When you think of medieval literature, you might think of crackling sheets of parchment with the blood-black handwriting of scribes, interspersed with brightly colored drawings. You probably don’t think about software or coding.
But technological tools and computational methods are playing an increasing role in the analysis, teaching, and preservation of medieval literature and history, as well as a variety of other areas of the liberal arts, thanks to an emerging phenomenon known as “digital humanities.”
In recent years, the digital humanities have taken root at Binghamton University thanks to collaborative efforts that include Harpur College of Arts and Sciences and the university libraries.
“Many contemporary scholars working in fields such as English, philosophy, history and art history are interested in data-driven methodology, computation and using the Internet to disseminate their work in very new and dynamic ways,” said Professor of Art History Nancy Um, Harpur’s Assistant Dean for Faculty Development and Inclusion.
Researchers in many disciplines are already collecting data and working on projects that would benefit from the digital tools currently available, said Amy Gay, digital scholarship librarian. However, the plethora of options can feel confusing, and scientists interested in learning more about them may not know where to start.
Attend the Digital Humanities Research Institute (DHRI), which started in 2019. During this week-long, hands-on workshop, faculty members and advanced PhD students learn about the tools available to humanities scholars and receive training on how to use them by creating a visual model of topics emerging from a corpus of thousands of texts or coding in Python to scrape data from the web.
In addition, other initiatives are in the works, including a potential graduate in Digital Humanities and an undergraduate minor in Digital and Data Studies. Overall, the humanities benefit from the influx of new technology and the new ideas that they can potentially unearth.
“The great thing about the humanities is the analytical thinking that comes with the project; that really helps when it comes to the technical side, ”reflects Gay. “You have to look at your research, your data or your texts in different ways. Many of these tools and platforms are ways to make things more engaging and interactive. “
Support is key to the success of digital science and the Dean of Libraries Curtis Kendrick hopes to build this up in Binghamton. His vision: to build a community of practice around digital science that is coordinated and financially supported by the library.
Prior to arriving in Binghamton in January 2016, Kendrick was Dean of the Libraries of the City University of New York (CUNY) system in New York City. The CUNY system is strong in digital science, with hotspots of innovation seeded in its 20 campus system.
“It takes time and resources to make things happen, and I think it’s important that the library is the place that does it,” he said. “Otherwise it happens that small bags develop in different places on campus and you choose different technologies that are not compatible.”
For this purpose, the library provides the campus with both the technology and the know-how. An important initiative is a digital pilot scholarship center that opened in 2020 in the science library. In addition to a flexible, open space for collaboration, the center also offers software and hardware, workshops, training courses and advice. The library is also in the process of adding another digital scholarship librarian so that researchers who want to access these tools can get more help.
“Digital grants are a pretty broad field, and no place can offer everything to everyone,” said Kendrick. “We need to figure out exactly what digital scholarship means here at Binghamton and what we need to invest in. A pilot digital scholarship center can help us get a better sense of where to put these investments and help grow the community “here at the university before our next Digital Scholarship Center is ready in 2024.”
“We are only at the beginning of what is possible in new avenues for discovery and investigation,” Kendrick continued. “For scientists in Binghamton interested in pursuing the possible, the first step should be the libraries. We are ready to give you the support you need to get started. “
Organized by Um and Gay, the goal of the DHRI is to reach faculty members and advanced PhD students who are interested in topics from programming languages to data visualization but do not have the knowledge or confidence to apply these techniques.
“We strongly believe that we need to provide some framework so that faculty members can develop their own skills and hopefully bring these methods into the classroom,” said Um.
Digital publishing, podcasting and digital storytelling are popular options as well as mapping and creating multimedia exhibits. For literary scholars, there are several web-based tools that can analyze a corpus of text and show the relationships between words and concepts through visual elements such as bubble charts, word clouds, and line charts.
The databases and tools covered during the DHRI sessions included ArcGIS, Python, Tableau, Google Sites, R, GitHub, Command Line, and text analysis tools like Voyant.
“There is so much rich written material in the humanities. Just by using these kinds of digital tools and computational methods, you can really see the research in new ways and do more exciting projects in the classroom, ”said Gay.
Many of the methods of digital humanities involve computation, an area where computers are excellent. For example, a single person would not be able to process 10,000 books at once and search for certain terms – a task that a computer can do in a matter of minutes.
University scientists are already using these tools in their research and teaching. During her time as a fellow at the Getty Research Institute, Um first witnessed large-scale provenance research digitizing records of works of art bought and sold in the 19th century. With these records, scientists were able to trace the ancestry of certain paintings and the paths they followed, carry out quantitative analyzes and collaborate on open source platforms.
In the field of medieval literature, Assistant Professor Bridget Whearty is currently finishing a book on the digitization of medieval manuscripts entitled Codicology: Medieval Books and Modern Work. Whearty, who attended DHRI 2021, plans to create a digital addition to their printed book that will include full color digital manuscripts – many presses only print books in black and white – as well as other aspects of their research.
She will also use digital tools to record usage trends for a given sentence in magazine articles over a hundred year period, as well as run a long poem written in the 1430s through several text analysis tools to see what she is learning – about the poem and the tools themselves.
Some of the techniques that are covered in DHRI are those that they are currently used in the classroom, such as: Students also use mapping tools to locate medieval texts in time and space, basing their knowledge on a time spanning more than a millennium and vast territory.
“One of the problems with teaching Medieval Studies is that everything gets kind of foggy and mixes up; it was all a long time ago and far, far away, ”she said. “But when students see timelines and maps being created, when they are the ones creating them, they can choose which data points are relevant and meaningful to their work and the questions they are asking. Ultimately, we all just want our students to be empowered and digitally competent and to be able to use these tools to shape their future for themselves. “
Cards and more
The 2021 Institute drew faculty and graduate students from both Harpur and the College of Community and Public Affairs with diverse interests that spanned both research and teaching. In addition to the workshops, the participants of the 2019 workshop returned to share their projects and discuss how they can further apply the tools and concepts learned through DHRI.
At the 2021 event, PhD student Madelynn Cullings discovered a number of digital tools that allow her as a historian to read and interpret primary source texts, including Tableau, which offers unique ways to analyze and interpret textual data. She also learned some best practices for everyday life, such as how to use the command line to save and manage files on her PC.
“This has been an incredible experience and one that has helped my personal growth as a researcher and educator,” said Cullings. “The opportunity to work with and benefit from the experience with Nancy Um and Amy Gay was an opportunity to experience the direct applications and implications that technology will undoubtedly have in shaping research and publication channels.”
Doctoral student Jessica Minieri came to DHRI this summer as a mediaevalist in the history program to advance her research on medieval women’s history. The skills she acquired in Tableau and ArcGIS will prove invaluable to her current research project: creating a digital map showing the geographical and chronological positions of the rainy queens of Europe from 1300 to 1500. The map will help visualize the location and ultimately the importance of women rulers in medieval European governments, she explained.
During the DHRI, she also completed an exercise on creating digital timelines that she would like to use in class. Minieri is currently a teaching assistant for a course on the Crusades, and she plans to have students create the chronology along with the rule of monarchs in the Crusader kingdoms and other relevant medieval events.
“I found the DHRI to be such a useful workshop and I look forward to applying the skills I acquired there in my dissertation and teaching in the years to come,” said Minieri. “I encourage everyone in Binghamton who is interested in digital humanities to join next summer!”