Students use computer tools to bring a new perspective to the humanities
For Constance Crompton, the idea that the humanities could be thoroughly researched, created and archived through digital media presents a tantalizing proposition. No longer would a project’s scope be limited by space constrictions or become outdated after publication.
Instead, history, philosophy, literature, languages, art, music, cultural studies or archeology scholarship could be curated and comprehensively assembled into an authoritative web presence through contributing scholars from around the globe.
This hybrid of technology and study has grown into the emerging field of Digital Humanities. Crompton, the first faculty member at UBC’s Okanagan campus to teach Digital Humanities, is among its leading advocates.
“It was the idea of theorizing and building digital scholarly content that intrigued me and set Digital Humanities apart from conventional study,” says Crompton, an assistant professor in the Dept. of Critical Studies.
Computer technology and digital tools provide the ability to analyze, visualize, map and encode text. The result is rich, diverse content collections that can be studied and mined by researchers for sets of data.
Among scholarly pursuits, one of the best examples of Digital Humanities is the Rossetti Archive (www.rossettiarchive.org), a hypermedia collection by the U.S. National Endowment of the Humanities of the complete writings and pictures of influential 19th-century British poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The project took more than a decade to complete and is considered the world’s most authoritative source of information about Rossetti.
Crompton’s interests in digital study began when, as a doctoral student researching fin-de-siècle, or late 19th century media, she found other academics using technology to transform how they investigated and learned. Now Digital Humanities has evolved across two streams: Building textual models at academic institutions and developing digital tools and applications.
Such digital applications as visualization engines and bibliographical and mapping management tools open a whole new world for learning, disseminating and teaching, says Crompton. Adding code to text, while a technological skill and a way of digital footnoting, provides students with a way to contribute to the creation of knowledge.
“That’s what I hope to offer students, the ability to get into that kind of content building,” says Crompton. “Students will learn to find their scholarly voice, learn to contribute and learn what is important about the text at that level.”
Crompton sees the use of digital media in academia as a way to tame the wilderness of the web, which is rife with unverified data and pseudo-facts.
“It gives students a leg up on contributing to the web, setting a higher standard and becoming ‘superusers’ of the web.”
Working in the digital realm can be unsettling – at first – for students who have not previously delved into advanced search methods, online library catalogues or use of coding. But, says Crompton, it is empowering as one learns how to harness the technology.
“Coding in itself is a creative act. It lets you take control of the computer and make your own ideas manifest.”
Crompton sees UBC’s curriculum building to the point that a minor in digital humanities is eventually available. There is also potential for a fruitful interdisciplinary partnership with computer sciences, she says.
“We are just in the opening to stages – to my mind, humanists have a lot to offer the digital world.”
Researchers convene in Victoria
Ideas about the humanities get a full airing over the next week or so. Humanists will gather to share their experiences and knowledge at the University of Victoria from June 1 to 8 at one of the largest conferences of its kind, Congress2013 (uviccongress2013.ca). With 70 organizations represented by 8,000 to 10,000 delegates, it provides an opportunity for both conventional and digital humanities scholars to discuss their interests and compare methodologies.
Constance Crompton, who teaches Digital Humanities at UBC’s Okanagan campus, looks forward to meeting with collaborators from the Universities of Alberta, Ryerson, Victoria and Toronto. Congress is an excellent venue for idea exchange, she says.
“The multi-conference format lets scholars break out of the silo of a single-topic conference, allowing us to gain new perspectives by visiting association meetings outside our disciplines,” says Crompton.
Congress also serves another important function for Digital Humanists and other academics who need to build the personal relationships that underpin large research projects.
“Digital Humanities projects tend to be large and multi-institutional and Congress gives project collaborators a place to discuss the coming year face-to-face,” says Crompton.
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