While it seems like the words “digital” and “humanities” should remain in their respective spheres of intellectual study, the interdisciplinary phenomenon of the digital humanities comes with the budding age of limitless data flowing at our fingertips. Critical thinking without an adequate way of displaying data and quantitatively analyzing data creates theories that float through the air like a balloon untethered. In a similar way, calculations, codes, and ciphering create at best “pure” research that means little to the affairs of most people. It is the marriage of the two that creates applied research in the digital realm; this research contains a vitality, uniqueness, and deep sense of understanding.
The moment the first historical primary source was uploaded to the internet, the game changed. Suddenly, a click and a scroll brought us to an archive in Poland or to a rare book in a university library. Again, the game changed once the information from these sources was put into web databases which included our friend, the interactive online map. All of a sudden, a conclusion which may have taken hours to cite and explain through texts were readily available within two seconds of clicking a link. (Exhibit A: The map last year’s team created, shown below).
Thus, as the game has changed, the way we conduct research has begun its evolution as well. But, we are far from wizards when it comes to those spells that call for ingredients like “text mining,” “scrapping sources,” or even coding, according to Mills Kelly and Cathy Davidson. These writers, among others, have been proponents of the digital humanities perspective. They also have advocated for better education for developing young researchers so that they may critically engage with the plethora of sources available via the web. On the individual level, we must learn to not only perform the tasks like text mining and scrapping sources efficiently (given the insane amount of data available online and growing each day), but we must also understand that our ability to critically engage with these sources is what makes them worth digitizing in the first place. If we can prove arguments or pose questions that couldn’t be made without maps, dealing with the nature of the (at times) monstrous beast provides tangible value to the digital humanities. In this, I think we will succeed. We will reap dividends of knowledge and insight previously unknown. On the group level, we also must understand the interdisciplinary nature of this field. The very fact that these two opposites are coming together means that someone cannot possibly perform at the top of their field in all categories involved; it takes researchers, coders, critical thinkers, moderators, historians, linguists, and a myriad of personalities and skillsets to create a beautiful, engaging end product. A collaborative effort to display spacial history will spread the influence of this field into many lines of work.
As far as our project is concerned, I believe that we have been making good use of the recommendations by the various authors we have studied. In addition to familiarizing ourselves with the mapping software and data entry forms, we find ourselves diving into articles about the time period. The context of the information is key to drawing conclusions. We are using our unique skills to work towards our goal. While we all are exceptional students, Sam has coding skills, Carolyn has French skills, and Stella has critical thinking skills and isn’t afraid to ask questions. We all have skills other than these, of course, and our team works efficiently and cooperatively with each other. We also discuss the “how” of the digital side along with the “why” of the humanities side. Cathy Davidson has emphasized this in her writing about the digital humanities, and I think our collaborative efforts shine. We aim to use our critical thinking in our applied research to move people (whether intellectually or emotionally) as in James Davies article “On Being Moved/Against Objectivity.” Without this, maps like the one below would not be possible.
All in all, I think that our project is worth the effort. The work we put in will not only help us draw conclusions and conduct original research, but it will help pave the way for scholars that come after us. Our work is not self-serving. The possibilities are not limited to that which only we can imagine. Our work, while collaborative here and now, will also be collaborative across time and cultures as the field evolves. Hopefully, we can continue to evolve in tandem.
For additional reading:
Between Humanities and the Digital, edited by Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015.
Davidson, Kathy, “Why Yack Needs Hack” in Between Humanities and the Digital, edited by Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015.
Davies, James Q. “On Being Moved/Against Objectivity” Representations, 132.1. University of California Press (2015).
Kelly, T. Mills, Teaching History in the Digital Age. University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor: 2013).
Presner, Todd et al., Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities. 2014.