Novel™

August 28, 2014

I’m very pleased to be a part of a new project called Novel™ (text mining the novel – I love the project name), a SSHRC-funded initiative led by Andrew Piper. I consider this to be a bit of a dream team, with many colleagues I admire greatly. The project summary reads like this:

This partnership seeks to produce the first large-scale cross-cultural study of the novel according to quantitative methods. Ever since its putative rise in the eighteenth century, the novel has emerged as a central means of expressing what it means to be modern. And yet despite this cultural significance, we still lack a comprehensive study of the novel’s place within society that accounts for the vast quantity of novels produced since the eighteenth century, the period most often identified as marking the origins of the novel’s quantitative rise. Our aim is thus twofold: 1) to enliven our understanding of one of the most culturally significant modern art forms according to new computational means, and 2) to establish the methodological foundations of a new disciplinary formation. Text mining is arguably one of the most important fields driving growth, innovation, and even citizenship within a modern information economy. This partnership seeks to bring the unique knowledge of literary studies to bear on larger debates about text mining and the place of information technology within society. In so doing, it will impact how we think about the nature of reading and the way we increasingly access our cultural heritage today

As part of the project launch I was asked to respond to a few questions, and (since I don’t seem to be blogging much these days) I’ll reproduce my answers below:

Q. You are building a new lab with funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. What is it called and what are your goals for it?

My new lab is called the “Scalable Humanities Analytics and Visualization Lab” (SHAVLAB) and its main focus is to design, develop and use tools that facilitate the navigation between reading of individual texts and interactions with much larger collections of texts. Underlying this initiative is a belief that so-called close and distant reading practices both have their strengths and that developing hybrid approaches that combine them might be very generative for interpretive work in the humanities.

Q. What are your goals for the NovelTM project?

At one level NovelTM seems like an ideal context for experimenting with hybrid analytic approaches. We still have a lot to learn about interpretive analysis at various scales, and especially about developing methodologies that allow for flexible movement between different scales, so the NovelTM project, with its focus on variable geometries of text collections, represents an ideal testbed. My focus continues to be on the development of digital tools for humanists, but my experience has been that those efforts are most effective and rewarding when guided directly by real research questions on specific text collections.

Q. What is your vision for how DH will develop in the next five years?

Digital humanities has seen incredible growth in the past five years or so and I don’t see any signs of that slowing in the short term. I think some of the organizations I’ve had the pleasure of working with in the past 15 or so years have played an important role in providing a stable and visible structure for the growth, but we should probably also admit that the growth has partly occurred for reasons beyond our influence and control. Once upon a time DH organizations were crucial for DH, I’m not sure that’s as much the case now. In many ways that may be the best measure of our success. The overall health of DH also provides the organizations with an opportunity to devote more energy on specific initiatives.

The explosive growth of DH means more unpredictability (and probably more frictions as identities and resources continue to be negotiated), but I see a couple of trends continuing. First, continued efforts to develop a variety of strategies for training students and researchers to be more familiar with digital perspectives and methodologies. There will remain a huge deficit in expertise until the digital is better integrated into academic programs in the humanities, not only in specialized silos. Statistics tend to be a core part of the curriculum in the social sciences, what might be the equivalent in the humanities? I’m actually not at all convinced there’s a clean, universal answer to that question given the variety of digital humanities research out there, but I do know that the digital needs to be much better integrated into existing curricula. Easier said than done given the institutional realities of how academia, but we can start my multiplying the number and types of training opportunities, from workshops and institutes to dedicated DH degrees.

A second, very promising aspect is the development of DH in various regions of the world. Research really is shaped by local circumstances and cultures, and digital humanities is enriched by that diversity. This isn’t about pushing existing conceptions of DH into every corner of the world, but rather, about discovery and sharing, as exemplified by the GO:DH (globaloutlookdh.org) initiative.

Lastly for now, it’s my hope that digital humanists become even more engaged with advocacy efforts. As humanists, it’s in all our interests to counter the prevailing rhetoric about the value and significance about the work we do, for our own sake, but also for the sake of society. We are essential to the global economy of knowledge, even more so as human interactions continue to prove to be nuanced and complex in ways that resist robust models. This is what DH-based advocacy groups like 4Humanities.org, StuHum.org, and DHMakerBus.com are about, and I hope those groups will strengthen and expand.

Q. What are you teaching this coming semester?

This fall I’m teaching LLCU-212 “Understanding Social and Digital Media”, which is intended as a very broad survey for Arts students who are seeking a better understanding of some of the conceptual and technical underpinnings of our digital society. The second course is LLC-311 “Digital Studies / Citizenry” which in some ways is a continuation of the first course, with more emphasis on having students become creators of effective digital content, and in particular in conveying arguments through interactive visualizations. An Arts degree provides all kinds of valuable knowledge and skills, these courses are intended to complement those assets in ways that empower students to understand and produce compelling digital content.

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