A Conference Guide for Students
Some academic conferences are very broad, such as the annual meetings of the major professional organizations in each academic discipline (for example, the American Philosophical Association, the American Historical Association or the Modern Language Association), which typically have multiple sessions dedicated to a wide range of themes in the field; others are highly specialized, such as a conference dedicated to exploring the imagery of the natural world in the writings of Virginia Woolf. In either case, such gatherings give scholars the opportunity to learn about important movements in their areas of specialization, and to receive feedback from their colleagues on their most recent work.
The Digital Humanities and the Transformation of Scholarship was conceived as a multidiscipline conference, open to scholars in many fields and bringing a wide range of perspectives. In order for you to get the most out of your experience at the conference, this guide is intended to give you a sense of what you may expect and to equip you with some background on the issues it will explore.
The Digital Humanities and the Transformation of Scholarship will contain four such panel sessions, each with three or four presenters. While some conferences invite long papers and formal commentaries, the spirit of the SUNY Conversations in the Disciplines is to allow as much opportunity for open dialog as possible. Thus, the panelists have been asked to keep their presentations relatively brief, in order to permit broader conversations with one another and the audience.
In keeping with the theme of The Digital Humanities and the Transformation of Scholarship, the “posters” will take a digital form, with scholars and artists presenting video or slideshow summaries of their work, looping on computer screens. The formal poster session will be held on the morning of the conference, but you may view these presentations at any time throughout the day.
However, the closing session of the conference will feature an invited guest: Will Hermes, senior critic at Rolling Stone Magazine and author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever (Faber and Faber, 2011). In order to provide a bridge between the themes of the conference and the world outside the academy, Mr. Hermes will be speaking on the topic of digital humanities in music and popular culture.
For example, a scholarly technique used in many disciplines involves analyzing the frequency with which a classical author used a particular word or phrase in a work to glean insight about the author’s intended (or unintended) meaning, and the work’s relationship to its historical and cultural context—a painstaking task in the age before computers. In the digital age, such analysis can not only be applied quickly to a particular text but to an author’s entire body of work. Indeed, the expanding digital archive and increasing processing power of computers will soon make it possible to apply this type of analysis to all the published work of all major authors of an entire era.
Consider a specific case. The question of humanity’s relationship to the natural world is one that has long been explored across the humanistic disciplines. In the past, it could have taken several hours to read through the text of, say, Shakespeare’s Macbeth to see how often the word ‘unnatural’ appears; an entire career may have been spent tracing the appearance of that word throughout 17th century English literature, in an effort to gain insight into how authors in that cultural period viewed “nature” as a source of value. Today, anyone with an Internet connection and a browser can download an electronic copy of Macbeth and search for the instances of ‘unnatural’ in less than a minute; data mining of the world’s expanding digital library makes it a very doable project to see how frequently the word appears throughout 17th century texts in comparison to the literature of the 16th or 18th centuries. In fact, you can try it yourself here: http://books.google.com/ngrams/.
What changes in attitude toward nature might be reflected in these data patterns? Old questions traditionally explored through qualitative analysis can now be informed by computer analysis of quantitative date. The image of the solitary scholar, carefully reading a tome in the library, has been replaced by computer-generated graphs of digital data sets that are available simultaneously to anyone in the world with a web-connected computer. Welcome to the digital humanities!
But speed is not the only change that academic crowdsourcing can effect. Just as has been the case in its non-academic applications, there is a democratization of expertise and insight that this type of scholarly collaboration creates. Given the open nature of the digital landscape, one needn’t be affiliated with a prestigious institution or have an advanced degree in order to access and, potentially, contribute to a crowdsourced scholarly enterprise. Traditionalists may raise concerns about the quality of work put forward by those without the usual academic résumé, but in the digital age such protests are likely to be met with equally serious questions about the inflexible politics of the traditional academy.
The digital age brings with it a new set of challenges and questions. Today’s communication technology makes possible a rapid and wide flow of information that can circumvent the authority of recognized “experts.” The promise of an absolute knowledge alleged to transcend the contingencies of our social existence becomes eclipsed by a plurality of local knowledges, reflecting the experiences and insights of the diverse agents who produce them. Is this democratization of knowledge an advancement in human liberation or, instead, a step backward on the search for truth?
In looking at the history of art and media, what is the relationship between technology and aesthetics? Is technology a neutral tool that artists can use in the service of their vision, or can technological changes actually shape our aesthetic sensibilities?
Do the data mining techniques of the digital humanities offer anything new and valuable to the understanding of art historical epochs, or do art and aesthetics transcend what can be computed and quantified?
How well do the standard theories of interpersonal communication apply to the digital world when communication is often impersonal, anonymous and transnational?
How have contemporary technologies affected how scholars communicate with one another? What are the advantages and dangers of these changes?
From emoticons to Tweets, informal writing in the digital age has taken a turn toward truncated expression that seems to ignore the standard rules of grammar. Is this change all bad? Are there advantages to students doing a good deal of writing in these new forms? Are there any lessons that formal, scholarly writers can learn from these new forms of expression?
Literary Theory and Criticism
How is the experience of reading a digitized text different from reading a printed text? What are the implications for the literary-critical concept of “textuality,” which focuses on the physical and material conditions of the work of literature?
What will happen to printed texts? Will libraries continue to preserve them? Will people continue to value them?
How might the creation of searchable databases, text mining, and network mapping change the kinds of questions literary scholars ask? What kinds of collaborations among disciplines might emerge?
With the turn to digitized versions of artifacts and historical documents, does the gain in speed and convenience come at a cost? Is anything important lost when historians are no longer dealing with “the originals” when they do their research?
Archiving in any form is a complicated process. Are there special considerations in the age of the digital archive? How do we decide what gets digitally preserved and what doesn’t? Who should be entrusted with these decisions? What are the mechanics of searching in digital archives, and how might this affect the originality of scholarship?
In the digital age, the skills of information literacy have never been more crucial for students and scholars alike. What are some of the challenges you have faced during Internet-based research? What lessons have you learned from these experiences?
Is there such a thing as too much information? Are there ways in which scholarly research might actually be hampered by the digital technologies that are available today?
Where do you see the future of libraries and digitized forms of research?
Do you think that there is a tendency for students and researchers to depend on digital, Internet-based information at the expense of non-digitized sources? How does this affect your ability to locate, evaluate and effectively synthesize and use information?
How does technology affect the production of knowledge? Is the traditional quest for absolute knowledge still valid, or has the digital age exposed that goal as a fantasy?
Are traditional philosophical problems answerable through any of the techniques of the digital humanities? When applied to any of the humanistic disciplines, what are the underlying assumptions behind the quantitative focus of these techniques?
How does the advent of the digital humanities relate to the prospect of a “post-human” world?
As the possibilities for incorporating digital information technology into the humanistic disciplines explodes, the body of work in and about the digital humanities continues to grow. Below are some links to quality sources of information about the field, examples of projects in the digital humanities and digital humanities research centers at various universities around the country. Also, be sure to visit the conference website (www.sunysuffolk.edu/CID) for more information about the program and the presenters.
- Center for Digital Humanities (University of South Carolina): http://cdh.sc.edu/
- Center for Digital Humanities (UCLA): www.cdh.ucla.edu
- Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (UNL): http://cdrh.unl.edu/
- Center for Digital Scholarship (Brown University): http://library.brown.edu/cds/pages/tag/digital-humanities
- A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (online book): http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companionDLS/
- DH Commons: www.dhcommons.org
- Digital Humanities Initiative at Buffalo (SUNY): http://digitalhumanities.buffalo.edu/
- Digital Humanities Now: http://digitalhumanitiesnow.org/
- Digital Humanities Quarterly: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/about/about.html
- Humanities 2.0 (New York Times series on the digital humanities): http://topics.nytimes.com/top/features/books/series/humanities_20/index.html
- Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities: http://www.iath.virginia.edu/essays.html
- Vectors (online journal/blog): http://vectors.usc.edu/journal/index.php?page=Introduction