Guest Speaker: Stephanie Stillo

Yesterday we were visited by Stephanie Stillo, a candidate for a two-year fellowship position in W&L’s history department. Stephanie has a background in digital humanities and talked to us about the work she’s done with historical artifacts. She explained that artifacts can be considered “data,” but with data there is “metadata.” Metadata is essentially “the data about data,” as Stephanie put it. For example, an artifact like a letter is data, and the ink and paper used to create the letter is metadata. Stephanie said that studying the metadata of artifacts can be very useful and interesting, and she has worked with tools that make it possible to dig below the surface of artifacts. One process she explained is called hyperspectral imaging (HSI). With HSI, researchers can uncover elements of artifacts that are no longer visible. Stephanie explained that hundreds of years ago, writing/parchment paper was hard to come by. Its rareness caused people to reuse the material by scraping off what was already written or drawn, and writing something new. HSI makes it possible to see what was scraped off, which Stephanie says can be extremely interesting to historians or other scholars who are studying ancient societies and cultures.  Stephanie presented many types of tools and discussed their uses in the context of history, noting the importance of keeping her own humanities background alive in the discussion of digital humanities.

What was the most interesting part of the presentation, you ask?  When Stephanie taught us that a gin and tonic glows in the dark. Hands down. Thanks to the quinine in tonic water, it glows under a black light. I don’t recall the significance of this fact to the presentation, but it’s nonetheless fascinating and I can’t wait to experiment (when I’m 21, of course). I liked how Stephanie made everyone in the room excited about the work she’s done. Even though the presentation material was way over my head in many ways, I was able to grasp how useful these tools can be in studying history. Stephanie’s tone of voice and smiling face made the audience excited to learn from her, which is a characteristic that I’ll try to imitate in my future presentations.

I hoped to ask Stephanie what work she plans to do at W&L if she gets the job, but when she finished presenting she was so eager to learn about our projects, so I didn’t have a chance to ask. I’m interested to know if she has specific goals for incorporating DH tools and projects into her research and teaching while at W&L, and if she is, I would love to take a course from her. Stephanie’s vibrant personality and passion for DH would liven up the history department. I hope I get the opportunity to learn more from her!