Digital Humanities: Accelerating the Study of the Past for Modern Application

April 29, 2020
Data is everywhere. The unprecedented growth in our ability to store, manage and analyze data has led to a focus on the data sciences around the globe and at Baylor University, where data sciences were elevated as one of five signature academic initiatives within Illuminate, Baylor’s strategic plan for the future.

The technological advancements that allow organizations to process tides of data are thoroughly modern—so much so, that it might initially obfuscate the ways scholars whose disciplines rely on understanding of the past can also benefit from them. Yet, humanities scholars in disciplines such as English, history or religion are finding their research accelerated through work in the Digital Humanities—where technological advancements meet the study of what it means to be human.

“We are living in a digital world, and there is great potential, and great potential research opportunities and funding, in that,” Kimberly Kellison, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Humanities & Social Sciences and Associate Professor of History in the College of Arts & Sciences, said. “How do we in different humanities disciplines think about that and keep pace with that? There are plenty of ongoing conversations about the digital humanities and, as Baylor pursues R1 research status, we’re providing opportunities for faculty to learn how to use data sciences as a tool to contribute to their research in dynamic, exciting ways.”

DIGITAL SCHOLARSHIP

“I was considering a project that was going to require me to look through thousands of texts,” Kristen Pond, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English (pictured above, left), said. “I didn’t know how I was going to do that. I literally made my first steps into the Digital Humanities without knowing how to do any of this.”

Pond, an expert in Victorian studies, is upfront about her lack of experience with processes like data scripting, text mining, data visualization or geospatial analysis before participating in a Summer 2019 Fundamentals of Data Research Fellowship at Baylor. The fellowship, a joint venture between the College of Arts & Sciences and University Libraries, welcomed 10 Baylor faculty members and 5 graduate students. Although from different humanities disciplines, they brought to the fellowship similar backgrounds and motivation—without a great deal of digital research experience, but armed with a desire to take their scholarship further through an immersion of their research coupled with the data sciences.

The intensive summer fellowship is one of many ways Baylor faculty can take advantage of a burgeoning Library resource: Baylor Digital Scholarship.

“University Libraries, like many colleges and schools on campus, are trying to support Illuminate as much as possible,” Joshua Been, director of data and digital scholarship and assistant librarian, says. “My role is trying to spearhead the library’s promotion of data sciences on campus.”

Been works with faculty — including, but not limited to, those participating in the fellowship — aided by high-powered computing, an understanding of the possibilities of data scholarship and a variety of tools to assist faculty in inventive, interdisciplinary research and grow in an understanding of the digital world.

APPLYING THE DIGITAL HUMANITIES

There’s an art to the interpretation of texts and cultures of the past, honed through careful training and discipline-specific immersion. Thanks to digital humanities advances, more humanities scholars are learning ways the data sciences can help them.

“What has been most meaningful is the way Baylor Digital Scholarship has helped me identify patterns that would take me years to figure out,” Pond said, “because I would have to read through hundreds of texts and manually start listing keywords and topics to search for. This does it for you in an instant.”

Pond is working on a book that analyzes the impact of a stranger in 19th Century England, with strangers being “someone that makes the person encountering them rethink their understanding of themselves or the world around them.” Strangers could come from other countries or other socioeconomic groups. Pond’s book, tentatively titled Strangers in Victorian Literature and Culture, will offer insights about the ways people engaged with those that were strangers to them, and how those encounters impacted the ways they viewed and understood knowledge, and the ways knowledge and understanding were most beneficial.

Literature and the attitudes contained therein offer important parallels to the current moment. Pond explains that 19th Century England is when cultures began to experience the impact of globalization, personal mobility, an increase in capitalism and an environment in which interactions with “strangers” was more prevalent.

“The whole transition was also predicated on knowledge,” Pond says. “Is it valuable to have one-on-one encounters where knowledge of the actual person is increased or is it better to gather scientific data to figure out who experiences poverty, and in what areas? These quantitative and qualitative studies—which is better? That was the debate in the 19th Century.”

Opportunities to study these topics abound—periodicals, novels, tourism guidebooks, serialized short stories and more reveal attitudes and knowledge about insight with strangers—and the numbers could quickly balloon beyond human ability to study it all. Through the Fellowship and with Been’s assistance, Pond utilized text mining to whittle hundreds of digitized publications down to a more manageable, but meaningful, 60 texts. Computer programs searched for keywords and patterns that presented the most meaningful to Pond’s trained eye for analysis. Wordclouds enabled her to see what other concepts were found most frequently in conjunction with the idea of the stranger.

“You’d see that other ideas would crop up for me to explore,” Pond explained. “Information about these regularly occurring ideas enabled me to go back and ask, ‘why is that so prevalent here?’ So, it actually led my research in new ways that I, with my own biases, might have missed because I was looking for certain things.”

Pond isn’t the only professor utilizing data mining to make manageable the process of navigating hundreds of texts. Stephen Reid, Ph.D., Professor of Christian Scriptures in Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, used data mining to analyze hundreds of freedom narratives to highlight African-American interpretations of Deuteronomy in the Oxford Handbook of Deuteronomy to make, as he said, “invisible Biblical interpreters…now visible.”

Learn more about Reid’s use of the digital humanities in the Winter ’19-20 edition of Baylor Magazine or hear his comments on a January 2020 edition of the radio program and podcast Baylor Connections.

Others, like Lauren Poor, Ph.D., Lecturer in History and Director, Office of the Core, in the College of Arts & Sciences (pictured above, right), utilized data visualization to bring to life her research on tolerance of refugees in England in the 1600s and 1700s. Her time in the summer Fellowship led to the creation of an interactive website, through which Poor created a visual representation of foreign aid to refugees at various church parishes, the location of those parishes, figures for the growth and decrease of that support during different time periods under different monarchs, and more.

“For me, the visual analysis offered opportunities to see something new from my research that I hadn’t seen before,” Poor said. “It gave me further direction of exploration of areas that I needed to pursue further to answer questions. Additionally, it provides an interactive, visually appealing presentation that I can both show and compare.”

FACULTY DEVELOPMENT IN THE DIGITAL HUMANITIES

“The possibilities in the digital humanities are endless,” Poor says. “I love the possibilities for my research, and I’m inspired by how we can bring it into the classroom for my students to engage. I think the digital humanities also offer fantastic opportunities for student research. It’s interesting, exciting, and a very important way we can help students develop skills to the world they will encounter. This is where it is and this is where it’s going.”

To those ends, Baylor will continue to offer faculty opportunities for development and growth in digital humanities skills. The growth of Baylor Digital Scholarship in University Libraries is a constant resource for faculty to mine, and further opportunities to learn more about the Digital Humanities come throughout the year a variety of forms: continued Fundamentals of Data Research Summer Fellows programs, monthly Digital Humanities group meetings to discuss topics and Baylor faculty research projects in the Digital Humanities, and a February 2020 series of events with Kalani Craig, Ph.D., Co-Director of the Institute for Digital Arts & Humanities at Indiana University, to discuss a variety of Digital Humanities topics. Other future Digital Humanities opportunities are currently being considered, providing faculty with further tools to advance their own research portfolio in both scope and depth as Baylor advances towards R1 research status.

“Events like these demonstrate Baylor University’s commitment to cutting-edge research in the humanities,” Kellison said, “to the important contribution that Digital Humanities makes to the field of Data Science, and to the overall significance of the humanities in our lives.”
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