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Humanities in the digital era

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Embrace the technology!

This NY Times article highlights a number of humanities projects that are focusing on using quantifiably analyzed data as the centerpiece of their research.

The next big idea in language, history and the arts? Data.

Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical “ism” and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have.

One of the endowment’s grantees is Dan Edelstein, an associate professor of French and Italian at Stanford University who is charting the flow of ideas during the Enlightenment. The era’s great thinkers — Locke, Newton, Voltaire — exchanged tens of thousands of letters; Voltaire alone wrote more than 18,000.

“You could form an impressionistic sense of the shape and content of a correspondence, but no one could really know the whole picture,” said Mr. Edelstein, who, along with collaborators at Stanford and Oxford University in England, is using a geographic information system to trace the letters’ journeys.

Mr. Edelstein said that many of his senior colleagues view his work as whimsical, the result of playing with technological toys. But he argues such play can lead to discoveries.

(Martin K. Foy’s) latest project, which he directs with Shannon Bradshaw, a computer scientist at Drew, and Asa Simon Mittman, an art historian from California State University, Chico, is an online network of medieval maps and texts that scholars can work on simultaneously. Once specific areas of maps are identified and tagged with information, it becomes possible to analyze and compare quantifiable data about images and sources, he explained, adding, “We have a whole new set of tools not dominated by the written word.”

The online network of maps is distinct from most scholarly endeavors in another respect: It is communal. The traditional model of the solitary humanities professor, toiling away in an archive or spending years composing a philosophical treatise or historical opus is replaced in this project with contributions from a global community of experts.

“The ease with which a community can collaborate on the production of scholarship is something that is fundamentally changing the way we do our work,” said Mr. Foys, whose 2007 book, “Virtually Anglo-Saxon,” discusses the influence of technology on scholarship.

Digital humanities is so new that its practitioners are frequently surprised by what develops.

The full article is here (requires login)

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The Art of Counting is dedicated to the memory of Margery Meilleur, who first taught me to view history through the eyes of the images we create.