Exploring Humanity in a Digital World

The Past, Present, and Future of Digital Humanities
Maybe you’ve heard the term Digital Humanities before, but you’re not entirely sure what it means. Digital and humanities combined? You might be wondering if it has something to do with cyborgs (it doesn’t). I’m here to make it make sense and to get you excited about the potential of this emerging and evolving field.
IMAGE VIA: Wikimedia

IMAGE VIA: Wikimedia

As the end of my undergraduate degree rapidly approaches, I’ve been forced to face the terrifying prospect of “What’s next?” Having made the slightly daunting decision that I want to eventually teach English at university, the logical next step was to apply for grad school. (Hot tip: Start applications for grad school early. It’s outrageously stressful to be completing complex applications while taking a full course load. Who knew?) 

I just recently finished the application process and I’ve been thinking about the response I often receive when I tell people that I’m planning to study 18th-century literature through the use of the Digital Humanities: “Cool!… Wait. What does that actually mean?” 

I thought it might be easier to put into writing so that the next time someone asks me what I’m talking about, I can just send them this link.

Let’s start at the very beginning

Computers are considered ubiquitous now, but it’s really only been 20 to 30 years since they became mainstream. Professor of English and Digital Studies at the University of Maryland Matthew G. Kirschenbaum explains that the Digital Humanities (DH) grew out of what was known as Humanities Computing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. According to Kirschenbaum, “digital humanities is more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technology.” Although the early foundations of this field stemmed primarily from English-focused studies such as encoding and text analysis, it’s continuously growing to include a broader range of academic fields as well as adapting to incorporate constant technological advances.

The tip of the digital iceberg

I was first introduced to the DH in the autumn of 2022 when I took VIU’s English 480: Research Methods. In this class, we utilized two unique DH projects to help with our study of the writing of Jane Austen. The first project was a website called Austen Said that digitally encoded all six of Austen’s novels to determine who speaks each line of text on a word-by-word basis. The site allows for new interpretation and analysis of the way that Austen creates characters through their unique patterns of speech. 

This is particularly useful for the work of Austen because she frequently used the voice of her infamously witty narrators to reveal their inner thoughts (this literary technique is called “free indirect discourse” and Austen is often credited with being the first author to use it successfully). Austen Said is a perfect example of a DH project because it required both the technical skills to encode the text as well as the knowledge and understanding of the literary style of Austen. 

The second tool we used was part of The Women Writers Project created by Northeastern University. This website features full transcriptions of texts written by women between the years 1526 and 1850 with an emphasis on materials that are rare or inaccessible. This project is an example of how the DH can be used to recover writing that has historically been omitted from the literary canon. To do a print run of any of these relatively unknown texts would be too much of a risk for publishers. However, making the texts accessible online to be read and studied means that they may become popular enough to be worth publishing in print again in the future.

The natural crossover of the Digital Humanities

Did you tune out as soon as I started talking about my English class? Don’t worry, this next part is for you! 

The two projects that introduced me to the DH are examples of how it has historically been driven by the fields of English and History. However, the scope of the DH is constantly evolving. 

The University of Victoria runs the Digital Humanities Summer Institute every year and the calendar for 2024 includes the courses: Using Digital Games as Critical Methods of Intervention; Advocacy, and Activism in Humanities Scholarship; eTextBook Publishing and Open Educational Resources; Pedagogy of the Digitally Oppressed; Introduction to Computation for Literary Studies; and Queer(ing) DH. This range of courses demonstrates that there is a natural crossover from the Humanities to other fields such as Computer Science, Education, and Media Studies. The DH also lends itself naturally to critical topics such as Anti-Racism, Anti-Colonialism, Queer Theory, and Intersectional Feminism. 

Musical Passage is a website that uses an interactive image of sheet music combined with audio to convey the history of early African diasporic music, and We Are Your Neighbours is a project based in Richmond City Jail that aims “to expand the soundscape for Richmond incarcerated persons to the broader community, and conversely draw the attention of that broader community to the lives, conditions, and subjectivities of incarcerated persons.” These two projects are representative of the relatively new branch of the DH known as sound studies. Although it is still developing, this field is already demonstrating immense potential for exploration. By creating the capacity to record and analyze oral histories, sound studies can help to challenge the dominance of written historical documents that have historically tended to privilege a relatively limited worldview.

Indigenous communities are utilizing the DH to recover and present their languages and oral histories. Those who have taken Canadian history classes at VIU may recognize the work of Sliammon Elder, Elsie Paul’s, As I Remember It, an interactive digital book that encourages her audience to listen “in ways and to voices that have the power to unearth sociopolitical assumptions and intellectual foundations.” 

Other projects are using DH techniques to interpret and analyze historical records and data to challenge white supremacist narratives. There’s the Colored Conventions Project, which utilizes archive and documentary records to create digital exhibits that bring the history of 19th-century Black organizing to life. Data 4 Black Lives are collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data to “create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people.” In an interview with Forbes magazine, the founder of Data 4 Black Lives Yeshimabeit Milner stresses that algorithms are not necessarily unbiased: “Systemic racism shows up in many places, including housing and finance—so developing mortgage software underwriting algorithms that are less racist is something we’re interested in.” 

What’s happening at VIU?

The scope of the DH work already out in the world is immense, and the potential for collaboration and creativity is incredibly exciting. However, what I’m really eager to share with you is the innovative work being done in the DH at VIU.

Media Studies professor, Robin Davies has taught courses on digitization and podcasting at UVIC’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute for several years now and stresses how lucky we are at VIU to have a Media Studies department.

“I love to pair up people who have a lot of tech skills with people who are really engaged with their content,” explained Davies. “Then that collaboration will happen because there is this really good back and forth and you get content that takes advantage of the medium but it’s also very substantial in terms of its message.” 

Davies has received work-op funding to create the radio show Indigenous Echoes, where students use conversations around language and culture as a means to highlight and revitalize Indigenous languages. Davies also assists with making Conversations in the Arts and Humanities, a podcast that shares the work of members of VIU’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, as well as information about upcoming events and projects.

This spring semester, English Chair Dr. Paul Watkins has reimagined English 392 as VIU’s first class focusing on sound studies and sound writing. In Watkins’ class, students examine audio archives, learn sound writing, and make audio projects based around their own interests in sound, music, and literature. Importantly, the class description stresses that “no audio experience is required.” 

Watkins explained that when creating the class, it made sense to focus on sound because of his own research and interest in music and sound remixing. In his essay “A Digital Humanities Remix” published in the Routledge Handbook of Remix Studies and Digital Humanities, Watkins writes:

Listening is part of the body, a dialogue that begins with the mother-child relationship, and is reflected in all of life. Thus, when considering the digital turn in sound studies, we cannot evade the humanistic aspect of our inquiry.

What you may find most surprising is that we actually have our very own Digital Humanities Lab on the Nanaimo campus.

The MeTA Lab is funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund, and VIU’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities. It began in 2014 with a focus on exploring the interactions of images and text in digital books. Under the direction of Dr. Richard Lane, the lab has broadened its scope, collaborated on projects with other scholars across Canada, and published three books on the DH: The Big Humanities, Doing Digital Humanities, and Doing More Digital Humanities (all of which are available through the VIU Library).

The most prominent ongoing project at The MeTA Lab is its collaboration with The Canadian Letters and Images Project (CLIP) organized by VIU History Professor Stephen Davies. CLIP is “an online archive of the Canadian war experience as told through the letters and images of Canadians themselves.” The MeTA Lab is working with CLIP as a case study to trial new technology that can analyze and assess large sets of data using a machine learning technique called topic modeling

Although this project is highly technical, the goals are humanistic; the tools being built through this work will allow researchers to find connections between large sets of data and archives, and by doing so, reveal new understandings about historical experiences such as those of the average Canadian soldier. 

Lane is also working extensively with AI technology. He’s tackling one of the major challenges of AI head-on—exploring potential methods to determine whether work is humanistic or generative in nature. This means to distinguish between what has been written by a human, and what has been written by AI. 

 Far from encouraging the fear that currently surrounds AI, Lane speaks passionately of the potential of AI to improve human capacity for research and development. Lane says the trick is knowing how to write good prompts which is where the skills developed in the Humanities really come to the forefront. It’s one thing to have access to massive amounts of data, but if you don’t know what questions to ask in order to interpret or apply it, then that data is essentially useless.

Pardon me while I get up on my DH soapbox

In speaking to several of the VIU faculty involved in the Digital Humanities, a theme that repeatedly emerged was that of collaboration. The work at the MeTA Lab represents collaboration not just between the History and English departments at VIU, but also, with other DH scholars from across Canada. As Lane highlights in his research, there is great potential for collaboration between humans and AI.  

It’s an exciting but also an overwhelming concept to think about. As Davies stressed in our conversation, technology is advancing at an alarming rate, and it can be difficult to be sure if we as humans are the driver or the passenger in this scenario. 

This is why in a world that is increasingly reliant on technology, it’s not only practical, but bordering on necessary to develop computing skills and to become comfortable utilizing a variety of digital tools. The DH offers us, as citizens of a multimedia world, an opportunity to grow our capacity to be critical of the media that we consume through reading, watching, and listening. It also has immense potential to create a more diverse and accessible world.

Digital and humanities combined? I hope you learned it has nothing to do with cyborgs and everything to do with the potential of computing and other technologies to understand and interpret the world around us. Whether it’s a text encoding project that allows for a deeper understanding of the writing of a famous author, an interactive website utilizing historical data to create social change, or a podcast promoting the recovery of language, the possibilities for work in the Digital Humanities are already vast, and growing every day.

Katie Carroll
Contributor

Katie is a fourth-year BA student pursuing an Honours Degree in English. She has been awarded both the Kathryn Barnwell BA Scholarship and the VIU Faculty Association Degree Entrance Scholarship. Her essay “‘Out-of-Field’: Cinematography of the Unseen in Portrait of a Lady on Fire and In the Mood for Love” won the annual English essay contest (2nd-year category) in 2023. She is currently a Fiction Editor, AV Editor, and Web Designer for Portal. Her review of Crying Wolf as well as her own short story, “Nobody’s Fool” also appear in the 2024 issue of Portal. She is absolutely delighted to have her writing published in The Nav for the first time.

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