Humanities Scholarship in the Digital Age

The New York Times has launched a new series, 'Humanities 2.0,' which explores the evolution of the humanities disciplines in the 21st century. The first article, published in November, argues that the new frontier for literature, history and the arts isn't a theory or philosopher: It's data. Schools offering Interdisciplinary Studies degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

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Modern Methods

The work of today's innovative humanities scholars isn't theoretical: It's methodological.

Or so claims Tom Scheinfeldt, managing director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, in an interview with The New York Times. He argues that the data revolution brought on by the digital age has put the humanities in a 'post-theoretical' era. Mr. Scheinfeldt compares this moment to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when early developments in communication led academics to focus more on practical issues of method and existential issues of defining scholarship than abstract questions of theory.

In the 21st century, the new methodology is all about data. Digital tools have given academics new ways to collect, sort and analyze information, and that has opened up whole new worlds of scholarship. For example, The New York Times also interviewed Dan Edelstein, an associate professor of French and Italian at Stanford University who received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities' (NEH) Office of Digital Humanities. He's currently using geographic information systems (GIS) to track the exchange of ideas during the Enlightenment via letters sent between the era's important thinkers, including Voltaire, Newton and Locke. By mapping out the path that the letters took, Dr. Edelstein is able to see where the networks (and ideas) were really going.

'Mapping the Republic of Letters' is a project that couldn't be attempted in its entirety with old tools due to the sheer volume of the information - Voltaire alone wrote more than 18,000 letters.

Haimonti Dutta, a research scientist at Columbia University's Center for Computational Learning Systems (CCLS) who also received one of of the NEH's digital humanities grants, is exploring a different trend in digital technology: Crowdsourcing. Dr. Dutta is studying the application of user-generated tagging to large-scale archives of humanities materials. Starting with the historic newspaper collections of the New York Public Library, Dr. Dutta hopes to dramatically improve search capabilities and access to information using modern databasing techniques that are already commonplace in social media.

digital library

The New Humanities

Of course, the influx of new technologies comes with some anxiety. These digital tools are revolutionary because they're changing the way that academics use data. But there is also something unsettling about trying to quantify humanities scholarship. The arts, literature and even history deal with grand questions of beauty, theory and the meaning of existence. Reducing these ideas to measurable packets of information is a strange proposition.

Speaking to The New York Times, Princeton historian Anthony Grafton suggests that the solution to this problem is to keep things in perspective - digital technologies simply represent new tools in the scholarly arsenal. 'I'm a believer in quantification,' said Dr. Grafton. 'But I don't believe quantification can do everything. So much of humanistic scholarship is about interpretation. It's easy to forget the digital media are means and not ends.'

And when used properly, new media can help scholars achieve many different ends. Brett Bobley, director the NEH's digital office, explained to The New York Times that 'digital humanities' is a general term that covers a huge range of activities. Mapping, data mining, preservation - those are just a few of the projects transformed by digital media.

Mr. Bobley argues that the tools offered by digital media will, in fact, transform the fundamental questions that scholars are able to ask. He compared the digital humanities to the human genome project, pointing out that, 'Technology hasn't just made astronomy, biology and physics more efficient. It has let scientists do research they simply couldn't do before.'

Visit the New York Times to explore the Humanities 2.0 series.

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