Fields such as English, history turn toward technology

by Cory Weinberg

Alexander Huang’s office shelves are lined with thick volumes of Shakespeare plays. But instead of sifting through “Hamlet,” like many English professors, Huang prefers to design websites and tag videos of the play.

Huang is trying to steer GW’s humanities departments toward computer screens, using 3-D mapping, videos and data visualization to get an edge. He and other professors want to start the University's first digital humanities research institute, which could be housed in Gelman Library.

“I wish GW would really jump on the wagon and react quickly. This is a field that’s developing so fast,” Huang, an associate professor of English, said.

Digital humanities is a catch-all term for the discipline in which scholars mine data, study multimedia and create software in fields like English, history and philosophy. For instance, Huang built a digital archive of Shakespeare plays from around the world. His colleague, English professor Jeffrey Cohen, runs a group blog on Medieval studies.

The momentum is building after Huang and others organized the University’s first symposium on digital humanities last weekend. It drew over 300 people, including most of his colleagues in the English department.

Professors and experts also say the digital focus will help humanities majors land jobs by picking up high-demand web skills.

The institute, which would likely include a handful of new faculty positions and technology, would put GW in line with competitors like George Mason and Northwestern universities, as well as the University of Maryland.

It would be one of the most visible research additions in the humanities, as most of GW’s big-ticket buildings and research dollars have been set aside for science, engineering and public health fields recently.

Huang said administrators have supported the growing field, but the department needs a more “unified front” to convince other departments like history or philosophy to make a joint digital leap. The digital focus has seen some resistance from his colleagues, who are sometimes suspicious about the legitimacy of the field’s peer review process.

Provost Steven Lerman said digital humanities encouraged the kind of collaboration that the University is encouraging in its upcoming strategic plan, “where engineers can work side by side with humanists.”

“We’d be open to it. We’d have to see the plan [for a center], but it’s an area that’s an exemplar of some of the things we have in mind when we talk about cross-disciplinary work,” Lerman said.

The department may also leverage their work in digital sphere to earn University funds. The draft of the University’s strategic plan, which will be finalized in February and outlines about $200 million of investments.

Cohen said digital work will reposition the humanities to the front of GW’s plans.

“We hope digital humanities is something that can flourish under the plan,” he said. “It wouldn’t take a huge amount of investments to get us there. Student interest is there. We just need some of the basics.”

Brett Bobley, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities, said his office uses a $2 million budget to issue grants in the field, although the majority of the NEH’s grants goes toward traditional fellowships that fund paper books.

“I do think there’s certainly some resistance to any kind of a new endeavor, but as a whole I’ve been impressed with how readily accepted this kind of work is,” Bobley said.

The English department also hired another digital specialist who will start next year. Huang is teaching the first graduate seminar on digital humanities this semester.

Cohen said experimenting with social media and collaborating with scholars digitally around the world has also added liveliness to the field.

“I’m a medievalist. There are days when I lock myself in my office with a Latin dictionary and a big book,” he said. “But I’m not interested in doing the same things I was doing at GW when I first came in the 1990s.”

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