Digital humanities on the rise at Stanford

Oct. 24, 2014, 9:25 a.m.

Professor Elaine Treharne reached into her purse and pulled out an original Gothic manuscript that dated back more than three centuries.

“See the notes in the margins?” she asked, pointing to the faded handwriting trailing rows and rows of intricate calligraphy. “Isn’t that neat?”

These are the kinds of manuscripts Treharne works with on a day-to-day basis as a member of the University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), one of the multiple initiatives at the intersection of the core humanities and technology at Stanford.

Over the last decade, the University has seen a soaring interest in what is often referred to as the “Digital Humanities,” a term that has become more and more a part of the University’s lexicon.

The Digital Humanities, as the University defines them, are a “collection of practices and approaches combining computational methods with humanistic inquiry.” Though the University’s involvement in the Digital Humanities goes back to the mid-to-late 20th century with the creation of programs like the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), the University seems to be experiencing a resurgence of faculty and student interest in fusing the age-old humanities with new technologies.

Among the University’s contemporary and up-and-coming forays into the Digital Humanities are the Stanford Literary Lab, which was founded in 2010; CS + X joint majors that allows student to integrate the humanities and computer science; and plans to launch a Digital Humanities minor next fall.

“There are extraordinary amounts of digital expertise in the department right the way through the social sciences and humanities and the pure arts into computer science and engineering,” Treharne said.

Treharne learned to code while teaching at the University of Leicester, where she worked on an online database of 11th-and-12th-century manuscripts.

“It became clear to me, once we finished that project, how incredibly useful these digital approaches are,” Treharne said. “They allow for searchability, for instant access to large amounts of information.”

Courtney Noh ’17 is a prospective CS + English joint major also interested in using programming to explore literary questions, particularly those concerning how people read.

Noh, who had planned to study computer science coming in, rediscovered her childhood love of reading while at Stanford. She explained that she decided to pursue English as a reminder of how it feels to “do something for the sake of loving it.”

For one of her computer science classes, Noh is working on a project that will allow users to create curated reading lists that encompass both books and the huge spread of reading material available online. In the future, she also wants to create an application that tracks patterns in users’ reading habits.

“I was like, ‘Maybe I should make an app that shows you the first paragraph of a short story.’ If you like it, you keep scrolling. You can also detect where someone stops reading,” she explained.

“A lot of people were like, ‘That’s so pointless.’ But it’s not about making this go viral or having tons of people use it,” she added. “It’s just about being interested in how people read.”

Gavin Jones, chair of the English Department, spoke to the power of the reverse — of, rather than the opportunity to bring technology to humanistic questions, the power of bringing humanistic creativity to technological innovation.

“If you listen to the signals coming out of Silicon Valley, the message isn’t, ‘Sit in your cubicle and program all day [and] you’re going to change the world.’ It’s the people that fuse disciplines in new ways, using their imagination, who are really changing the world,” Jones said.

Though initiatives like CS + X have paved the way for interdisciplinary innovation, one might wonder, Treharne said, if the practices that have formed the core of humanistic research — handling primary sources, reading printed literature — are lost in the expansion of efforts to digitize.

Treharne went on to liken the increasing prevalence of the Digital Humanities to the emergence of print culture.

“Plato talked about how the new technique of writing would distance the utterer and the hearer. The author no longer needs to be present, as would be the case in an oral culture,” Treharne said. “With the digital, there’s an increased distance between originator and receiver.”

Yet in light of the University’s ongoing efforts to promote cross-disciplinary research, it seems that the Digital Humanities at Stanford are here to stay.

“Stanford has always likes to lead through values it holds very dearly, [and] I think central to those values are ideals of integration, of bringing the arts, humanities, sciences and engineering together in different ways,” Jones said. “I think it’s part of the vision of Stanford…a renaissance, really, in terms of the fusion of interests.”

Jones shifted back in his chair and paused. When he began to speak again, his tone had changed — he sounded more surprised, as if he had just had a realization.

“Just as Renaissance men and women were mastering all sorts of areas, I think that this is something we’re looking forward to again,” he said. “A new Renaissance.”

Contact Madeleine Han at mhan95 ‘at’

Seunghwa Madeleine Han '17 is a sophomore at Stanford interested in English, international relations and the intersection of technology and human communication. She is currently a contributing writer for music and a former news desk editor at The Daily. Contact her at mhan95 'at' to find out more.

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