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



It’s a Test

Getting a degree isn’t about your academic skills. It’s not about research, it’s not about close reading, and it’s not about critical thinking either. In fact, the universities secretly test our skills to prepare us for future jobs. As spies. Or secret agents. Or double agents to spy on agents from other universities and trick them into spilling information about top secret research.

Take the course registration, for example. It’s clearly a test to assess your patience. The system of links on the website is, in fact, a riddle that you have to solve. You click on one that seems to be redirecting you to the registration site, but it’s not. It’s a link in disguise. It gives you a list of other links instead. You click on every each and one of them, and somehow you end up where you’ve started. Unless you prove your persistence, you’ll never be allowed to continue your mission.

So you’ve passed the first test. You now have access to the desired registration page. This time, it’s your attention to detail that is being evaluated. The site is full of buttons, links and tabs written in font size 9,5. Look closely, because if you click the wrong one, you’ll be logged out and have to start over.

Finally found a course catalog? You’ve been brave. But now you have to face the hardest test: trusting your intuition. The course catalog system doesn’t work according to course names. The course doesn’t exist unless you enter its code. Forget browsing the catalog by keywords to see what courses are interesting. You have to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and guess the desired course code. And remember: always trust your heart.

A final test is on your ability to identify a suspicious element. To register for course you have to select it and click… “add to shopping cart”. Then you go your virtual shopping cart and purchase the course you wish to attend. If you fail to recognize this incongruity, you credit card will be charged an amount worth a three-month rent for a classroom, three monthly salaries of a lecturer and a supply of white chalk.

You’ve done a good job. See you on the other side.  

Published: Univers no. 06, December 13 2012


Master Course or Crash Course?

But we know that the Bachelor is just the beginning of our education,” said the valedictorian during the Liberal Arts graduation ceremony. Wrong! This hopeful prediction would only work if I decided to follow a Research Master and pursue my career in academia. After two months of my regular Master program I feel like the end of my academic education is near.

One of my courses at the University of Amsterdam started just two months ago. The following seven lectures featured PowerPoint slides flashing as fast as Kim Basinger’s orgasmic slide show in Nine ½ Weeks. If Walter Benjamin knew that we devoted only one hour of our precious time to discuss his essay, he’d turn over in his grave. The “academic debates” could just as well be squeezed during coffee breaks. The course’s content comes down to a list of tools that is published online anyways. Remind me why I would drag myself out of bed every Monday morning again?

No wonder the course lasted for barely two months, if the whole Master program takes only one year. Actually, our education has to fit between September and December, because the second semester is almost entirely devoted to writing a thesis. Following a Master program feels like taking a crash course. No, worse: like being in a Benny Hill episode about taking a crash course.

It seems as if the universities have pushed the speed up button on their production line, trying to rush us out of the cozy confines of the university buildings. But if the speed gets too high, the tape will slip from under our feet and we’ll fall on our faces completely not specialized in, what should be, our area of expertise. Students might not be the perfect contributors to society, borrowing money and using all the possible student discounts, but a two year Master program would allow us to actually study what we study. Without the long study fine I just might take my time… <evil laugh>

Published: Univers no 5, 22 November 2012