Honestly, before I began English 203 this semester I had never heard Â the term Digital Humanities before (crazy, I know!).Â After taking a four month long course on the Digital Humanities, I can say that this form of learning will most likely be the future for most English majors. Using the internet to write blogs, show visuals, and share information within seconds is an incredible way to spread new information worldwide. Within the course of a year I have skyped with a journalist in New York, corresponded with a program developer at Berkley University, and reviewed an article by a writer at a University in Ireland; all in an English classroom in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. This type of connection is what has changed the humanities to a digital atmosphere, collaborating with individuals worldwide. My argument for this post stems from the question: How do the digital humanities strengthen our knowledge of previously read texts?
Have we forgotten about Shakespeare?Â
For our course on the digital humanities we definitely did something unique. Reading a play written by William Shakespeare in 1600, and using a computer program tool designed for the 21st century to analyze it. Every English major, scholar, or high school student, knows the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.Â When we were asked to once again analyze Hamlet, I was sceptical at the possible outcomes. Honestly, how many times can you go over a play and still find new information? Letâ€™s just say, I was wrong. Over the course of thirteen weeks, I learned more about Hamlet then I ever knew before. It was not just the story and theme of the play, but the writing, word choice, and context of words used. Every aspect of analyses of this play was done online, by use of the digital humanities. Now I am not saying that I never had to use the hard copy of the play, because I did.Â As I mentioned in my fifth blog postÂ I do not think it would be possible to analyze a playâ€”especially Shakespeareâ€”without having read the actual text. Yes, you could extract the main themes, and guess a basic plot line based on the word and character usage, but reading the play is the only way to have all of the background information needed to understand it.
We began the course by simply reading Hamlet individually and discussed our findings in class. Once again I was shocked how much new information I was learning from my classmates. Group discussions took place and we came up with an incredible amount of new insights into Hamlet. Using evidence from the play these are just some of the ideas we came up with:
- At first glance Gertrude comes off as a minor character with little personality. However she is surrounded by a number of questions which make her a major influence on the plot of the play. Why canâ€™t she see the Ghost? Did she marry Claudius for love or power? What is her relationship with Hamlet, besides being his mother?
- Characters use different words, comparisons, and sentences in their own unique way. For example Laertes often associates with the body and soul. When speaking to Ophelia he states: â€œâ€¦safety and health of this whole stateâ€¦Unto the voice and yielding of that body/Whereof he is the head,â€ (1.3.20-23)
- Hamlet often speaks of life, death, heaven, and hell, especially during soliloquies. Could these speeches foreshadow the events of the play?
â€œO all you host of heaven, O earthâ€”what else?â€”And shall I couple hell? O fie! Hold, hold, my heart, and you, my sinews, grow not instant old/But bear me swiftly up. Remember thee?â€ (1.5.92-95).
Okay, so now we know the play and have analyzed it using nothing but our brains and a good old-fashioned book. That being said, how can our knowledge be strengthened by the digital humanities?
WordSeer and the Digital Humanities
For the second part of the course we were split into groups and were assigned digital humanities tools designed to analyze texts. My tool was WordSeer, a Berkeley created program with multiple features used for analyzing Shakespeare. For meâ€”or anyone not familiar with text analysis programsâ€”beginning a presentation based on a computer program is kind of intimidating. I did not know where to begin, so I started playing around with the site and its capabilities with Hamlet. Not to sound too humble or anything, but soon enough I became a pro at using WordSeer. The interface is simple to use and understand, Shakespeareâ€™s entire corpus is readily available, and the collections function allows you to save your work frequently and efficiently. Â All of these features and detailed descriptions can be found in my first blog post: Could WordSeer be the simplest word analyzing program?
Now to discuss what I actually discovered using WordSeer.
All of us who have read Hamlet know most of the main themes: betrayal, revenge, and madness. But how can we prove these are themes? How many times are the words revenge or madness even mentioned in Hamlet? This is obviously not something that can easily be done using a highlighter. Why not use a digital tool that includes word counts, frequencies, and visuals to represent information in a different way? WordSeer has all of these functions including the ability to isolate and analyze a single scene or act. Very convenient!
So, once again, how can you tell if something is a common theme in a text using a digital tool? You find the word frequency of course! I think every group at some point searched for the word revenge in Hamlet using their digital tools. Finding the main themes of a play is essential when analyzing a text, and being able to isolate those words is pretty important. Digital tools are created to find these words within seconds.
Digital Humanities Now
In Mike Cosgraveâ€™s blog post, A Broader Digital Humanities,Â he asks three questions based on the perspective of the student: How do digital tools enhance research led pedagogy? How do digital tools facilitate research led â€˜peeragogyâ€™? and What new questions can I ask using digital tools? As an English student I feel as if I can answer these questions honesty and accurately.
- How do digital tools enhance research led pedagogy?
This was a question I was trying to answer over the course of the semester. I also think this blog â€”and most of my other postsâ€”does a good job of explaining it. We began the course by finding new and interesting facts about Hamlet through the digital tools we were assigned. This led to new discoveries and easier findings then just reading through the text. For example we were able to find out that the word know appears in Act Two of Hamlet 35 times. How long would it have taken if we were just using the text itself? Being able to search for words within a text and find them with the click of a button is pretty incredible compared to the hours it would take to find them on your own. These tools allow students to look at literature differently: in terms of quantitative versus qualitative and objective versus subjective views. Â In conclusion, digital tools enhance learning by cutting down the amount of time it could take to actually do research and spend more time on the actual assignment/question.
2. How do digital tools facilitate research led â€˜peeragogyâ€™?
First of all I looked up the word â€œpeeragogyâ€ with no results (maybe someone should add it to Wikipedia? Make some money off the invention of a new word?). What I am assuming Mike Cosgrave meant by this term is student-led research and student-led research questions (feel free to correct me if I am wrong!). For me this question is easy to answer. We worked on two group projects this semester, bothâ€”for the most partâ€”led by the students. We came up with our own questions for each presentation andâ€”based on our toolsâ€”what we wanted to focus on. For these reasons using a digital tool helped our group collaboration because we were able to share our information online and each find different results. Â To conclude, digital tools can facilitate student based research by simplifying the research process and broadening the scope of the information found and shared.
3.What new questions can I ask using digital tools?
One of the first things I discovered when using WordSeer was that no question was too broad and no answer too narrow. The possibilities of just using WordSeer are endless, let alone the four other text analyzing tools we researched. One of the main differences I found using these prgrams was the shift from qualitative thinking to quantitative thinking. I am going to re-use a picture I used on my previous post because it does a great job of explaining what I am talking about (and it looks pretty!):
To sum everything up, the digital tools used in the digital humanities establish new questions based on a different way of thinking: more left-brain than right-brain theory, data versus opinion, and numeric versus artistic.
So, to answer your question Mike, yes I think the sciences use digital tools for data and research; the humanities are using this technology in a different way. To come up with new ideas, find information quicker, and present our findings in a different way than the past thousand or so years. This is what the digital humanities are based on and this is what humanities and social science classes have to look forward to.
So is this the future of the digital humanities? One which includes both social sciences and science courses? Â Could the future of paperback books be in danger? Since basically everything can now be done using technology, why would anyone need a copy of a text to physically hold and read, as opposed to getting several versions of the same text online? As I finish my final blog post of this course I have come to two conclusions regarding the digital humanities and English courses. Firstly, if everything is moving away from books and towards technology, are the digital humanities the only way English courses can stay relevant and available? Secondly, with all the research and analysis of material needed in humanities classes, are the digital humanities just a faster way of gaining the same information? The content is already available, but the time we have to find it is not. I have no explanations to either of these questions, but I am sure within the next few years we will all get our answer.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor: London, 2006. Print. The Arden Shakespeare.