Humanities look to modernize with focus on digital

The English department took a major step into the digital era Friday with the official launch of a research institute that could help rescue fading humanities fields.

The institute, started by tech-savvy English professors Alexander Huang and Jonathan Hsy, will support faculty in GW’s humanities departments looking to use data to draw deeper conclusions in a Google-driven world.

“It’s really about an open mind and a more savvy way of thinking about the humanities today. The culture we live in is a digital culture, it’s one that’s framed by Google searches, for better or for worse,” Huang said.

Huang, the first professor to use Gelman Library’s new data visualization room, said a more digital focus could help save the “dying humanities.” The room features three-dimensional technology, which is less than a year old and featured at just 25 locations across the country, that projects objects like fossils or organs on a high-definition television screen.

Huang said students were wowed by the technology, which they used to study “The Merchant of Venice.”

Students looked closely at one of the first-ever world maps and also used an open-access video archive to view Shakespeare in high definition.

Interest in the humanities has been declining across the nation, with researchers trying to find innovative ways to renew that interest, as higher-paying fields based in math and science attract more students.

Humanities interest at GW has remained strong, but Huang said studying them with an online focus could help restore the national interest.

Huang also taught a digital humanities seminar to graduate students last spring that focused on how to think critically about access to digital culture and the ethics associated with it.

Huang raised $30,000 to start the institute over the past year. It puts GW in competition with schools like Northwestern and George Mason.

Mike Whitmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, said digitization can help scholars make new findings about long-studied, classic texts.

“That’s key to what we do in the humanities, the ability to think in terms of examples and make instantaneous comparisons and then put a name to them,” he said.

In the year Huang and Hsy planned the institute, they worked with the English department and professors in the history department to incorporate technology and a digital aspect to classes, including a class about D.C. history.

Huang added that applying a digital lens to humanities studies also allows for open-source education, expanding the opportunities to people beyond university boundaries.

The University’s head librarian Geneva Henry, a digitization expert, said both the data visualization room and the digital humanities institute widened the scope of possibility for humanities researchers.

“It opens up a whole new world for scholarship,” she said, “I think visualization has tremendous potential for really engaging students.”

Henry came to GW to digitize the University’s library system, which would open more space within the cramped library. She plans to focus on bringing researchers back into Gelman and help them transition into researching online.

-Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report

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