Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities and Computer Science

On Sunday, 11/20/12, I spent most of the day at the Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities and Computer Science. This is an annual event in Chicago, and I was glad to attend for the first time. I teach primarily new media studies, and do so from my disciplinary perspective of writing and rhetoric. This puts my work in some relationship to the digital humanities (DH), though the exact nature of that relationship is difficult to determine.

Ten years ago, when I first heard of DH, the work of digital humanists seemed primarily about text mining: with the capacity to digitize text came the ability to search for patterns across a huge corpus. The classic example I recall of early DH work was mining the text of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as that of works that had been questionably attributed to him, to determine if Shakespeare did indeed write the questionably attributed texts. Research like this is interesting, though not immediately relevant to what I teach and write about.

I hear, however, more and more buzz and chatter about DH in fields closer to home (at the Computers and Writing conference, for example), and there is likewise buzz and chatter about a possible degree program in DH at my university. So I was curious to hear the speakers at the 2012 Colloquium, to see if and how their concerns might be related to what I’m thinking, teaching, and writing about these days.

I arrived after the morning session on network analysis—a DePaul colleague from the English department saw the talks and said they were quite interesting. I saw the keynote, as well as presentations on the OCHRE Database at the Oriental Institute; social media as big data; cultural heritage and spatial storytelling; online game engines (especially Unity, which is apparently popular among those designing ‘serious games’); and ARGs (alternate reality games). It was interesting to see the range of humanities fields represented, including English, History, Anthropology, and Geography. I had to leave before the day’s final session, on text mining. The Colloquium also convened the next day, with another session on text mining and one on visualization, which I was sorry to miss.

From my vantage, what’s most appealing about Digital Humanities is its methodology—many DH researchers develop new tools and/or digital methods to explore their research questions. It’s a different approach than much traditional humanities scholarship, where questions grow from and are investigated by reading books and writing about them. Developing DH tools is also almost by necessity a collaborative process, which brings together researchers with different perspectives and often, different disciplinary orientations.

My favorite talk of the day was from Patrick Jagoda, who’s in the English Language and Literature department at the University of Chicago. Jagoda developed, with a team of collaborators, an alternate reality game (ARG) about big finance culture called Speculation. The Speculation site describes ARGs this way:

Alternate reality games use the real world as their primary platform. Alternate reality games are not bound by any single medium. Alternate reality games sometimes incorporate textual data, streaming video, phone calls, social networks, and original software. Their stories tend to be broken into discrete pieces that players actively rediscover and reconfigure through their actions. Player networks created around alternate reality games are inherently social and tend to include collective problem-solving and participatory storytelling.

I’m not sure I’m cut out to play Speculation—I doubt, from Jagoda’s description, that I have the time or persistence to do so—but I appreciate its aim to escape the screen, to move players across platforms, to get them into the physical environment, and to engage them in social play.

I’ll be curious to keep up with the DH field (though I’m not sure if “field” is a fitting description): the ambition of digital humanists to test ideas, gain insight, and show possibilities by creating tools and texts that surprise is quite compelling.