What new ways of thinking emerge when we turn novels into bags of words—when we count rather than close-read elements of a text? What kinds of knowledge can we produce when we convert pictures into pixels and make robots read covers of Vogue?
Such questions scarcely scratch the surface of the new and growing dimensions of humanities scholarship. Over the past few decades, digital tools and praxis have transformed what it means to work in the humanities. Computing technologies have enabled new modes of inquiry that can reconfigure long-standing interpretations. Access to new data has challenged established canons. At Yale University, the humanities are more digital—and dynamic—than ever. Together, scholars across disciplines are bringing innovative technological methods to bear on humanistic questions, and vice versa, through projects in digital humanities.
Digital humanities (DH) is a broad academic field at the intersection of computing technologies and traditional humanities scholarship. Like most interdisciplinary fields, DH has multiple definitions. Christophe Schuwey, assistant professor of French and former computer scientist, notes that different scholars have vastly different understandings of what digital humanities can offer. It can influence the broader practices of the humanities by, for example, expanding the corpus of books available to scholars or visualizing data to help researchers recognize new patterns in historical records. When Schuwey started a graduate program in literature, he was surprised to discover that his former training in computer science had a rapidly expanding role in humanities research. “If it weren’t for digital guides and Google Books, I would have been unable to do the PhD I did.” Schuwey considers digital humanities “an ongoing conversation”—one that can “change the way we read books and work with students.”
For the Whitney Humanities Center, this ongoing conversation presents an exciting opportunity to support intellectual exchange beyond departmental bounds. According to Peter Leonard, director of the Franke Family Digital Humanities Laboratory (DHLab), digital humanities scholarship at Yale began in earnest in 2009 with a working group of graduate students and faculty. The founding of the DHLab followed in 2015, and the Franke Family Reading Room was renovated into a collaborative digital humanities workspace outfitted with specialized digital equipment and an expansive reference collection. Now, more than a decade later, a new working group is setting another wave of digital humanities development in motion with support from the DHLab and Whitney Humanities Center.
Ayesha Ramachandran, professor of comparative literature, together with Schuwey and other scholars across the University, recently convened a digital humanities working group called DH @ Yale. Supported by the Mellon Sawyer Seminar “The Order of Multitudes: Atlas, Encyclopedia, Museum,” DH @ Yale is an interdisciplinary group that contributes to the University’s robust DH infrastructure and resources. In tandem with the DHLab, the working group provides intellectual community and opportunities for collaboration among humanists. The goal of DH @ Yale, according to Ramachandran, is to provide an additional space for ongoing intellectual and methodological discussion about digital tools and praxis in the humanities.
DH @ Yale held its first meeting in early November 2022, followed by a November 30 meeting centered on two controversial articles published in the Chronicle of Higher Education: Nan Z. Da’s “The Digital Humanities Debacle” and Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s “The Humanities, Done Digitally.” At stake in such conversations are not only particular research methods and pedagogical practices but the future directions of knowledge production in the humanities and the relevance of higher education in the public sphere. As Ramachandran puts it: “There’s been a strongly shifted sense that graduate training in the humanities needs to be more intentional about its relationship to the digital.” She explains that when she was a graduate student and junior faculty member, “DH felt both like the next big opportunity on the horizon and also optional.” What’s changed in the last decade is that “most graduate students now feel like they have to have some fluency with DH—whether while using digitized manuscripts and Google Books to aid their research or while engaging in high-level computational projects.”
The Whitney Humanities Center looks forward to helping graduate students develop this fluency. With the Sawyer Seminar coming to a close, we are delighted to welcome DH @ Yale as one of our ongoing programs. The Whitney has also designated grant money to fund student and faculty projects in digital humanities. Whatever the transformative powers of DH may be, at the very least it responds to the embeddedness of data and computing technologies in education and research today—itself a project of immense possibility.
Emily Tian is an undergraduate at Yale studying philosophy.