Humanities Going Digital

The celebrations of the School of Humanities Lustrum at Tilburg University were not merely entertaining. They painted a picture of achievements, but also challenges that the discipline currently faces.  What does the future hold for the humanities?

Impossible made possible

Imagine a set of millions books written in the course of centuries.  Reading only English language books from the year 2000 alone without interruptions for food or sleep would take you 80 years. But a computer can read and analyze them much quicker. Using computers and internet as tools in humanities research opens up previously unthinkable opportunities. So called e-Humanities, also known as digital humanities, combines methods from traditional disciplines, such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies with tools provided by computer science. What does this digitalization mean for the future of the humanities in general?

This question was tackled during one of the lectures on e-Humanities organized by the lustrum committee. For Rens Bod, professor of Computational and Digital Humanities at the University of Amsterdam, the development of e-Humanities gives a chance for scholars to increase their cooperation with private companies. According to him, such collaboration shows that the humanities studies do not merely train critical minds, but also contribute greatly to the economy and industry. “E-Humanities is a next big step in Information Technology. Companies are increasingly interested in using data from the humanities for their investments, for example mobile applications or digital maps,” says Bod. Thus, the process of digitalization brings the humanities outside of the confines of the university and connects the scholars with private companies. Also, thanks to digital data visualization programs, research results can be made publically available in a more comprehensible, almost entertaining form.

But are digital methods just a way to sell the results of traditional research? According to Jan Scholtes, professor of Text Mining at Maastricht University, digital methods allow for much more than previously thought, for they help to discover previously unknown, or hidden, phenomena in culture. For example, they have a potential to show new patterns in language use, visualize sentiments and opinions in society, structure the unstructured data and map complicated social relationships.

Therefore, e-Humanities discipline is not only concerned with studying the internet but the society and culture as a whole. As prof. Richard Rogers, a Web epistemologist form the University of Amsterdam writes in his book The End of the Virtual. Digital Methods, “the Internet is employed as a site of research for far more than just online culture. The issue no longer is how much of society and culture is online, but rather how to diagnose cultural change and societal conditions using the Internet. The conceptual point of departure for the research program is the recognition that the Internet is not only an object of study, but also a source.” However, viewing internet as a source of data about society is not without problems.

A Drop in the Ocean

Rens Bod speaking during the e-Humanities lecture seemed to be overly enthusiastic about e-Humanities as an emerging discipline: “Humanists can be proud about their impact and valorization, but they could sell it better. They should make as many digital researches as possible, and send press releases one after the other. We should promote e-Humanities more!” The internet is not, however, the alpha and omega. Why is that? Because humanities scholars rely heavily on records, whether they are newspapers, photographs, letters, diaries, books, articles and other records of human experiences. If they start using digital methods for their research, they encounter a problem of the availability of cultural objects online. The majority of books, articles in printed journals and newspapers published throughout centuries can be found only in library catalogues and archives. Only about 15 million books have been digitized, which makes for 12% of all books ever published. It is true that there are many digitalizing projects, but they have a hard time translating materials being printed currently and those printed in the past. Unless we believe that in the nearest future the publishing industry will go entirely online, the digitalization process might never catch up.

We also have to keep in mind that books that have been translated from print to the online sphere are, to a big extent, only the canonical works representing just a tiny part of culture that was considered significant enough by our cultural institutions. According to Richard Rogers, if the researchers want to understand the changes and developments in society, they cannot just analyze “cultural sentences spoken by a few ‘great man’ but the patterns in all cultural sentences spoken by everybody else.”

With the Speed of Internet

The speed in which the news websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook are updated and refreshed is definitely an advantage for users, but not for researchers. Humanities scholars are facing the problem of how to capture instable and ever-changing online data so that it becomes permanent and possible to analyze. It is a challenge to not only track changes online but to record them. Much of the content online, once it disappears or changes, leaves no trace and is not archived anywhere. Researchers looking into online communities or social media are also faced with changing rules, privacy setting, and interfaces. A relevant research can be made irrelevant only by an online platform changing its settings or design. It is also difficult to get online data from the past. For example, if you’re late with gathering public opinion data for your research on the American elections, you might never get tweets older than one month.

Is Virtual Reality Real?

While online data is undoubtedly useful for research of online communities and behavior of internet users, does it also reflect changes in society off-line? Can a research done entirely online make claims about social changes in the real life dimension, not only in the virtual one? Some scholars are still skeptic about online data, claiming that the internet is often a source of ungrounded claims, gossips and amateur research. They distrust any user-generated content such as Wikipedia and any data that is provided, and can be altered, by ordinary users. Humanities scholars have to now face the question whether the Web can be a source of solid, researchable data and if it adequately reflects dynamics in society.

Perspectives on the Future

So what does the future hold for the humanities at Tilburg University and for the discipline in general? The movement towards more modern, digitized and computerized research is a fact, but what will happen to more traditional aspects of the humanities? Judging from the nature of the lustrum events, the Schools of Humanities at the university struggles with the same question. The committee clearly tried to combine the traditional with the modern. The Asko|Schönberg music concert was a wonderful performance of classical instruments, yet combined with the more contemporary, minimal, and innovative music composed by Steve Reich. While this combination seemed to work just fine during the concert, it was not that successful during the masque ball.  What was expected as an elegant gala with long dresses and tuxedos turned out to be a party with party music, wine served in plastic cups and beer on the floor.  What should then be the balance between tradition and innovation?

Published: Univers no 5, 22 November 2012


Follow me, please!

Massive groups consisting of more parents than schoolchildren are led around the campus by enthusiastic ‘sample’ students. The white tents, balloons, and old school music create a festive theme park atmosphere. And the festival’s name is Open Days. Univers was an eye-witness.

A cohort of, paradoxically, paid volunteers gathered in the Cobbenhagen building. Wearing elegant, navy blue polo shirts and armed with umbrellas (to fight the gloomy weather) they were ready to battle for potential students. One of the organizers proudly introduced a ‘pop the question’ option, which gave the visitors a chance to interrogate a ‘real’ student. Was it a randomly chosen, objective person? Of course not. The addressees were Tilburg University ambassadors trained in PR talk. And they gave their answers accordingly. The army of volunteers was skilled at picking out the lost souls in a crowd. One of them kindly showed me the way to an English speaking tour guide. And there they were. A group for English speaking visitors consisting of just one couple from Birmingham who were dragging their sons from one Dutch university to another. Are these the only international students interested
in Tilburg University? Perhaps the reason for such a low turnout was that information sessions about the most popular international programs were not held that day. Still, being one of the five visitors from abroad among the sea of Duchies wasn’t very promising.

Before we left for the campus tour, I grabbed one of the Bachelor programs brochures lying around on almost every table, and flipped the pages. Why is the information about English taught programs printed in Dutch? The only clues that these are international programs were the tiny English flags next to the names of Liberal Arts and Sciences, International Business Administration, Economics and, surprisingly, Econometrie en Operationele Research. Apparently, despite its Dutch name, the latter was also taught in English.

Although very handsome in his Asset jacket, our tour guide was not always persuasive. He recited the most popular music events and festivals in Tilburg from the official university document, as this impressive list is something the city should be proud of. Confusing ‘kermis’ (fun fair) with ‘carnaval’, he said rather unconvincingly, that “I’ve never been there, but, yeah, it’s very nice.” He also eagerly ensured the group that there are a lot of housing options in Tilburg and it’s easy to find a room for an average of 280 euros. Either I have been oblivious to those bargains, or the City Hall has classified them as top secret. Towards the end of the tour, the guide showed us a sample
lecture room in the Warande building. For obvious reasons, only one of the largest and nicest rooms on the campus was showed off. But I assume that if we were shown one of the Prisma building’s tiny, dark rooms that can barely be found in the labyrinth, the Birmingham family would have run away immediately.

Published: Univers no. 12, May 10, 2012

Those Foreign Students….

On the one hand the university welcomes international students with open arms and creates an internationally friendly environment. But once the students step outside of the safe campus, they hear voices grumbling about the increasing number of international students. The arguments sound dangerously like the ones against immigrants. Are international students a next target of an anti-immigration mood in the Netherlands?

They don’t integrate

Once the international students, especially the degree-seekers, arrive in the Netherlands, they are expected to blend into the Dutch society. Sander van den Eijnden, head of the Dutch organization for internationalization of higher education (Nuffic) expressed his disappointment in an interview with Volkskrant: “Foreign students are on the edge of society because they neither integrate, nor speak Dutch.” Most of them don’t, but the question is whether it is necessary. Jan Blommaert, a professor from the Department of Culture Studies, reacts: “Why would they do that? They stay here for the length of the program, usually without planning to live here afterwards.” According to Blommaert, learning Dutch should be expected from immigrants applying for citizenship, but not from international students. “There is even a policy of European Union stressing that foreign students shouldn’t be given the status of an ethnic minority,” says Blommaert. For Harrie Verbon from Tilburg School of Economics and Management, learning Dutch is an important part of integration, but speaking English is enough. “The Dutch speak English very well, which makes it a sufficient tool for integration. You can’t ask international students to learn Dutch if they are here only temporarily, although those who want to be a real part of the Dutch society accept that challenge.”

Blommaert also doesn’t agree with the statement that international students are not integrated in the society. He says: “They are here for a specific purpose revolving around well-defined activities, such as going to lectures and socializing. They acquire all integration skills they need to participate in the areas in which they are supposed to. It’s unrealistic to expect anything more.”

When we think about the problem of integration between domestic and international students, the necessity to learn Dutch is the most obvious solution that springs to mind. However, that might not be the answer. Hans-George van Liempd, Senior Program Manager at Tilburg University, sees the solution in the university itself. “The classroom has a potential to solve the difficulties of integration, if we put more emphasis on academic cooperation.  If students of different nationalities work together, it is more likely that they will also spend time on a daily basis,” says Van Liempd.

They take our rooms

Eric Lucassen from Party for Freedom PVV said in an interview with that the number of foreign students in the Netherlands should be limited, because there is a shortage of student rooms. His perception very much resembles the anti-immigration argument that the foreigners take the places of the Dutch. According to Verbon, the argument does not apply to international students: “It is workers who compete for jobs and houses, not students. If there is a shortage of student rooms, it is not a solution to discriminate students from abroad.  An alternative is to limit the total number of students, both international and domestic, by restricting entry requirements.” Apart from that, housing shortage shouldn’t be an excuse to shut the university doors. The problem is already tackled by projects such as the Tilburg Talent Square, which will offer 700 extra apartments and rooms.

They don’t contribute

Another problem with international students seems to be that because they are not well integrated into the society, “they do not contribute to the local economy,” said Van den Eijnden in an interview for Volkskrant. This argument becomes much weaker when you think about student everyday life. Blommaert says: “They rent rooms, eat in the restaurants, take a bus, go to see the movies, buy groceries… What is contribution to the local economy if not this?” Chinese students don’t only dine in Chinese restaurants, nor do they rent rooms from Chinese owners. Thus, the money circulates within in the country though the hands of Dutch owners and companies.

They cost us money

Up until now, European students who work at least eight hours per week can apply for study grants. For many of them this opportunity, along with the loan, is the main source of funding their studies. However, the State Secretary Zijlstra plans to increase the requirement from eight to fourteen hours a week. The argument is that the rules for Dutch students are getting stricter, so it’s only fair to restrict financial benefits for foreign students as well. According to the VSNU, such measure is counterproductive and it will significantly slow the study pace. Blommaert also disagrees with Zijstra’s measure: “I myself wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for a system of welfare and higher education subsidies. Changing this system will result in excluding many excellent students.” The lack of financial pressure for students is one of the main advantages of studying in the Netherlands. “If we lose this advantage, we’re shooting ourselves in a foot,” says Blommeart. For Van Liempd it is a question of a well-defined strategy: “There is a contradiction in the government’s position. On the one hand Zijlstra sees a potential in China, but on the other makes domestic rules stricter for international students. The government lacks a broad internationalization policy.”

Not immigrants!

Jan Blommaert, himself being a knowledge migrant, makes a clear distinction between general immigration figures and the increase in the number of international students. “The days of attracting immigrants are certainly over. Migration in the Netherlands is effectively discouraged and regulated.” Nonetheless, the so-called smart migration is increasingly important. It is crucial for the universities to attract and invest in international students. “Foreign students shouldn’t be seen as migrants! The politicians should approach student mobility as an economic opportunity, and not as a sociological nightmare,” says Blommaert.

Published: Univers no. 11, April 12, 2012