The Bridge Over Troubled (Digital Humanities) Waters

My Evolving Perspective

Four months ago, I thought I had a sense of how one usually studies a work of Shakespeare: you read the text, read all the footnotes, occasionally pull out the highlighter or scribble some notes down here and there.  After completing English 203, it’s safe to say that I really can’t imagine going back to studying a Shakespearean text by only doing a close reading of the text.

I’ve now been exposed to this new, exciting concept of digital humanities, and in my mind things can go nowhere but up from here.  I’m not trying to be cheesy when I say this, but digital humanities genuinely gets me excited about studying a Shakespearean text.  Although we are still at the beginning stages of this form of study, I truly believe it has so much potential for the future.  I used to almost dread studying a new Shakespearean play because I would usually read the whole thing and often need a lot of external help to grasp the main concepts.  I would borrow study guides from the library, watch the films, everything.  But now with digital humanities tools and the masses of opinions and findings posted online, I can tap into a vast ocean of information that can further my learning effectively with a few clicks of the mouse.

Movement vs. Extension?

Many scholars such as Ted Underwood and Feisal Mohamed have begun to argue, however, that “digital humanities is not a movement” but a “natural extension of the work that bibliographers have always done”. You can find a list of articles and different opinions on this subject by going to Digital Humanities As A Literary Studies Movement: Editors Choice Round-Up. I agree with the statements made by Underwood and Mohamed.  Just because we now have the technological ability to obtain all sorts of data from a text, it does not mean we should completely abandon the text as a whole or forget where the text came from in the first place. We also now have the ability to share our findings online with the world. Mohamed touches more on the role of digital humanities in his blog post, “Can There Be a Digital Humanism?” and I would like to use the rest of this blog post to express my feelings in response to his opinions on this subject and also share what I think the role of digital humanities should look like based on my experiences with it in English 203.

I just wanted to add a comment here about how much the internet truly is affecting humanities. As you can see above, there are at least five different ways in which you can read or respond to Mohamed’s thoughts. These social networking outlets like blogging, Facebook, and Twitter allow so many more minds to be connected and thoughts about humanities to be shared to a wider audience through the power of the internet.

Back to the article, Mohamed speaks in agreement with Underwood in saying that digital humanities is not a movement because “it does not offer to reshape the ideas that we carry into our reading of texts and cultures; it offers instead a new and powerful set of tools available to a broad range of existing critical approaches”.

The Tools of Focus for English 203:

  1. WordHoard
  2. WordSeer
  3. TapOr
  4. Voyeur
  5. Monk

The concepts that we base our hypotheses off of when applying tools such asthese to a play such as Hamlet are not brand new concepts.  The tools do not magically reveal themes to us if we have no prior context or understanding of the play.  These plays have been studied and analyzed for many, many years, and without the help of digital humanities tools such as these.  The sudden incorporation of digital humanities tools should not determine the thoughts we have while reading these original texts, but simply help enhance our understandings and reach further in what we already know.

Our Method in Applying the Online Tools

We decided as a group during Phase 2 of the course that we would each pick a character from Hamlet and use our tools in a collaborative fashion to learn more about them.  I analyzed the Ghost’s character, which was a challenge with WordHoard alone, as I was the so-called WordHoard “expert”, but I was able to use in in combination with the other tools to help me. You can read about what I found in my post here.

For example, analyzing Hamlet by hand versus by, say, WordHoard is not impossible but the time consumption it would take to find every instance the word “mad” is used in the play is exponential compared to the 3.2 seconds it takes WordHoard to do it. It also gives me the context of every instance of the word, so I can read the direct quotes relating to Hamlet’s madness instantly such as Polonius’ quote “that he is mad, tis true” (2.2.97) and Gertrude’s infamous realization, “Alas! He’s mad!” (3.4.106). I talk more about using WordHoard’s efficient word-finding abilities for my study of Hamlet in my blog post here. We are living in a new century of efficiency and convenience, and digital humanities is only building on that, extending the processes that scholars have been using for the past century and enhancing it. It’s just like an automatic door; there’s no reason we couldn’t open the door ourselves, as people have been doing for centuries, but technology has advanced in our world today so that we don’t have to manually do as much.  This of course not necessary, but it’s the world we have grown accustomed to.

Applying the Digital Humanities “Bridge” to the Study of Hamlet

No matter how much data a tool can deliver, it is the human mind that makes the connections and helps create a bridge between the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the tool.  With Hamlet, one has to understand the story before plugging in words or drawing out data from the tools to get results that are of quality interest.

This was something my group learned first hand while analyzing the play and I believe it is a perfect example of why digital humanities is more of a natural extension than a movement.  We had all read Hamlet prior to working with the online tools, so we had some ideas about what we wanted to use the tools for. My group member who was studying Horatio found something with her tool, WordSeer, that she had never noticed while simply reading the text.  It showed her Horatio was related to the word “overlooked”.

She took this as a sign that Horatio must have been overlooked in the play, which would in any other context would be a rational assumption.  I had had a lot of success in finding informative details about Hamlet by simply searching certain words and seeing how many times they occurred and where they occurred in the play with WordHoard.  I helped her use WordHoard to search the word “friend” spoken by Hamlet and see how many times he referred to Horatio as a friend, continuing with the idea of Horatio being overlooked.

She gathered the numbers and information she needed, which you can read about in her post here, and used it to prove her hypothesis in our final presentation.  The problem that arose, however, was that we trusted WordSeer as a tool to tell us too much.  The hypothesis she had became discredited when the WordSeer developer, Aditi, and Dr. Ullyot pointed out that the context of the word “overlooked” was not in the way that she had assumed when obtaining her results.

The tools gave her a false impression about the word “overlooked”, and the only way she could have known for sure what the true meaning and context was was to go back to the original text and read it for herself.  I decided to use WordHoard to see exactly what the context of the word “overlooked” was in the play and found the quote to be Horatio reading a letter to himself from Hamlet, it reading “Horatio, when thou shalt have overlooked this, give these fellows some means to the king” (4.6.11).  In my Norton Shakespeare Anthology, there is a footnote on the word “overlooked” and it says it is another word for “read”.  It’s amazing to me that by simply taking things back to the actual book, such confusion could have been easily avoided.

She finishes off a reply to Aditi and Dr. Ullyot after our presentation with a quote that couldn’t be more true: “I suppose this is the first lesson of the Digital Humanities: ALWAYS be sure you are using reliable sources before getting excited!“ I can’t think of a better first hand example displaying the issue Mohamed raises in his blog post than this.

Concluding Thoughts

We directly experienced the importance of the bridge between the human mind and the digital, quantitative aspect of the tools.  We cannot simply trust the computer to tell us what to think.  It can gives us information that allows us to further understand what we already know, but it cannot operate the other way around.  It is a little bit scary to see what the tools are capable of and what problems they could cause in the future.  Writing is an art form, it needs to be understood and interpreted with proper context, and without that one can get a completely false impression about what the text what saying.  This is why we must use this new concept of digital humanities as a stepping-stone, and way to enhance our analysis, rather than abandoning the very text it was originally based on.  To once again quote Mohamed in his blog post, “digital humanities projects often say that they are innovating the way we investigate texts and cultures, though that innovation arises from a set of technological tools rather than an intellectual position” and to that he adds that “the kind of humanism that seems to me to be most valuable at present is that which fully disarticulates innovation and progress; which makes visible the limits of the ideology surrounding technology.” Computers can do incredible things, but they cannot be compared to the human mind.

Again, I do not want to come across as cheesy when discussing my new-found interest in the digital humanities world, but I genuinely believe I learned a lot this semester in English 203.  I was exposed to a whole new aspect of studying literature that I previously had no clue existed, and I am leaving this course hoping to continue my use of digital humanities as an aid my future literary studies.  As my group learned first hand, I am aware that one cannot solely depend on these new digital humanities tools to get you through a course about Shakespeare, or any other text for that matter, but I am 100% certain that collaborating my base knowledge of the original text with these online tools helped me understand way more about Hamlet than I ever would have by only doing a close-reading of the text.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Norton Shakespeare Essential Plays and Sonnets. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2009. Print.

One thought on “The Bridge Over Troubled (Digital Humanities) Waters

  1. I enjoyed this post quite a bit. One of the things that the digital tools here mentioned will allow us to do is mine a good deal more than canonical texts like _Hamlet_–so we can ask not just where ‘mad’ appears in the play, but where it appears between 1595 and 1605 in all English texts. That is powerful.
    But what’s effective here is sustaining a distinction between powerful tools and powerful ideas, which I think is essential to maintaining the humanistic style of thought.

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