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Scholar peers inside technology's 'black box'

Through the emerging field of dig­ital human­i­ties, researchers are uncov­ering more and more fas­ci­nating infor­ma­tion about old texts and mate­rials using advanced com­puting tools such as data visu­al­iza­tion and text mining. For example, it’s not uncommon for a scholar to inves­ti­gate the com­par­ison between the use of a par­tic­ular word in prose and poetry, and how its meaning has changed over time.

But that’s just the half of it, according to renowned dig­ital humanist Julia Flan­ders, who joined North­eastern this summer as a pro­fessor of the prac­tice and whose inter­dis­ci­pli­nary schol­ar­ship includes an appoint­ment in the Depart­ment of Eng­lish and lead­er­ship of the Uni­ver­sity Libraries’ Dig­ital Schol­ar­ship Group. For Flan­ders, this research also lends insight into how these com­puting tools shape the way we think. “There is a really inter­esting inter­play between how dig­ital rep­re­sen­ta­tions and dig­ital media shape infor­ma­tion and how we as readers and thinkers shape infor­ma­tion,” she explained.

“One of the really valu­able things dig­ital human­i­ties does is open the lid on that black box,” she added. “This is espe­cially impor­tant in edu­ca­tion, because that’s the moment at which we become inquis­i­tive about things.”

Flan­ders leads two dynamic dig­ital human­i­ties endeavors that explore these topics. She directs the Women Writers Project, a long-​​term research ini­tia­tive devoted to early modern women’s writing and elec­tronic text coding with a par­tic­ular focus on making texts by pre-​​Victorian women broadly acces­sible for teaching and research. She is also the editor-​​in-​​chief of Dig­ital Human­i­ties Quar­terly, an open-​​access, peer-​​reviewed, dig­ital journal that pub­lishes arti­cles, edi­to­rials, exper­i­ments in inter­ac­tive media, and reviews of books, sites, and new media tools and systems.

Flan­ders has trans­ferred both projects to North­eastern. The Women Writers Project is sup­ported by grants from the National Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties to run work­shops on schol­arly text encoding and study the recep­tion and read­er­ship of early modern women’s writing. Recent DHQ issues, mean­while, have cov­ered sub­jects such as the future of dig­ital studies and the begin­nings of com­puting in the human­i­ties; the forth­coming issue, among other topics, will tackle the com­plexity of comics and comic books.

Flan­ders is excited to con­tinue this work at North­eastern and hopes it will lead to new fac­ulty col­lab­o­ra­tions and experiential-​​learning oppor­tu­ni­ties for both grad­uate and under­grad­uate students.

Dig­ital human­i­ties, she said, dove­tails with the university’s emphasis on com­bining class­room learning and real-​​world expe­ri­ence. “The inter­sec­tion of theory and prac­tice is an impor­tant aspect of the dig­ital human­i­ties,” Flan­ders said, “and the best way to learn is through thoughtful practice.”

– By Greg St. Martin

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