The Digital Humanities: What It Has to Offer

First Impressions of the Digital Humanities

When I first learned that in English 203, we would be using the digital humanities to analyze Hamlet, my initial thought was fear. I have never been a technologically savvy person, and when I learned from the course syllabus that we would be spending the entire course focussing on the newfound digital side of the humanities, I cannot deny that I was fairly anxious about the course. The closest that I have ever come to using technology for English was when I used the online dictionary or thesaurus for some of my essays. My first thoughts about having to use computers for this course, was that we would have to be able to program software, or design tools that would help with picking out themes. Now that I look back at my initial responses, they seem ridiculous and far-fetched to me. The idea of actually having to program and design tools no doubt came from paranoia I had about computers, because I am so technologically inept. I was very comfortable analyzing literature the old fashioned way, with a text in one hand, and a pen in the other, so when change was mentioned, I got a little carried away with my ideas of what that change would bring. Fortunately, what we actually had to do was nothing like my far-fetched first impressions. The only thing that made my journey through English 203 a little more difficult than it should have been was that I was one of those lucky people that got chosen to use TAPoR as their tool. As I have mentioned in my previous blogs, TAPoR is very temperamental. It seems to work only when it feels like it, and only if you set it up in a specific way. The only way it worked, for me at least, was if you only used the tools that ended in (html). Otherwise, the only response you received was one of TAPoR’s multiple error messages.
As well as having specific conditions, I felt as though this program changed its mind quite a bit. What I mean by that is that if I tried to do something and it didn’t work, if I tried it a little bit later, it would work. An example of this would be when I first tried to use documents from My Texts instead of putting in the URL, it wouldn’t work. However, when I tried using the texts that I had saved in the program later on in phase one, TAPoR decided to co-operate, and I was able to actually obtain a result. Due to these specifications and issues TAPoR had, it is not surprising that in the beginning of phase one, I started to believe that you had to work for the tool, rather than with it. Instead of using the tool to help me, like I should have been doing, I was using the tool just because it was a necessary component for this course. After I had used TAPoR for the first few times, I felt as though in order to find any relevant results at all, I had to know what it was that I was looking for. Instead of using the tools to help me find themes and ideas within Hamlet, I more or less used the program to find evidence of those themes and ideas. During this part of the course, I honestly thought that the program was much more trouble than it was worth. Before I was introduced to TAPoR, I was perfectly able to delve into the depths of Hamlet the old fashioned way, using nothing more than a highlighter, pen, and my brain.

Growing with the Digital Humanities

After a while of having this pessimistic view of the Digital Humanities, I began to gain some respect for what TAPoR, and the rest of the digital tools we were using, could do. Going into the second phase of our team projects, I was able to see what the benefits of using online tools were. Though using TAPoR was definitely not my first choice of tools that I could have used, it appeared to be helpful in the end. Unsure of what to talk about in the final group project, I used one of the simpler tools that TAPoR provides to give me some ideas. The only thing that this tool was able to do was list the most used words in a specific text.

Though this task is not something a person would consider difficult, it did yield some very interesting results. After finding this piece of data, I was almost able to completely forgive TAPoR for its inability to co-operate and its incredibly large error message collection. In a former blog post, and in my final group project, I mentioned how finding this specific word at the top of the list inspired me to look deeper into the play. I have mentioned it again here because this was a pivotal moment for the Digital Humanities and I. This was the part of the course for me when I realized just how helpful the digital humanities can be. This program was able to show me something new, something I would have other wised missed if I had not used TAPoR. Even though, due to the opinions of my classmates and me, TAPoR was not the best tool, it was still able to provide me with information that I found interesting. It was this point in my research that I was able to fully understand the gift that is using online tools to do research. Later on into phase two, I also realized how helpful the other tools were. After TAPoR showed me to look into the use of the word “Lord” by Ophelia, Voyeur was able to show me how her use of the word declined as the story went on.
With these two results that the tools gave me, I was able to piece together the declination of Ophelia’s respectful attitude. This is something I honestly would have never noticed if I had not been able to use the tools that we were offered in this class, and it is information that I think is pretty important to the character of Ophelia. The use of these tools was definitely helpful, and I was able to see through this phase, how awesome the Digital Humanities can be.

Digital Humanities: Important, but not quite “Game-Changing”

After finishing phase two of this course, I started to believe in the power of the Digital Humanities. Being much faster and much more efficient than the old school way of highlighting and going through the text to count how many times a word is used, the use of online tools helps us to reach or end goal of comprehension in a much shorter time period. That is why, on the last day of class, I chose to side with the people fighting for the digital, rather than those fighting for the classic way.

In this last debate, it was interesting to see what other peoples honest thoughts were about the digital humanities. There were many conspiracy theories about how in the future, about how there will be no books, only people reading with their kindle or ipad, and about how children are going to grow up without ever having seen a book. Missing out on the ability to truly look into the novel or play they must read for class, these children will grow up never knowing what the true meaning of analyzing literature is. Although these aren’t the exact words the team against the Digital Humanities used, it is a feeling of fear that seems to be shared by quite a few people. In the blog Game Change: Digital Technology and Performative Humanities by Tom Scheinfeldt, he talks about how many people refer to the introduction of the digital humanities as a complete “Game Change”. Tom Sheinfeldt defines the phrase “game change” as something that redefines the original action, and an entirely different action (or game) is produce. He does this in the terms of baseball, the game in which this term was first used. After Babe Ruth changed the game with his ability to score homeruns in the likes that no one had ever seen before, baseball players needed different skills from the previous ones in order to successfully play this new game.
He then goes on to talk about how with this definition, there is nothing game changing about the new usage of digital humanities. Although it is new, and is in a format never seen before, online tools are used for the same purpose and to the same end that previous ways of text analyses have been used. With this new and advanced system of text analysis, the objectives stay the same. We look for important words or phrases, or different things that have been used in conjunction with each other often. These searches that we do, the items that we look for in a text, stay the same. The only difference in the way we used to analyze something, compared to how we analyze it now, is that we are making the research work for the time period we live in. With today’s technology, we are able to do everything that we have always done, but in an easier and more efficient way that is better for everyone. Being able to use today’s technology does not change what we have always been doing, but rather adapts our process to today’s society. If, in the future, kids grow up learning how to analyze texts through these online programs instead of learning on paper the way we have, not much will have changed. The will still be looking for things people have always searched for, but they will be doing it in a way that is more familiar to them and to their generation.

Concluding thoughts about the digital humanities

As I have mentioned above, I definitely went into English 203 with some doubts and some fears as to what we would be doing. I had grown accustomed to reading and searching within a text the classic way, and I am not the kind of person to accept change into their life with open arms. This is most likely why so many people believe that the digital humanities is, for lack of better words, such a big deal. The idea of change is terrifying to people who are used to doing something a specific way. This initial dislike of change mixed with the terrifying reality of our world becoming more and more dependent on technology would have a lot of people speculating about the involvement of computers in literary research. They also might be skeptical of the idea of being replaced by a computer, as I was at the beginning. The thought that a computer was able to do what I was able to, but in a faster and more direct was, was also a little insulting. However, as I grew accustomed to my online tool, and what it had to offer, I started to accept the idea that the digital humanities aren’t as scary as they seem. Though TAPoR was able to help me with a few different things, like showing me what to look for, and giving me statistics, it was in no way the overwhelming technological experience that I had feared. While the computer was able to do all of the quantitative research, I was the one who was doing all of the qualitative work. While it is extremely useful and handy to have a computer to do the grunt work for you, without the insight and thoughts of the person doing the research, all you would have would be a bunch of numbers. So, even though I agree that the digital humanities make research much more straightforward, I do not believe that it is the most important part of literary research. In other terms, even with the addition of this new resource, the game of text analysis has not changed all that much.

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