This is Not About Conformity

They say the definition of insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results.  If this is true, can literary scholars/analysts be classified as insane? Surly not! However, resisting the Digital Humanities efforts to analyze old texts in new ways is most certainly, insane.  The Digital Humanities encompasses a truly revolutionary method of textual analysis by, to put it simply, using computers to study books.  This is an initially intimidating but ultimately fascinating idea.

As a self-professed book-lover, I was, admittedly, skeptical of using a computer to analyze a text.  However, knowing our class would be studying such a historic text (Shakespeare’s Hamlet) I was interested to see how two seemingly opposite worlds could be fused together. Are books and computers even remotely compatible?

The Beginning: A Little Background

As it turns out, books and computers are most certainly compatible! Throughout the past four months, the Digital Humanities has proven itself by providing an array of highly enriching insight as a reward to having an open mind.  As a preliminary example supporting my theory, I would like to draw on a comment made by a classmate of mine, Ruby. In the closing discussions of the English 203 seminar, Ruby mentioned she had previously studied Hamlet four times, in an academic setting. However, it was not until her most recent analysis of the text, integrated with the Digital Humanities, that she discovered new elements. This is because Digital Humanities tools search text in a different way. They conduct searches too time consuming and, frankly, too boring, to do by hand.  Thus, revealing new insights traditional analysis simply cannot, sanely, begin to explore.

That being said, there is a balance to strike.  Digital Humanities tools are useless without a thorough understanding of the text you wish to analyze. To quote Dr. Michael Ullyot, it is about “taking a stupid computer, and telling it to do smart things”.  If you haven’t read the text, you simply won’t have anything smart to tell it to do, ultimately rendering the analysis tool useless and you, well…lazy.

This, I now understand, is precisely why the first portion of the term was dedicated to studying Hamlet “un-plugged” No computers allowed.  After being presented with a steady Hamlet platform, Digital Humanities became less intimidating and increasingly intriguing.

The Middle: Phase One

For Phase One of the Digital Humanities aspect of this class, we were divided into groups of five and designated the “experts” or rather “soon-to-be” experts of one of five tools:

  1. Wordseer
  2. Wordhoard
  3. Ta POR
  4. Monk
  5. Voyeur

As a member of the Wordseer group, I was excited, but perhaps a little nervous, still. What kind of things would we be able to find? Would any of it mean anything?

After a couple hours of acquainting myself with this new-to-me tool I discovered a number of helpful searches available to me via, Wordseer. With fuctions such as “Read and Annotate”, “Heat Maps”, “Word Frequencies”, and “Word Trees” the
results you pull are truly, endless.

This portion of the term enabled me to become comfortable with my tool, and ready to sink my teeth into Hamlet – the text we had already studied “un-plugged”. For more on Phase One, you can read about it from my point of view on my blog

The Middle: Phase Two

After scrambling the students in our class perfectly, five new groups were created -holding an “expert” from each tool and assigned a specific act to focus analysis on.  I was assigned a member of the “Act One” group. In my first Phase Two blog, I wrote about how I was concerned and possibly a little bit jealous of other students with seemingly  juicer acts to tackle. Ultimately, I decided to view my act as a challenge – a “Literary Where’s Waldo” if you will.

We, as a group, decided to focus on character development as a central theme of Act One analysis. In a previous post of mine, I discussed the division of characters and exactly how we set out our “Plan of Attack” (P.O.A). I worked on the
character, Horatio. An interesting aspect I chose to focus on is his friendship with Hamlet. This is where the Digital Humanities really came into play for me. For example, examine this quote:


          Hail to your lordship. I am glad to see you well


          Horatio, or do I forget myself.


          The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.


          Sir, my good friend, I’ll change that name with you.

This excerpt strikes me a highly interesting. It seems that for someone who is portrayed throughout the play to be Hamlet’s only trusted friend, they have not known each other for long. Hamlet actually checks to make sure he has remembered Horatio’s name. Intrigued by this idea, I decided to dip into the tool, Voyeur, with the help of my group’s Voyeur expert, Ruby.

After conducting a few simple searches, we uncovered something I found significant. Throughout the plays entirety, Hamlet only uses the word “friend” fifteen times. Eleven times, the word is used in a sarcastic, facetious tone while speaking to or of the characters Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius. The remaining four times (all occurring in Act One) it is used while speaking to or of Horatio, all in a genuine tone.

Voyeur Charts



Why is this important or significant? Because for someone so unfamiliar to Hamlet (having to check his name), Horatio is proving himself, subtly, to be an important element of the play, all before act two begins.

If it is true that everything a writer writes is intentional, is it possible that Shakespeare was, subtly, very subtly, setting Horatio up as the character to “win” in the end? Despite his lack-of-presence throughout the middle of the play (as displayed/compared with Hamlet in the above graph) Horatio ultimately come out on top, fooling, I assume, most readers/viewers.


The End New Beginning: The Digital and the Humanities

As I have come to find, The Digital and The Humanities can more than co-exist in our world. Together they can thrive.  In the true interest of knowledge, in the true interest of academia, is there anything wrong with expanding the traditional methods we have so comfortably subscribed to? I would have to answer: no. In the interest of learning more, how can utilizing every resource available be wrong?

With an entire community of Digital Humanists out there, The Digital Humanities is an exciting and fresh element of out over-technologically-dependent society.  You know what they say, “If you can’t beat em’, join them!” however, this is not about conformity – rather it is about a sort of unity.  In a previous post of mine, I wrote about how shocked I was to learn the creator of Wordseer, Adidti Muralidharan, was actually reading our blogs!

Holy Crap Squared

I understand that when I click “publish” I am putting my work out there for anyone to view; however, the impact was lost on me. This is, until messages from Berkley, California started surfacing in response to blogs posted on the
topic of Wordseer. Unity.

The World of Digital Humanities is so much larger than it may first appear. Initially, I was under the impression that Digital Humanities covered only the study of literary works for purposes similar to mine – expanding a text, digging deeper into a story, etc. Upon further research, however, I have discovered that Digital Humanities encompasses a much larger scope of research and analysis. It reaches into other fields of the humanities such as Psychology, Sociology, and even History.

Skeptics of the Digital Humanities offer that online sources cannot be trusted. As Anita Guerrini, the author of the article,“Analyzing Culture with Google Books: is it a Social Science? writes “I was immediately struck by what seems to me to be a fundamental flaw in its methodology: its reliance on Google Books for its sample.” I have to admit, I disagree with this statement entirely. I do not understand how using a tool as universal as Google, can be described as a “fundamental flaw”. The word has become a verb due its popularity! (Example: “What is Google? Oh I’ll just Google it!”)

While, admittedly, the Digital Humanities is still in its up-and-coming phase, it is through using tools such as Google Books, (capable of housing a limitless amount of analysis material) that Digital Humanists will be able to continue forward. Expanding, and ultimately uniting academics and scholars with common interests and goals across the globe.

Anita continues “The authors equate size with representativeness and quantity of data with rigor. I am not sure that is true… But some of the results are simply banal”. I have to agree with her…partially. Some of the results I personally came across were boring, pointless, or even misleading all together. This is where the quantitative, scientific values of the Digital meet the qualitative, intuitive values of the Humanities.

Part of using the tools provided by the Digital Humanities is determining what is important, what is new, what is exciting! Users sift through results much the same way texts are analyzed with red pen, stick-notes, and highlighters. This is why I strongly believe the future of Digital Humanities involves a balance both. Books and computers, together.

Further into her article, Anita comments “Perhaps most disturbing to me is the underlying assumptions of such work about the humanities and about what scholars in the humanities do. One assumption is that the humanities need to be more like science and that we need to be more like scientists — that quantitative knowledge is the only legitimate knowledge and that humanities scholars are therefore not “rigorous.” I understand her point of view in terms of the pressures
surrounding the “legitimacy” of the humanities; however, I do not feel as though this is the time to be territorial.

We live in a world where our cars talk to us and where people can carry 2000+ songs around in the pocket of their jeans. We live in a technical world. Is it possible the whispers…or screams, calling the humanities pretentious is related to the social science’s unwillingness to change? For the sake of academia, or research, or simply for the sake of curiosity, why not give the Digital Humanities a try?

The trick to hacking the Digital Humanities lies in the approach. As I mentioned earlier, without a thorough understanding of the material you are analyzing, the digital can offer you nothing. Is it possible that books are not better than computers and that computer are similarly no better than books in regards to yielding the most insightful results? I think so. Perhaps, the ultimate method lies in a combination of the two, a mixture of the traditional and the modern.

When the Humanities can learn to play nice, the resources available to them will be, virtually, inconceivable.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *