Dan Edelstein and the collaborative future of the digital humanities: geeks and poets, unite!

November 18, 2010
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Things have really been abuzz around these parts in the wake of Patricia Cohen’s piece in the New York Times on the digital humanities. We couldn’t be more geeked that this glimmer of the Humanities 2.0 is the first in a series of articles devoted to the changing face of the liberal arts in light of the data revolution. Lots to like in Cohen’s assessment of the field—including the startling array of digital projects harvesting all sorts of newly available primary documents, Civil War-era topographies, animated travelogues, and supercomputing databases. Lots to come, as well—our eyes are certainly peeled as to how these digital endeavors will present themselves and extend the possibilities of the book, and equally curious as to how new methodological discoveries will change not only how—but what—we choose to interpret.
Our own Dan Edelstein, author of The Enlightenment: A Geneology and associate professor of French and Italian at Stanford University, figures prominently in the article. His National Endowment of the Humanities-funded project Mapping the Republic of Letters (the Times has a great multimedia slideshow feature and accompanying video-savvy blog post devoted to it) traces, quite literally, the flow of ideas during the Enlightenment by using a geographic information system to trace the exchange of epistles between prominent thinkers like Locke, Voltaire, and Newton, to startling results. More on all of that in the article, of course! We asked Professor Edelstein if he might be willing to comment on the project and his own view of the digital humanities’ bright future, including anything the Times neglected to touch upon in their own piece. His gracious response follows below (and don’t forget to have a look at a bit of its lively material results—check out Edelstein’s UCP books here and here, and the video trailer for Mapping the Republic of Letters following his response):

Even skeptics will admit that new digital technologies—from search engines and databases to network graphs and GIS visualizations—are changing the research habits and results of most humanists. The emerging field of digital humanities, recently featured in a New York Times article by Patricia Cohen, takes these technologies a step further to harness the power of computation with the art of interpretation. Some critics counter that digital humanists are merely positivists who have drunk the Kool-Aid of quantification, but they’re largely misdirected. In the case of our project Mapping the Republic of Letters, for instance, we’ve found that visualizations tend to provide starting points for further inquiry, much of which is often done the old-fashioned way: by reading books.
One of the most revolutionary features of the digital humanities, however, often goes unnoticed. While some practitioners in the field are genuine 21st-century Renaissance men and women, many of us—myself included—do not combine a specialization in the humanities with a background in computer science. Since I became involved in digitally humanistic pursuits, I’ve learned a great deal about different programs, platforms, and methods, but nowhere near enough to do any actual programming work. Indeed, our project, like many others, is fundamentally collaborative: my co-P.I., Paula Findlen, and I work with a team of faculty members and graduate students, in conjunction with various programmers (mostly students in computer science), who are in turn overseen by another co-P.I., Nicole Coleman, an academic technology specialist. The visualization that was featured in the New York Times article and accompanying blog post was produced by three C.S. students, working with Nicole, according to guidelines proposed by faculty and graduate students. None of us could have accomplished this work alone.
In fact, the collaborative web stretches even farther. We acquired our initial data set from the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford, and have subsequently received data or established partnerships with a dozen other digitization projects; our group receives technical and logistical support from the Stanford Humanities Center and the Spatial History Project, also at Stanford; some of our research teams work with professional designers; and we are partnering with an Italian design team at the Politecnico di Milano to tackle problems with visualizing uncertainty.
For humanists, this collaborative structure is quite radical, given the primarily solitary nature of our work. While there are collaborative aspects to some of our activities—it is preferable not to be alone in a classroom or at a conference panel—we are still used to being independent, and not part of a team. Digital humanities projects, by contrast, are often impossible without a group structure.
Tellingly, for all of those involved in our project at least, this team approach has proved exhilarating. The novelty of our work, but also the novelty of this collaborative experience, have led all participants to put in far more time and effort than they initially expected. Because no one person is driving the research agenda, we often find ourselves going down unexpected paths. Moving beyond cross-fertilization, our research teams actively collaborate to build tools together. This is all the more surprising that the payoff in career terms is fairly limited.
And therein lies the rub for digital humanities projects. While their novelty makes them more likely candidates for exposure in the press, one does not get much institutional credit from them. This is less of a problem for tenured faculty than it is for graduate students and assistant professors. Of the main challenges, publication may surprisingly be the simplest: most search committees and deans are perfectly capable of evaluating joint-authored publications. Harder to resolve is the time issue: these projects often demand a huge amount of up-front effort; like icebergs, their workload is 90 percent submerged, most of which goes unnoticed (and hence, unappreciated). Graduate students, on a tight five-year schedule, rarely have the luxury of time. Finally, the primary outcome of these projects is not always a book or article: many projects produce digital tools that are then made available to the scholarly community. Evaluating these tools, as well as each participant’s individual contribution, is a daunting task.
It may seem prosaic to turn a conversation about exciting new technological innovations in the humanities into a familiar litany about scholarly promotion and recognition. But it is such human trifles—rather than major technical hurdles—that may most impede the growth of the field. Thankfully, the sheer excitement of asking questions about familiar corpora that no one had been able to ask before seems to outweigh most practical concerns. Among the most enthusiastic members of our group are indeed our graduate students, who are the ones in the most precarious professional situation. But they are also the future of our field, which suggests that one way or another, the digital humanities will become a core part of the humanities at large.

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