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The humanities go digital

  • Published at 06:45 pm November 19th, 2017
  • Last updated at 12:25 am November 20th, 2017
The humanities go digital
Once, in one of my talks, I used “algorithm of scholarship” as a catch-phrase. I do not know how catchy it was to the audience, but it really made me think about how our scholars do what they do. The inquisitiveness was mainly due to the fact that I needed to prepare a presentation on a concept called “digital humanities” -- something which has the potential to change the way we study subjects like literature, public health, anthropology, and so on. There is a chance here to unlock new dimensions of ideas and perspectives in which research is conducted in our country. Algorithms of scholarship  Data, database, and metadata are the initial concepts with which we can begin the application of digital humanities. Web repositories nowadays are the primary sources of information for researchers, and with the information they find on the internet, they form their own repository of digital information called a database. Researchers also go to libraries when web searches fail to give adequate results. All modern libraries have an LIS (library integrated system) with multiple APIs (application program interface -- a system of pulling data from external website /databases) of reputed journals. Information from the data is used to mold respective analyses. The extracted information from the data is called “metadata,” and use of the data and the metadata executes the actual alchemy of digital humanities. To understand it better, let me refer to the theory of multiple intelligence by Howard Gardener, that tells us about how one’s cognitive capacity is attributed to different intelligence levels, which allow us to interpret or perceive the world through language, logical-mathematical analysis, spatial representation, the use of the body to solve problems, or to make things. Most researchers of literature or the social sciences use language-based intelligence or linguistic intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence to analyse their data. Now, imagine representing perspectives in such a way that it caters to all the intelligence levels of the researchers. Will they not come up with much deeper, comprehensive, and versatile findings? Thesis presentations and research work Let us explore this idea with an example: Suppose a researcher is studying women’s empowerment in Shakespearean plays. He or she has gathered tons of data, and by using data-mining software, the researcher has created a pie chart of all the categories of play, where it shows that 30% of the plays have prominent female protagonists.
Instead of writing a paper the traditional way, what if a researcher has the option of making a video that covers the entire work?
By this, the researcher can get a sense of the significance of female characters. From this 30%, suppose the researcher wants to delve into empowered roles of female protagonists, and to do so, the researcher can again use data-mining software to narrow down research by using appropriate keywords. Doing so, the researcher can pinpoint the very instances in plays (such as dialogue) which are relevant to women’s empowerment. Some software can also show the frequency of those keywords cumulatively (within that 30%), so the researcher can now get a sense of how conflict management has shaped the female protagonists in those plays. Much of this software is available for free online, and there are elaborate tutorials on YouTube on it. The benefits After the analysis, when the researchers start to develop their findings into a full-length paper, their linguistic expertise is at play. As a matter fact, expertise varies from people to people. In fact, this variation sometimes determines whether someone is eligible to perform research work at all. However, a researcher’s eligibility may not be completely dependent on linguistic capabilities, and maybe it is this linguistic constraint that hinders one’s work from being comprehensive and versatile. It is a possibility that if there are other ways of presenting the obtained metadata, some researchers can produce remarkable work. For example, instead of writing a paper the traditional way, what if a researcher has the option of making a video that covers the entire work? There are options of including high resolution images, live interviews, footage, and much more. Imagine what will happen to the authenticity of the research work. If we need to choose between a 20,000-word paper and a 10-minute video, it would be interesting to deduce which one would have higher preferences. A thesis supervisor has to go through lengthy research papers to get to the essence of the topic. If the student is weak in writing, the supervisor would need to go through countless grammatical errors and try to be fair while grading the student, based on the errors and the quality of concept presented on the paper. A video will spare the supervisor from that much reading, and will do justice to the student’s inherent capability to present the work with visuals. Breaking new ground Perhaps it is not completely unfair to be cynical about the quality and format of research work produced in our country; and this is probably due to our traditional way of harnessing the knowledge. These techniques have the potential to produce unique perspectives through techniques never before used in our country. Such methods also leave room for interdisciplinary collaboration, eg anthropologists and web-programmers teaming up to work on a demographic issue. Findings can be generated that can change the way we think about ourselves and rest of the world. I am certain that if this culture is made popular in the academic circles of our country, we will see a new face in many fields across the humanities. Hamim Al Ahsan is an Instructional Technology Specialist at BRAC University.