“Doing” DH at University of Victoria’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute

Attending University of Victoria's Digital Humanities Summer Institute for the second time was a pleasant return. I felt less like an interloper this year and more like what I suspect should be the outlook of an attendee–i.e., a student, a collaborator, a soon-to-be more informed practitioner of DH. Last year I signed-up for a course on DH pedagogy, which “provided a ‘best practices’ approach to using digital humanities tools and processes for the purposes of communication, collaboration, and facility of research.” Although I found that experience to be an informative entry into the critical conversations surrounding DH, I returned to UW with only a cursory understanding of a few tools and a feeling that I just wasn't “doing” DH. (I created a Google site to store and share the content from that course, available here.) Despite that fact, I experimented with a few data-mining programs and designed a text mining for an English Gateway course, which was received with more interest than resistance (the vain hope of any instructor).  This year I signed-up for an intensive, tool-specific class on digital spatial analytics, or what is more commonly referred to as Geographical Information Systems (GIS). What follows is a brief overview of what GIS is, what the course entailed, and then a brief reflection on the overall experience at DHSI.

Overview: What is GIS?

A geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. GIS allows us to view, understand, question, interpret, and most important, to visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts.

Innovative applications of GIS in the Humanities abound, from Google Lit Trips, where we can follow the journey of Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, to Dan Edelstein and Paula Findlen’s historical project at Stanford on “Mapping the Republic of Letters,” and even in disciplines like Art History, where multi-spectral imaging has been used to photograph paint clusters and specific pigments in the works of Jackson Pollack (The Geography of Art: Imaging the Abstract with GIS). Ultimately, GIS provides new roads for humanists to consider the significant relations of place, space, artifact, and memory visually over time.


The course I took this year, “Geographical Information System in the Digital Humanities,” was taught by Professor Ian Gregory from Lancaster University and aided by Norma Serra, a graduate student in Geography at University of Victoria. In the initial three days of the class we were provided with clear, step-by-step instructions, working through different aspects of ArcGIS, Quantum GIS (an open source program), and Google Earth.  Because it remains the single-most used program by universities and research institutes, we worked predominantly with ArcGIS, and were provided with two entirely different disciplinary sets of data: one from the social sciences that entailed the mortality rates of infants in the UK during the early 20th century; and one from the humanities that included a data set of places names from the poetry of Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Working with data sets first from Geography, and then with the humanities, helped to convey the powerful transferability of GIS platforms and spatial data to frame and test critical questions through this form of visualization.

Once we successfully navigated the fundamentals of ArcGIS , we were encouraged to map our own data sets in the remaining two days of class. Several students came with data they had compiled over the last year or two with hopes to refine their understanding of GIS and fine tune the visualization of that data. Others, like me, came without any data, only a few half-baked ideas about how they might incorporate GIS into their work. This, I believe, is one of the great selling points of DHSI, in that the attendees are from a variety of different disciplines and possess varying degrees of technological knowledge, making the classroom sessions productive environments for collaboration and learning. In the end, I’m glad that I did not come with a fully formed project because it allowed me to be more open to the potentialities of GIS for my work and eventually my teaching.

Because my dissertation focuses on the impact of popular visual culture on the “high” literary marketplace in the 1800’s, I spent those final two days compiling and plotting a data set of place names of the visual cultural phenomena mentioned in “Book Seven” of William Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, The Prelude. (I will showcase this map and discuss the process of generating it in more detail at the DMDH Showcase this fall.) In addition to locating the places where these performances occurred, each place name plotted on the map contained some form of metadata: lines from the poem where that place was mentioned and historical information regarding that theater, gallery, or exhibition. What made generating the data challenging, initially, was that in this section of the poem, Wordsworth rarely names specific places. More commonly, he cites only an actor or play by name, or more allusively, simply describes the particular experience shorn of any identifying markers. But this was just one of many challenges I faced regarding data collection.

Once I identified the concrete locations referenced directly or indirectly in the poem, I encountered my next hurdle–using Excel, the program used to compile the data and later export it to ArcGIS.  After a few basic questions were kindly answered by my fellows DHSI classmates, I was able to complete the data set and map it. But it is not that simple: once you have the data, you must choose what kind of map best represents the data. In my case, it was a Google Earth image because this was the most readily available image of London I could obtain free of any copyright restrictions. (To provide a greater level of visual authenticity, I am currently working to obtain borrowing rights for a digital reproductions of a 1805 map of London.) And though these visual cultural experiences were from the early 1800’s, these locations, fortunately, are still very much a part of the London urban landscape.  Once I plotted the data, a clear image of the visual cultural experiences available to Londoners at the turn of the 19th century emerged–as mentioned by one writer, of course. This interactive map on face value, however, does not unlock a missing piece to Wordsworth’s life in general or his poetry in particular. Indeed, GIS it is not the Rosetta Stone for the humanist, something geographers know all too well; instead, it will allow me to pose critical questions about an individual in relation to place and time, to consider the proximity of other significant events (or people) who were left unmentioned that eventually, in the case of my investigation, bring about the development of a modern cultured individual–to investigate how, in the words of Percy Shelley, culture both makes the individual and is made by them.  In a sense, I equate this type of investigation with an astrophysicist's quest for dark matter, prompting the question: what can we learn from the negative space of these place names?

The Takeaway:

The five days at DHSI opened up many fruitful roads to pursue with respect to my own work and gave me the sense that I was actually “doing” DH, rather than merely thinking (or writing) about its methodologies and goals. Moreover, it has intensified my understanding of the relation between space and time in literature. This happens to be no coincidence, I believe, since the bulk of my work revolves around this dichotomy–the introduction to my dissertation takes an unnecessarily long digression (as most dissertations do) to foreground the cultural importance of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s essay “Laocoön, or On the Limits of Painting and Poetry,” which along with Edmund Burke’s writing on the sublime, places a wedge between the spatial (painting) and temporal arts (poetry). Indeed, space cannot be divorced from the critical conversation when we consider a work of literature as a cultural artifact, cue the “spatial turn” in the humanities. This turn, according to David J. Bodenhamer, “began with the pioneering work of social scientists such as Clifford Geertz, Erving Goffman, and Anthony Giddons and has been advanced in the humanities through the work of Michel Foucault, Michel de Certeau, Edward Said, and others whose investigation of space took the form of a focus on the ‘local’ and on context” (15). (A more detailed article on the “spatial turn” in the humanities is forthcoming). Spatial analytics allow humanists to explore memory, artifact, and experiences that occur in spaces and across time, but more importantly, I learned that GIS allows one to create a publishable text, and in some cases these digital texts carry a greater academic cultural capital that provide opportunities for junior scholars to publish a digital project in a more timely manner than is typical of academic print journal articles. This is precisely what I’m working towards with “Mapping the ‘Mighty City’: Wordsworth’s ‘Residence in London,’” so the next step for me is to explore (and exploit) the resources that we have at the university.  Fortunately for me and other budding spatial humanists, people like Luke Bergmann in the Geography department were hired for their expertise and innovation with GIS. It’s now a matter of taking that intensive training at DHSI and furthering it here with the resources available to us at UW. This, again, was one of the drawbacks I encountered upon returning from my first year at the institute: what resources were available to me regarding DH pedagogy? Who taught DH pedagogy?  I found that after learning about a specific DH tool, I was better prepared to put that knowledge to use and locate the network of resources available to assist me furthering this project.

But DHSI is much more than a classroom experience; there are unconferences, lightning presentations, and longer, more formal paper/project presentations, not to mention the lunchtime and dinner or tavern conversations. All of these events (both formal and informal) contribute to the uniqueness of DHSI, where the attendee can immerse herself in a constant flow of all things DH, find people working on similar projects and get inspired by those projects, in a friendly, non-hierarchical environment, where dean and graduate student, librarian and programmer come together to learn from each other and return to their home institutions with a new understanding of the resource networks available to them. Moreover, DHSI and DH has taught me that the solitary role of the graduate student in the humanities is a fate to which we do not have to resign ourselves, and I am discovering that some of my best work is coming out of these collaborative experiences and the process of re-imagining different ways to approach literary studies through other disciplines and technologies. But has this technology transformed my scholarship in a way that drastically sets me apart from other humanists? Of course not. DH does not transform the humanist into a Borg-like scholar, but instead can shows us the manifold nature of scholarship, and most importantly, it exposes the interdependence and deep integration of the disciplines, especially valuable in an era where the perception of the utility of the humanities is overshadowed by more pragmatic areas of study, such as engineering or business.  And though at times I felt like Neo as information was ceaselessly uploaded subject after subject for five days straight, I came away, this time, with a (developing) skill and several future collaborators with which to conspire, proving DHSI to be an invaluable experience–one I would recommend to any humanist, luddite or not.

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