Humanities in the Digital Age

The remarkable proliferation of digital and computational technologies is impacting scholarship across the academy.  Captured loosely under the rubric “digital humanities” (but in fact embracing methodologies and scholarship from the social and natural sciences), these technologies have transformed the way humanists work. A spirit of ambitious experimentation is taking hold as researchers tackle questions about history, the arts, and culture in radically new ways, producing both new knowledge and new ways of knowing. From computers that can read massive amounts of digitized writing, scholars can extract major historical, aesthetic, and cultural patterns that were previously invisible to them; using geographic information systems (GIS), researchers can present complex histories in the form of interactive maps; and employing 3D-modeling technologies, students of the ancient world can produce immersive recreations of archaeological sites and artifacts. These new technologies invite a mode of research that is inherently collaborative.  Projects can involve fairly large teams drawn from multiple institutions, and with collaborators drawn not only from traditional humanities departments, but including linguists, computer scientists, librarians, information technologists, and student assistants.  This team-based approach best takes place in spaces that resemble laboratories.  

As a world-renowned center of humanities scholarship, it is a propitious moment for SAS to invest in the digital humanities. Not only has momentum built among faculty and students across humanities departments and programs who wish to participate more fully in this significant new mode of scholarship, but an investment now will allow SAS to leverage significant and distinctive existing institutional assets.  The Penn Humanities Forum and its pilot initiative, the Digital Humanities Forum, have helped develop fundamental skills among the School’s faculty and students.  Several centers, consortia, collections, and institutes have emerged as logical partners across the campus, including the University Libraries and its Kislak Center for Special Collections, Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, and Vitale Digital Media Lab; the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and its Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials; Engineering’s Digital Media Design program, Center for Visualization of Digital Information, and Penn Institute for Computational Science; Medicine’s Cartographic Modeling Lab; and in Arts and Sciences, the Linguistic Data Consortium.   

Strategic additional investments will enable SAS to emerge quickly as a leader in key areas of digital humanities research, including material text history, sound studies, digital archaeology, mapping of urban social geography, and the computational modeling of literary forms. The School will direct its strategic investments into several related areas.  We will create a laboratory for digital research in history, arts, and culture.  This lab will evaluate, incubate, and support complex interdisciplinary research projects.  It will provide a common hub for communication and exchange across the many departments, centers, and schools likely to be partners in the digital humanities.  It will provide capacity for GIS, mapping, and visualization technologies within SAS.  And it will oversee the development and approval of digital humanities courses and curricula.  The School will also make related investments in the information technology infrastructure that will be required in order to host research projects.

SAS will appoint new humanities faculty that add distinguished coverage in both topical areas and in the use of these new digital methods; we will also add the professional staff positions needed to support these new efforts.  These may include cluster hires of outstanding scholars with experience in digital humanities and programming skills; an academic technologist; and technical staff to manage the laboratory for digital research, install software, advise project leaders, and meet increased demand for support.

The School’s initiative in the digital humanities will significantly impact our teaching and learning.  It will enable pedagogies that emphasize building and making, and learning by doing.   It will help narrow the “technology deficit” that can disadvantage humanities majors as they enter the broader work force.  And for graduate students, the facility they develop with digital methods and the proficiencies they gain in a programming language will be significant assets in the academic job market across all humanities disciplines. We will develop new courses and curricula that introduce students to these methods.  We plan to propose a minor in Digital Texts, Maps, and Networks, and to work with departments, programs, and graduate groups to create digital humanities concentrations within existing majors as well as a graduate certificate program in the digital humanities.  In addition, we will collaborate with librarians at the David B. Weigle Information Commons, the Vitale Digital Media Lab, and the Kislak Center for Special Collections to provide new opportunities for faculty and student skills training.