Monthly Archives: October 2011

XML: The Latin of Digital Scholarship?

I’ve been playing with this analogy for a while, and I was pleased to hear the silence of assent when I took it out for a trial run at a session on Big Data at THATCamp Kansas a few weeks ago. It elicited some resistance at another moment that weekend, and I’m interested in the contextual differences.

The second group with whom I discussed my notion represented a couple of constituencies that I’m less familiar with in digital humanities, those interested in the semantic web and those who work with the languages that power social media. These folks mentioned Django, which is based on Python and was developed in Lawrence, Kansas. I haven’t yet learned Python, though I know about it, and William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern’s The Programming Historian is bookmarked on my browser. (Thank you once again, Canada, for your excellent support of digital scholarship.)

My young colleagues pointed to Web 2.0, Facebook, and Google as examples of common tools not based on XML. I learned a lot from them–I’d never heard of Django before that conversation. But I don’t think their point invalidates my own.

I mean, after all, to point here to certain historical effects, including the use of Latin as the language of scholarship and diplomacy in Medieval Europe. (Easy for me, you may say, since I’m not a medievalist.) Thus, I think the analogy may be apt since XML lies behind long-term developments in what was long ago called Humanities Computing—efforts to consider how computers might facilitate humanities research, in Medieval and Classical Studies in fact.

Since the language also underlies such proprietary applications as MicroSoft Word and Excel, the analogy also alludes to the place of Latin as the foundation upon which the romance languages were built. Apt again, perhaps, since computational linguistics also makes use of XML.

I ponder this analogy because I want to better articulate the significance for liberal education of the effects of digital innovations on scholarship. And as I do so, I seek to understand digital scholarship in the larger landscape of digital culture.

I think that learning to feel comfortable with one type of coding (XML) can help humanities students develop the confidence to explore additional languages–like Python–and become ever more nimble citizens of their digital world.

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NEH Digital Humanities Project Directors’ Meeting

Almost a week has passed since I attended the Project Directors’ Meeting at the offices of the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington DC, and I’m struggling a bit to recall the joy I was feeling after four days almost straight of spending time with friends and colleagues who are practitioners of digital humanities. A cancelled flight home, post-travel exhaustion, and demanding local responsibilities tend to force even the most immediate and energizing of past experiences into the background.

So I want to take some time to recall the pleasure of having sat in a room filled with digital humanists for a full workday last Tuesday (which was also, by the way, Eliza Baylies Wheaton’s birthday). We began with a session just for us, hearing presentations from various members of the NEH staff. Then at 10:30 the meeting opened to the public, which included such members of the press as the reporter for Inside Higher Education who wrote up the event in a piece entitled “The Promise of Digital Humanities.” The main events in this portion of the day were two sessions of “lightning” presentations–three-slide, two-minute talks in which a total of sixty projects were summarized.

I was utterly delighted to learn about the creativity and technical innovation of classicists, historians, literary critics, and others who are developing mobile applications for subjects from Shakespeare to local history, constructing games to teach students about topics from daily life in 17th-century English villages to 18th-century medical history, and building tools to share local data for large-scale analysis. I can no more summarize the range of the projects than could the reporter from IHE.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that distinguished digital humanist Cathy Davidson would talk about her new book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. I deeply appreciated her counter to the myriad books focused on scaring us about the implications of our digital culture. And I am pleased to have heard that she is giving this talk to business people and other decision makers. Hers is a powerful voice for the promise of our digital future.

Best of all, after I offered my own “lightning” report in the meeting’s afternoon session–giving the briefest of overviews of our work to date on developing standards for using TEI-conformant XML to mark up transcriptions of historic financial records–I met several people who expressed support for the work. A few of these new colleagues are interested in participating in the next steps of our project, when we are ready to test our nascent guidelines more broadly.

As I read the comments on the IHE article, I agree with historian Crandall Shiflett, Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech University and one of the innovators who was working in digital history twenty years ago. He gives credit to his colleagues in that work and writes: “The promise and challenge of digital humanities in the new age will be to break down walls of disciplinary separation and forge collaborations among scholars across these borders, if the revolution is to become truly revolutionary. It will require private and public support on a large scale, but the reward will be the creation of new knowledge and knowledge in new ways.” Hear, hear.

*Our project “Encoding Financial Records” has received financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post or other publications related to the project do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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