Digital Humanities as Method and Mission

Lauren Klein

My engagement with the digital is the result of an enduring interest in the intersection between technology and education; it has shaped who I was as a student and who I am as a scholar. You might say that I was an early adopter: when I was a child, my family acquired one of the first Apple Macintosh computers, and I spent my afternoons riveted to its black-and-white screen. That experience opened my mind to the possibilities of thinking through technology. In my senior year of high school, I was charged with choosing the yearbook theme. I selected “The Internet,” an idea spurred by the launch of the not-yet-ubiquitous Netscape Navigator 1.0. Even then, I was excited by the internet’s potential to communicate ideas and information. In college, I discovered Usenet, an early internet discussion system, and began to learn from and collaborate with others online. I created my first website and took my first programming course, and upon graduation, at the tail end of the first dot-com boom, I took my first fulltime job as a web developer.

I aim to bring together students and faculty from across the Institute to explore the range of issues provoked, and practices generated, by our present digital mediascape.

After several years in the industry—and then an additional year as a bike messenger—I returned to graduate school. By re-entering academia, I hoped to more fully understand the digital culture that surrounded me by exploring the cultural contexts and media forms that gave rise to it. In my research and in my teaching, I continue to seek out connections between past and present, between the scientific and technological concepts that animated earlier centuries, and those that underpin digital life today. It is among my most strongly held scholarly beliefs that by studying historical examples, both real and imagined, we can better identify and then critique the forces at work in contemporary culture—and, crucially for students at Georgia Tech—we can better create new tools and other technologies that will shape our digital future.

This approach, equal parts critical and creative, conceptual and applied, is most easily described by a term, “digital humanities,” that has gained rapid currency in the academy (as well as in the New York Times) in the past few years. A term that once described the application of computational techniques to address traditional humanistic questions, digital humanities now encompasses the creation, application, and analysis of a wide range of media objects—from visualization software to videogames—as well as the study of how digital culture has, and will continue to shape humanities scholarship both inside and out of the academy.

In the lab I direct that bears that name, the Digital Humanities Lab, I aim to bring together students and faculty from across the Institute to explore the range of issues provoked, and practices generated, by our present digital mediascape. Through the creation of software tools (and other digital methods) to support new forms of scholarship, and the support of digital projects prompted by new areas of research, we seek to explore questions of epistemology; or, as Joanna Drucker, a professor in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, has described, “ways of thinking differently about how we know what we know, and how the interpretive task of the humanist is redefined” in the “changed conditions” of the digital age. At the DH Lab, our projects have ranged from the design of an interactive system for visualizing and exploring the themes contained within nineteenth century anti-slavery newspapers, to the deployment of techniques from the field of computational linguistics and information visualization in order to analyze the content of tens of thousands of letters written by (or to) Thomas Jefferson. In these projects, as in each project we undertake, we seek to synthesize cutting-edge computational techniques with the literary, historical, and cultural questions that drive humanities research.

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In my courses, too, I bring together literary, historical, and cultural studies with applied media practice in order to allow students from far-ranging majors to express their own ideas and arguments about the topics under consideration. For a course that explored the idea of the archive, for instance, we began by asking general questions about why people keep things, how people keep things, and what to do about the things that, try as we may, we cannot keep at all. We examined theoretical formulations of—and challenges to—the concept of the archive through the lens of literary accounts of archives, as well as examples of archives, both print and digital, from the Georgia Tech and Emory library systems. After considering archives of documents and archives of junk, we then worked together as a class to design and implement a digital archive of materials from the Bud Foote Science Fiction Collection here at Georgia Tech.

In another course, centered on the idea of data, I asked my students to think about their SAT scores, their Facebook friends, and even their DNA, in order to understand how data structures their everyday lives. We traced the concept of data back to the Enlightenment, connecting eighteenth-century ideas about evidence and observation to examples, both historical and contemporary, that brought these concepts to the fore. After experimenting with a set of basic tools for data visualization, we created our own visualizations to offer comment on the long, fraught history of visual display.

My own research takes up these same topics. I am currently at work on a cultural history of data visualization, which traces the development of the visual display of quantitative information from the pioneering graphical charts created eighteenth-century political economists, to the schemes for visualizing history developed by nineteenth-century educators, and up through the present day—in the form of the visualizations and infographics found all over the web. Inspired by the increasing range of digital formats for publication, I am in the process of creating an online, image-based companion to what will become a scholarly book. In this way, the digital humanities function, for me, as both method and mission; as a way to engage with and offer comment on—in content and in form—the digital culture that informs and animates our everyday lives.

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