Getting Down In Binary

In a series of New York Times articles, Patricia Cohen explores various ways that scholars and instructors make use of tools housed under the digital humanities umbrella.  In one, she describes a “spatial turn” in historical scholarship.  In another, she lists efforts to give “literature a virtual life,” whether by allowing students to place themselves inside of a Shakespeare play or by juxtaposing multiple interpretations of a poem alongside one another.  In a third column, Cohen examines the use of crowd sourcing to help facilitate the democratization of primary source documents.

Having already expressed concern about the over-zealous enthusiasm of Cohen and others to declare a state of “revolution,” it is worth saying that the projects described here are genuinely intriguing.  Each seems to have truly positive benefits, but there are potential downsides worthy of consideration.

Take the Bentham Project.  The idea is simple enough: make the great man’s manuscripts available online and ask vast legions of eager volunteers to transcribe them for eventual publication.  Crowd sourcing at its best.

Jeremy thinks carefully about how to log into the Bentham project without first re-attaching his head to his body. Source: Top Ten World Famous Body Parts,

On many levels, the Bentham Project is exciting.  It is often difficult to gain access to historical documents, especially because travel and research budgets were among the first slashed following the 2008 crash.

Electronic access to material can also expedite the acquisition of important information.  Where once it might have taken months to reconstruct the genealogy of an historical actor, now sites such as make it possible to do the same in just hours, freeing the researcher to work more diligently on interpretation.

Cohen acknowledges practical concerns such as the reality that it can take more energy to supervise non-experts than it takes for an expert to do the task herself.  Errors in transcription are likely.  According to the article, these challenges quickly scuttled an effort to transcribe Abraham Lincoln’s papers.

There are other issues as well.  Perhaps foremost is the reality that the precise context in which a given document is found can influence interpretation.  Just what exactly is contained in a given archival box or folder may shape how an historian identifies patterns.  Likewise, the paper on which something is printed sometimes matters.  My own grandfather, alongside many other GIs during World War II, developed a system of graphic clues designed to communicate with family members about where he was stationed while evading censors.  Do such details make their way into a transcription?

There is also an ethnical question.  Those of us fortunate to have jobs can afford to be laudatory of anything that makes our own lives easier.  Easier access to documents?  Grand.  More research time?  Perfect.  The catch is that once a project such as the Bentham crowd sourcing initiative might have generated paid employment for graduate students, post docs, archivists, or others.  It might have spawned ongoing scholarship, new programs of research, as highly trained scholars poured through the many boxes of notes, letters, and other jottings.  Unfortunately, we are often all too willing to act without thinking of consequences.  Young people interested in a life of the mind represent the hand loom weavers of our day, their skills cheapened.

Yet crowd-sourcing transcription projects are not the only programs that deserve further consideration.  Cohen’s description of the use of GPS for historical analysis inspires an immediate “gee whiz, that’s nifty” response.  Anne Kelly Knowles, a geographer at Middlebury College, for example, uses GPS to produce 3D renderings of historic landscapes.  What exactly did the actors involved in famous battles such as Gettysburg see?  While such a question might be of little interest to academic historians (who would ask different questions than this on the one hand and who will depend on concrete evidence, not digital renderings, on the other), it certainly has benefits for public historians and would be very useful in museum exhibits or as illustration for undergraduate-level lectures.

More interesting academic history projects use GPS to trace the spread of witchcraft allegations at Salem and the incidence of dust storms in the American Midwest during the nineteenth century.  Although neither of these approaches demands such complex technology, computer mapping undoubtedly makes them easier to complete quickly.

It is, however, a misnomer to claim that historians have long ignored geography as is suggested in this article.  On the contrary, they have almost always examined demographic change relative to space, the availability of resources such as water or good soil, the implications of various geographies and geologies for human experience, the spread of disease or of ideas, and more.  Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum looked at the geography of the Salem witch trials in their classic study of the case way back in 1976.  William Cronin, the father of U.S. environmental history wrote a brilliant book, Changes in the Land, about the interaction of man with the New England landscape.  Perhaps easier access to mapping software will expedite future research about the spatial side of the past.  This will be a very good thing.  But such a focus is not new.

Finally, Patricia Cohen examines the use of digital tools for the understanding of literature.  She discusses Prof. Katherine Rowe’s use of 3D virtual environments to help students understand how to successfully block scenes in a Shakespeare play.  Cohen mentions another scholar, Jane Hedley, whose students juxtapose poetry and commentary in order to promote deeper readings of a text.  Last, she explains how Rachel Buurma, an assistant professor at Swarthmore, is working to develop a massive online archive of early novels in order to assure easier access to them.

These are stimulating ideas.  Making rare texts available is desirable (although I cannot imagine reading a massive tome on a computer screen and would find taking notes in such an environment very challenging).  Discussing poetry on the web might be very helpful for some people (although this does ignore the theatricality of the aural experience of poetry—film or sound files would help).  Using a computer to design choreography also seems useful (though I wonder whether it threatens to further separate young people from their imaginations).

Each of these tools might be useful in an undergraduate classroom, especially when engaging students who are visual learners.

That said: digital is no panacea.  One student quoted by Cohen mentions an inability to read for content while also editing for grammar.  I can relate.  Another student expressed love for the original book itself.  Right there with you, Charlie Huntington.

Above all, students need to work to develop their imaginations.  There is a value to being comfortable inside one’s own head.  Does the sublimation of the imagination into binary code rob people of this ability?  I do not know, but I have concerns.

Finally, Cohen acknowledges in her article “Giving Literature Virtual Life” that web-based literature projects are “apt to have less focus, fullness and heft than a conventional senior thesis.”  This is worrisome.  Part of the point of such assignments is to confront students with massive projects and dizzying questions, to plunge them into analysis that combines all that they have learned during their tenure in college.  Diluting these goals may be detrimental.

There is also a financial issue.  Nearly all (if not all) of the schools mentioned in these articles are heavily endowed private institutions.  Hardware and software are not cheap (in my own case, my budget is such that I am unable to afford even basic database software needed for a project that I am working on—a project partly designed to employ a promising undergraduate student).  One wonders whether these approaches can be truly far-reaching if not every institution has access.

There is an assumption in each of these articles that I have not experienced in practice: the notion that undergraduates are highly computer literate.  Most are perfectly adept at Facebook, email, and texting.  Fewer know how to make use of even basic features in mass market software such as Word or Excel.  One can only assume that a tiny minority know anything about 3D modeling or GPS applications.  Given existing time constraints, the need to provide disciplinary instruction, and the reality that all too many students lack basic reading and writing skills, is it desirable to put further strain on class time by adding computer instruction into the mix?

With all of this in mind, how might I use the above in my own classes?  I can certainly imagine asking students to transcribe documents for online publication (as long as the original file is presented alongside the transcription when finally posted to the web).  Reading difficult handwriting is part of being an historian.  It is a skill that must be learned.

Mapping software could add much to an upper level course (assuming successful completion of prerequisite course addressing the necessary computer skills) and I would welcome being able to draw on such technology to help illustrate lectures and facilitate discussions.  Indeed, at present I am attempting to do precisely this for a course about the history of London; it is slow-going without a budget for more sophisticated software.

I am less keen on introducing virtual environments into my classes, favoring instead a more thoughtful discussion-based approach that pushes students to engage their own minds without recourse to a virtual crutch.