Digital Humanities Lecture in India

Digital Humanities Lecture in India January 12, 2012

The details are yet to be finalized, but I am supposed to give a lecture on the digital humanities at a university in India next month. I am excited and frantically trying to figure out how to organize said lecture–where to start and where to go?

First, as far as I can tell, the digital humanities (DH from here out) haven’t made much of an impact in India. This could be an infrastructure issue, or a scholarly communication issue; I’m not sure yet. The International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad (IIIT-H) has a Ph.D. program in Exact Humanities, which seems to encompass DH. There’s a conference on Digital Libraries. The Centre for Internet & Society has brought in a DH lecturer at least once. The technology to make DH a scholarly reality certainly exists, as seen in this Chronicle report on a high-tech plan to cheat on entrance exams.

Second, how do I introduce DH to an audience (graduate students in a folklore/anthropology program) that probably hasn’t heard much about it yet? I’m open to suggestions, but so far I’m planning on starting with a bit of the field’s history, such as Father Busa’s founding role, and other historical tidbits from A Companion to Digital Humanities. I’d like to cover some of the main tools used in DH, as well as some of the main topics DHers tend to be concerned with. It’s hard to narrow down (especially as these topics overlap) but so far I know I’ll be covering:

  • Text analysis – starting with concordances, lists, simple statistics; I met Aditi Muralidharan at DH 2011 and was really impressed with Wordseer, so I’ll probably mention the “beautiful” in Shakespeare example (relevant to my own research on beauty in fairy tales)
  • Network analysis – I’m abjectly grateful for Scott Weingart’s Demystifying Networks! I am not a very math-y person except when it comes to pattern recognition, so I generally need these sorts of things broken down in plain language, which Scott does quite well; I might also mention the work of Franco Moretti and Elijah Meeks (I think Moretti’s Shakespeare examples from the Stanford Literary Lab’s pamphlets are clear enough to mention briefly in a lecture, and I like Meeks’s defense of visualizations as “self-contained arguments about the structure and makeup of particular objects” plus the TV Tropes examples are pure fun)
  • Visualizations – some of the network discussion will bleed into the visualization discussion; as another example, I just discovered Wordle and think it would be great for making visualizations of narrative folklore texts
  • Mapping & spatial technologies – I’ll mention some GIS stuff, and probably go into details about Tim Tangherlini‘s mapping work in folklore and literature, such as his map of Ibsen’s travels (I’m more interested in his Danish folktale stuff, but can’t get full access to the maps, which I could’ve sworn were online last year)
  • Archives – online archives are an exciting possibility for those of us whose work has ethnographic and historical dimensions, but they also come with consent and ethical issues (as well as bureaucratic ones depending on your country’s or institution’s policy on research involving human subjects); I’m still trying to decide which example to use in my talk, but I’ll be sure to mention accessibility and usability issues (such as user-interface, graphics display, and so on)
  • Museums – here I’ll discuss some of the work of Jason Baird Jackson from IU (my home institution), such as the online Ethnology project of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History
  • Digital publishing – one of the formats DHers are struggling to get recognized for tenure and promotion requirements; digital publishing is also being touted as a novel way to convey material, such as David Shorter‘s “web cuaderno” documenting Yoeme culture
  • Open access – obviously a big issue in DH and politics at large; who owns our ideas, our software, our journals? Who gets access (for what price) to not only our books and articles, but also our research methods, teaching materials, and other “gray matter”? I will mention some OA journals such as Digital Humanities Quarterly, though my audience for this talk may be more interested in the Indian Folklore Research Journal and Folklore and Folkloristics
  • Collaboration – another hot topic in DH due to the multidiscplinarity that prevails; it might be interesting to discuss different models for collaboration (such as the lab set-up vs. a handful of individuals who decide to work together without infrastructure)

I will cover the first three (text analysis, network analysis, & visualizations) more extensively in a later lecture on my dissertation research on gender and the body in West European fairy tales, as I made use of all these methods to supplement traditional folkloristic analysis. I’m aware of some gaps in the list too; for example, my knowledge of programming is weak, thus I don’t have a lot to say about it yet, other than “find someone to collaborate with who has the skills you lack.” I’m totally open to ideas, though, should someone  take pity on me.

Some of the resources I plan on drawing on, and referring my audience to, include:

Finally, I’m really concerned not only about accessibility issues (mentioned above), but also relevance. Many of my audience members study indigenous populations of India and the world, hence things like Google Ngrams (super-exciting to English lit types) might not thrill them. By using Western examples since they’re largely what I’m familiar with, am I participating in a kind of scholarly colonialism? How can I address my lecture to the needs of the “institutionally subaltern” as Matthew K. Gold puts it in his Whose Revolution? Towards a More Equitable Digital Humanities? How can I conscientiously talk about how great THATCamps and the NEH Summer Institutes are to people who may never get funding to make it to one? (heck, I’d like to make it to those too someday!)

These issues appear pretty daunting to manage in just one lecture, especially given that I only recently got into DH. But I love teaching, and my background in folkloristics means I’m pretty good at getting a grasp on narratives (including disciplinary narratives) as well as the worldview of a population.

I already ran my lecture ideas by my friend and colleague Scott Weingart, but I’d love feedback from other DHers.

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