In this section, Dr. Kurt Fendt and teaching assistant, Andrew Kelleher Stuhl, share their insights about what makes digital humanities at MIT unique and how they hope the study of digital humanities will help students become critical interpreters of data in their own fields.
Digital Humanities in the Context of a Maker Culture
At MIT, most students tend to major in fields such as aeronautics and astronautics, biology, and electrical engineering and computer science. As digital humanists at MIT, we think hard about how to make digital humanities relevant to students in technical fields. Although this can be challenging, the maker culture that is so much a part of the MIT experience also presents an opportunity for digital humanities to expand beyond conceptual work and to become about application. For example, MIT students tend to focus on how they can use tools from the digital humanities to visualize data in their own fields in innovative ways. Additionally, they often contribute approaches and tools from their different fields that influence how we think about data in the humanities. This kind of knowledge sharing and adaptation is very exciting and is part of what makes digital humanities at MIT unique.
One example of students in a technical field bringing their domain-specific tools to bear on humanities data occurred when we worked on data from the Comédie-Française Registers Project. In this project, we extracted data from 113 seasons of the historical French theatre troupe’s daily ticket sales. We were interested in how we could find patterns in the data that would allow deeper insights into what plays were popular, what some of the historical and political influences on the repertoire of the time were, and how people during the 17th and 18th centuries were going about cultural production. Two students from astrophysics took a technique normally used to spot pulsars and applied it to these data. They overlaid two periods of data from the Comédie-Française Registers Project to see spikes that would be unnoticeable if you just examined the data in traditional ways. We thought it was a brilliant approach. It really captures what digital humanities is all about: taking approaches from other fields, and tuning them to make them appropriate for humanities data.
An Opportunity to Think Critically about Data
Digital humanities allow students in technical fields to think critically about the data they encounter in those domains. Typically, when students work with data in technical fields they often take the data as given items that need to be processed. We’re trying to help students think more critically about those data. When they encounter a data set, we want them to ask questions such as: What has been eliminated from the original data set? Is this data set therefore already an interpretation of the original data? Am I looking at the full picture, or a reduced image of the data? How do visual representations impact my interpretation of the data? In short, we help students realize that data are not neutral or objective. They are always filtered through an interpretive lens. We hope that taking CMS.633 Digital Humanities does more than help students fulfill a humanities requirement; we want their participation in the class to advance how they think about data in their own fields.