The Humanities Digital Workshop moves online

COVID-19 forced the Humanities Digital Workshop annual summer program online for the first time. The experience led to unexpected opportunities for collaboration and problem-solving.

An XML representation of a typescript for the James Merrill Digital Archive.

How does a summer lab-based workshop function in the time of a global pandemic?

The Humanities Digital Workshop has always been about creating a kind of lab experience for the humanities. Some questions require more collaboration and new computational methods than are typical for humanities research. From a large-scale mapping of racial violence across the 20th century in the United States to computational analysis of English print culture before 1700, the projects sponsored by the HDW involve teams learning to code, build databases, analyze complex datasets, and perform other kinds of research tasks often associated with the sciences.

The faculty and staff at the HDW teach these skills in a collaborative, lab environment over the summer with everyone working side by side for eight weeks. A group of summer fellows work closely with faculty on ongoing digital humanities research projects, with participants including undergraduate students, graduate students, and library staff. This summer, the workshop featured students working on a record fourteen different projects.

The Racial Violence Archive (RVA) gathers and shares information related to racist violence in U.S. history. This summer, the team has been looking in digital newspaper collections for reports of racial violence in Illinois like this one from the Rock Island Argus in 1903.

When the HDW moved to Zoom and Microsoft Teams for the summer, participants missed the comradery of being in the same room together. They found, however, that the experience heightened the need for collaboration, placing even greater emphasis on one of the cornerstones of the summer workshop experience for humanities students.

“The chief difference from past years has to do with collaboration,” said Joe Loewenstein, professor of English and director of the Humanities Digital Workshop. “As a team member, one’s expertise is not a secret, but a social asset. One learns to train others, and, in the course of explaining to others, one discovers what one didn’t quite know, didn’t know well enough. Your explanations become clearer because you have the privilege of timely, consequential feedback. Achievement is shared and becomes an occasion for noisy exuberance since it’s not private. People who work in labs know all this quite well (and perhaps they take it for granted); humanists don’t normally recognize the resources of communal activity.”

The Early Print Lab had a team of students from several institutions working on various tasks relating to improving a corpus of early printed English. Many of them are consulting images to puzzle through how to correct transcriptions for images of text like this one.

Through the summer workshop, students learn to approach humanities research topics from new angles. “Many students who are already oriented to the humanities would be unlikely to seek out a course in mapping, or XML markup, or JavaScript programming, or (if such were available) on Optical Character Recognition or regular expressions for advanced search-and-replace,” said Douglas Knox, assistant director of the HDW. “However, during the summer they have a task and a motivation, and with exposure to tools that suit what they are trying to do, they learn eagerly and differently than they would in a classroom. They take charge of their own learning by deciding how much learning particular technical skills can help with their current task or their own long-term goals and interests.”

Tim Moore's Meters of Ancient Drama team (Tuma Ussiri and Elena Steiert) meet to discuss progress on a version of Euripides's Hekabe.

One of the new projects this summer was the Early Print Lab. Loewenstein co-directs that team with Anupam Basu, assistant professor of English. Loewenstein noted that students seemed to approach technical problems more directly this summer than students might have done in the past. “Both the size of the Early Print group, and the very fact of extrinsically imposed structures of communication — Teams again, and Zoom — seemed to push students to solve technical and methodological problems almost as soon as they arose,” said Loewenstein. “When we’re not remote, we seem to let difficulties float, as if it’s enough that most team members are alert to some slight difficulties. When we’re present to each other technical difficulties don’t seem quite as urgent; distanced and with our hands technologically tied, difficulty seemed an urgent challenge.”

More information about the Humanities Digital Workshop, including a complete list of ongoing sponsored research projects, can be found at the HDW website.