Sunday, November 21, 2010

Humanities and the digital revolution

At first blush, Humanities and Computer Science would seem to be quite disparate fields of academic discourse.  As a scholar who is trained in the Humanities (English) and wishes to teach it, I've never subscribed to this interpretation of the studies, that these curricula should remain isolated, especially in a day and age when technology is becoming so integrated with humanity.
So you can imagine how pleased I was to see this article in The New York Times.  Young scholars in the Humanities are embracing digital technology as a means to both better understand and teach our various areas of study.  Imagine using a computer enhanced topographical map of the Battle of Hastings to see just what kind of role terrain played in the outcome, or a graphical representation that shows the exchange of ideas between European nations during the Enlightenment, tracking how changes in thought migrated.  I can envision a computer program that could calculate how many adjectives and adverbs appear in a text, thus helping me to teach a class on Stylisitics, demonstrating just what kind of writing we are dealing with, whether it is "stuffy," "tough," or "sweet."
It's not difficult to hear the whining of "computers have no place in the Humanities."  I can already imagine the Kip Haggis types of the world crying that we "need to slow down" and how we're "losing our humanity."  Technology will enhance, not take away, our understanding of ourselves.  No, a computer will not be able to evaluate the worth or significance of a poem, musical composition, or painting.  Yet it may help us to better understand what went into its creation.  In the article that I linked, I believe that Anthony Grafton, Professor of History at Princeton, says it best: “The digital humanities do fantastic things,” said the eminent Princeton historian Anthony Grafton. “I’m a believer in quantification. But I don’t believe quantification can do everything. So much of humanistic scholarship is about interpretation.”  

As in most anything else, digital technology is a tool, not an end result.  How we use these innovative new tools is limited only be our own creativity.
Go flip a burger, Kip.

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