A Fab Fall for the (Digital) Humanities

As the days get shorter and the weather much chillier, I’m not only reminded of how quickly fall semester is passing, but also of the many great humanities and digital humanities events I’ve had the chance to attend over the past few months here at Penn.

HAIKUIt seems appropriate to kick off a discussion of the humanities at Penn with the (wonderfully and fittingly named) HAIKU Conference: The Humanities and Arts in the Integrated Knowledge University. The conference, sponsored by the Office of the Provost’s Art & Culture Initiative, offered two days of multidisciplinary presentations, discussions, and performances addressing questions such as, “What do the humanities and the arts have to offer contemporary efforts to integrate distinct bodies of knowledge within the research university?” and “How will the humanities and the arts retain their specificity within this climate of integration and is it even important that they do so?” Scholars discussed topics including (but not limited to): what “art-making” means in the 21st century and the importance of the artist in the academic community; using digital storytelling to capture the history and memory of a particular community; questions of how translation can lead to inequality in representing a culture or nation; and the trajectory of creative writing programs in US higher education, as they differ from core literary programs.  The breadth in topic diversity at HAIKU indicated the continued influence of the arts and humanities on various research disciplines and how they enlighten all of us who make up the “integrated knowledge university.”

The Penn Humanities Forum (PHF) has held many exciting discussions this semester. With a theme of “color,” PHF events have explored issues from race and diversity to visual literacy and scholarship. The kick-off event for the Humanities Forum – “The Writer’s Palette” – featured Zadie Smith, a London-born novelist and current professor of Creative Writing at NYU, in conversation with Penn’s own Professor of English, Jed Etsy.

Zadie Smith Event
Screen shot from the PHF event website, http://humanities.sas.upenn.edu/14-15/zadiesmith.shtml

Smith’s novels and stories are known for exploring complex issues of ethnic and race relations, and dynamics of diversity across geographical and cultural boundaries. Smith herself is of mixed race background (her father English, her mother Jamaican); this question of identity and belonging not only has gained momentum in her writing but also featured prominently in her discussion with Prof. Etsy and the audience here at Penn. For me, the most poignant takeaway from Zadie’s talk involved an idea of “not knowing” others – that everyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity, and/or outward appearance, retains a nature of opacity to others and even to the self at times. In other words, folks aren’t as transparent as we make them out to be; whether a fictional character or someone we encounter in the world, it’s ever important to realize that “knowing” a person is a complex process that involves much patience and an open mind.

dhf_boxIn addition to the PHF, the DHF (Digital Humanities Forum) hosted fascinating discussions on using color in digital tools to visialize information. Two events featured Ryan Cordell, an assistant professor of English at Northeastern University and a Mellon Fellow in Bibliography at the Rare Book School: “Viral Texts & the Technologies of Authorship” and “Visualizing Literacy and Historical Networks with Gephi.” The Viral Texts project examines 19th-century literary texts and nonfiction prose that was circulated and freely reprinted by various newspapers and magazines (copyright wasn’t exactly an issue in the 19th century). The project uses computational linguistics and data visualization tools to analyze the connections among publications and ask new questions about public print in the 19th century.

A screen shot from the Viral Texts project, from http://viraltexts.org/networks/1836to1860/index.html

After presenting on the Viral Texts project, the DHF held a “Tools-and-Techniques” luncheon in which Cordell went into more detail about Gephi, the free integrative visualization platform that enables showing network connections among “nodes” (things you’re representing) and “edges” (lines that connect the nodes). Gephi is relatively intuitive and easy to use; however, Cordell did warn that there is some data cleanup necessary before jumping into the program. For me, the network connections created on Gephi made it clear which newspapers, in Cordell’s example, were important players in 19th-century print culture. I can only imagine the number of research questions (about cultural, economic, political issues, etc.) that one could ask in starting to visualize and analyze such information.

In accordance with the PHF’s “color” theme, a few of us from the Penn Libraries recently hosted the Undergraduate Humanities Forum in a workshop focused on how actual colors can enhance scholarship. Topics included: color to express information; color to assist with research; color to reveal trends and biases; and color as a creative tool. The discussion ran from creating colorful network graphs (using Gephi, for example), to creating collages of photos on Instagram, to using conditional formatting in Excel to visualize climate change, to colorblindness and issues of accessibility. It was tremendously inspiring to discuss the students’ individual projects and how much interesting work humanities undergraduates are contributing to Penn’s scholarly community.

Overall, it’s been a very exciting fall for the (digital) humanities here at Penn.  As a librarian supporting digital scholarship, I am ecstatic to see all of the projects that folks across the university are involved in, and I hope to attend many more such events next semester!

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