This past weekend I attended the Nebraska Digital Workshop hosted by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, future host of Digital Humanities 2013. This was the sixth year of this rather unique event, which brings three early career scholars to Lincoln to present on their digital work. Two invited senior scholars also participate in the workshops, offering reflections on DH and feedback on the younger scholars’ work. During the past few years, the workshop has also served as a culminating event for interns from the IMLS-supported DH/iSchools internship program, in which MITH is a partner and internship site. The mix of early career and senior scholars in a workshop format made for an engaging and invigorating day and a half of digital humanities presentations and conversations.
The workshop kicked off on Friday evening with public lectures by the senior scholars: Susan Brown of the Orlando Project and the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC), and William G. Thomas III, from University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Director of the Railroads and the Making of Modern America project. Brown and Thomas were asked to reflect on their own DH work and to speak to what they saw as the challenges and opportunities of digital scholarship in the humanities. Independently, they described effects of the hybridity of this particular moment in the career of DH, still balanced between digital and traditional modes of scholarship.
The title of Thomas’s talk captured an important theme of the weekend’s discussions—the space between “What we think we will build and what we build in Digital Humanities.” In his talk, Thomas related a humorous anecdote about a conversation with a producer who wanted to make a film of Thomas’s recent book and digital project about railroads and the American Civil War. Preparatory to this project, the producer insisted, Thomas should prepare “a treatment” of the railroad project, but distilling a data-rich, hybrid publication into a linear three-act structure is a misunderstanding of the kind of work Thomas was trying to do so the episode ended in confusion. This anecdote nonetheless draws attention to what remains an important issue for digital humanities: how to describe digital projects, or projects which are hybrids of digital and print scholarship, in ways that set audiences’ expectations and help them “read” and understand the value of such projects. Brown offered similar observations in her talk—through reflections on the development of the Orlando Project and previews of the work underway on CWRC—focusing on ways in which digital scholarship, despite strides forward, still remains, in many ways, siloed and solitary.
Saturday’s session of the workshop was devoted to presentations from the selected early-career scholars: Kirsten C. Uszkalo (Simon Fraser University), Jentery Sayers (University of Victoria), and Colin F. Wilder (University of Wisconsin). Uszkalo’s and Wilder’s presentations offered different models of digitally-enabled scholarship on networks of people, texts, and events, using relational databases as the underlying technology. Sayers’s presentation reported on work from his digital dissertation—an investigation, through the history of magnetic sound recording, of how forms of new media, first recorded sound and more recently electronic literature, came to be regarded as “immaterial” or “ephemeral.” Sayers’s talk also reflected on the multimedia authoring platform used to build his work and on issues of pedagogy related to digital humanities and new media. Ostensibly, these talks were project presentations but all three scholars did an excellent job of not simply presenting their projects but elucidating the theoretical and methodological issues that guided their projects.
Good digital humanities talks consist of more than demos and reports but rapidly outstrip these banal genres to stage intellectual interventions in the disciplines of the humanities, and perhaps also computer science or information science. For example, Uszkalo describes her project, Witches in Early Modern England, a combination of prosopographical database and visualization platform, as an attempt to recover through aggregation in a database the experiences of women involved in witchcraft trials in their own context. Similarly, Wilder spoke of using ontologies, formal computer models of some domain of reality (e.g., the relationships between people), to do intellectual history, tracing and testing the evolution of ideas over time within his project, The Republic of Literature. The effect of mapping terms to ontologies is, as John Unsworth has written of text encoding, to force the humanist to confront his methods explicitly and apply his categories rigorously. Sayers described how a very simple desire, to let his audience listen to the recorded sound he was writing about, led to working with the developers of a new multimedia authoring platform, Scalar, currently in closed beta testing. From Sayers’s talk, this particular platform may be of interest to other scholars looking for ways to publish multimedia essays—to maintain, as Sayers’s said, many-to-may relationships between their writing and the objects they study. Questions about how to write dynamically to match dynamic media or about how the construction of arguments that look (and act) like networks might help students learn new skills—these are questions that the use of technology should stimulate in the humanities more broadly. As Sayers’s said, “A key competency in Digital Humanities is learning to approach software and hardware with the same rigor with which we have learned to approach texts.”
All of the talks, by the early career scholars as much as the senior scholars, provoked much interesting and valuable discussion. The weekend offered a preview of three very promising digital projects and reinforced the place of the Nebraska Digital Workshop as a unique event on the digital humanities calendar. As the ‘big tent’ of digital humanities grows—and the annual Digital Humanities conference itself grows—these smaller, laboratory or workshop-style events become even more important as entry points into the larger field and opportunities for scholars to engage more with each other than might be possible at larger events.
I want to thank Kay Walters and all the staff of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities for including me in this weekend’s workshop, as well as the presenters and fellow audience members for the engaging and informative sessions.
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Updated 10.19.2011 to correct spelling and grammar