spectacle and expectation and then delivery of an apology from a transgressor helped to heal the body social. Surveying the demographics of criminals detailed in the Ordinaries’ Accounts, perhaps come from sociology. Ultimately, I would argue that interdisciplinarity deepens and supplements such a study, because, after all, history is not just retelling stories with facts and dates. It’s about crafting understanding and enhancing our knowledge, enlightening us about the past as well as ourselves, which is aided by a toolbox filled of infinite measures that extend beyond the humanities.

DH is interdisciplinary as well, and it seems that it’s not so much what you study, but rather what you do with it. Any medievalist (or early modernist as seen here) can have a blog or a website. But what does that website do? What’s its purpose? For our DH class we read and discussed the notion that DH is about “building,” using Stephen Ramsay’s point that “If you are not making anything, you are not…a digital humanist.” This seems quite true, but I think it goes beyond building and comes down to the idea of sharing. Mark Sample elucidates this rather well in his blog. As the digital landscape redefines how we produce, disseminate, and consume scholarship, and the boundaries by which we share knowledge are, for lack of a better term, boundless. This allows for us to engage in scholarly conversations, and perhaps these conversations are what scholarship is about: sharing ideas, re-evaluating our current knowledge through new evidence that is brought forth by other scholars. Digital Humanities, then, broadens the arena for discussion.