Speaking – and not only – in Code

By Marisol Fila, PhD Student, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures

I became interested in Digital Humanities during my first year of graduate school. I have always been curious about new technologies and getting to know some of the digital tools that could offer alternative approaches to the Humanities sparked my attention from the very beginning. I started familiarizing myself with general ideas of text mining and topic modeling through some workshops offered by the U of M Library, and I had the chance to apply them in a research partnership project with History and Romance Languages Professor Paulina Alberto during the summer of 2016. The project was funded by a Spring/Summer Research Partnership Grant that we received from Rackham and consisted in applying “distant reading” techniques to Paulina’s existing documentary corpus. The hands on experience also included reading the core bibliography of the Digital Humanities field – though, could we say that it is a separate field from the Humanities? – such as the writings of Franco Moretti, Ted Underwood, Alan Liu, Matthew K. Gold, and Ryan Cordell, among others.

That initial work pushed me to participate in some Digital Humanities symposiums and conferences in order to engage with projects and debates occurring across the field. In them I had the chance to get to know super interesting people that belong to – but not only to – the humanities field. That was, and is, for me the most valuable part of Digital Humanities: involving and getting to know scholars and students across different fields and backgrounds and having the chance to learn from and with them. The growing interest in this work took me to take the Digital History course offered by the History department during the 2017 Winter semester and to enroll in the 2017 Digital Humanities Summer Institute :DHSI, which took place between in June of 2017.

Shortly after deciding to apply for the 2017 DHSI I saw the announcement of the Mellon Humanities Spring 2017 Mini-Courses. The offered course that caught my attention was titled Speaking in Code. Its description read: “at first glance, computer science is all about minutiae: individual instructions pieced together to perform a well-defined task. Humanities disciplines, on the other hand, often deal with complex and sweeping topics like history, art, and literature. This workshop hopes to move past these stereotypes to find where computer science and the humanities meet.” The instructor was Ezra Keshet, a Professor from the Linguistics department. By the end of the workshop each student was to have created a proposal for how their personal work could benefit from some area of technology.  I was already engaged with some of the theoretical and practical debates on how to do Humanities work with digital tools, so I thought that this could be an interesting complement, with the possible bonus of a different perspective coming from the Linguistics area. Moreover, the workshop’s goals were both appealing and intriguing: how could my personal work benefit some area of technology? The mini course was conveniently offered after the end of the winter semester and I was going to stay on campus during May so I decided to enroll in it and to also consider it as a preparation for the 2017 DHSI.

The workshop definitely surpassed my expectations. I was hoping to have some theoretical discussions about the interactions between humanists and programmers, to do some readings on the debates around the Digital Humanities capabilities and limitations, and to learn some basic programming concepts, but it was much more than that.

Marisol Fila, PhD Student, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures

First, the course was very well organized by Ezra: the first half of the mornings were mostly hands on work in which we were challenged with logical problems to solve or with programs that helped us understanding how basic coding works. The work done during this first part was tightly connected with the readings that we discussed during the second part. Moreover, it helped us to understand and to put in practice what the theory was describing. Was the assigned reading about algorithms? So that day’s work was how to understand them in practice. Was the reading talking about the Imitation Game? So we played it before discussing what Turing said. Discussions were then much more fruitful as we not only talked about what the authors said, but what we did with that theory.

Second, the course also included a guest speaker: German and Museum Studies Professor Peter McIsaac visited the course and engaged with us in a productive discussion about Digital Humanities work and pedagogy, informed by their own experience. I enjoyed very much this discussion and Professor McIsaac’s reflections on the state of the field.

Third, although in the beginning I was kind of anxious about how my final project would develop and the possibilities of connecting my work with some area of technology, it ended up being a great way to get to know the work that each of us was involved with and to discuss potential future steps beyond traditional and enclosed disciplinary approaches. We were all from different disciplines and the feedback offered to each of the projects ended up being a great way to consider our own work under a different perspective. Likewise, as we were all coming from different backgrounds, our challenge was also to effectively communicate our work to a non-specialist audience.

Overall, I enjoyed and learnt a lot from the course and from Ezra. Ezra promoted and encouraged a collaborative and thoughtful environment, which I appreciate a lot. As I said before, the course exceeded my expectations and left me with not only theoretical and practical learning but also with the thought that the work I do is able to dialogue with – and to benefit, why not? – areas beyond academia.

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