Beyond the Paper: Digital Humanities

Digital Humanities Research ProjectSpring term is the time when W&L students are especially encouraged to focus less on majors, minors, and FDR requirements, and more on discovering something new. During my first-year, I traveled to Denmark to learn how corporate social responsibility is practiced in Denmark. During my sophomore year, I traveled to Washington, DC to learn the difference between facts and true facts. Last year, I dissected the Financial Crisis with a special focus on the leaders in the financial sector. This year – for my final Spring Term – I am to learn about Digital Humanities.

Digital humanities are among a growing trend at colleges around the world. Defining digital humanities is challenging. The definition is broad. The field is a young and rapidly evolving. On the surface, digital humanities bridges the gap between the humanities (those ostensibly valueless fields that include history, language, and philosophy) and computer science. At the root, digital humanities does so much more. Digital humanities attempt to break down the barriers that humanities scholars have placed between themselves and each other. It further attempts to bridge the humanities to those who are in the sciences and elsewhere by increasing dialogue; the esteemed publication is replaced by the website and other digital tools.

There’s more than the paper

The digital humanities projects that are particularly effective are those that provide information visually in ways that a paper cannot justify. For instance, imagine that I write you a paper on the aural characteristics of a selection of buildings. I may describe the building and its architecture, describe the atmosphere of people moving about inside, and compare it to other structures. What is missing is the fact that you can only imagine the sounds I describe. You cannot hear them.

Introduce the digital humanities. The Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities at the University of Virginia Soundscape Logocreated a project called Soundscape, which is a digital model of the paper I have described. Walk down a virtual street and enter a renowned building. Highlighting the experience is the ability watch an artistic representation of those sounds and examine how the building is designed to create a unique aural experience. Through the information provided, we are able to analyze the sound, interpret the sound based on the information that is provided, critique the beauty of the structure and the aural qualities therein, and speculate on what could be an even more ideal structure.

Through Soundscape, the science of acoustics is used to perform the humanitarian function of rediscovery. It is beautiful, appealing, and provides information in ways that the written rites of the humanities sometimes forgoes.

Reflecting on an election

When I look back on my work at W&L, there are multiple times when a digital humanities project could have complemented or otherwise replaced my written papers altogether. For instance, during my first year at W&L I wrote about the effects of the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Specifically, I postulated that the Affordable Care Act would become evermore difficult to repeal the longer that it existed; eventually, it would become a staple of the United States social safety net.

The paper was as political as it was historical. Using a digital humanities project, I could have highlighted and brought together analyses from the implementation of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment. I could have brought together audio/visual opinions from leaders and citizens surrounding the passage of each policy. I could have even included interactive maps of how the electorate reacted to the passage of each policy, resulting in a more accurate and holistic speculation of how the country would respond to the Affordable Care Act.

The greatest asset is that digital humanities allows projects to include analyses from across disciplines. Historians, political scientists, sociologists, and even ethicists could have weighed in on the passage of the policy in one shared space. Some experts could have focused on the quantitative analytics. Others could have focused on the Affordable Care Act vis-à-vis the human condition. All opinions would have provided more reflection and greater dialogue than my one paper.

In Sum

The digital humanities are inviting the return of the much needed practice of collaboration and decompartmentalization (or dedepartmentalization) to the humanities. Given the interdepartmental label, the course I have embarked on this spring term seeks to expand collaboration across departments in perpetuity in order to engender more holistic compositions of scholarship.