New Master’s Programme at HSE Will Give Humanities Scholars New Digital Tools
The new Master's Programme ‘Digital Humanities’ now welcomes applicants for its first cohort, which will begin in the 2019-2020 academic year. Programme Head Daniil Skorinkin discusses how digital methods empower researchers, what the programme will cover, and why both humanities scholars and techies are welcome the programme.
What is Digital Humanities?
If you already know what Digital Humanities is, and you want to learn about the programme, skip ahead to the next section.
Digital Humanities is the use of digital tools and resources in fields of the humanities, such as philology, history or art history. Though the first experiments with computer analysis of cultural objects date as far back as the middle of the 20th century, it is only in the last 10-15 years that Digital Humanities has become a popular topic in Western academic circles. In Russia, it is only within the last 2-3 years that Digital Humanities has really begun to take hold—and this is in part thanks to the Centre for Digital Humanities at HSE. As it turns out, digital technology and data analysis do not only have something new to offer to physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers, economists, and sociologists, but scholars of culture and art as well.
The first humanities field to be ‘digitalised’ was linguistics (though, we should note that not all linguists consider linguistics to be a humanities field, and they have compelling arguments to support this). Back in the 1950s and 60s, linguists began using what we now call information technology. And even then, progressive literary critics like Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman said that we should learn from the linguists and conduct digital studies of literary texts. Similarly, in the 1960s and 70s, historical information studies was actively developing—today it is already a fully developed field with its own traditions. In Russia, it is represented by the influential association, History and the Computer.
Now the field of Digital Humanities concerns all humanities fields, some to larger extents than others. But the basic techniques of working with cultural objects are often similar. For example, a philologist, a cultural scientist, and a historian can trace the frequency of a certain word or structure in a wide variety of texts by using the same tools and knowledge from the fields of statistics, corpus linguistics, etc.
Digital literary scholars from the Stanford Literary Lab once again attempted to determine how the literary canon is formed, though this time within the framework of the British novel. They compiled a list of thousands of novels spanning from 1750-1850, took truly random samples of about 600 texts from it, converted all those texts into digital form, and studied the differences between those which became part of the literary canon and those that were read only sparingly or forgotten. Drawing upon information theory and its measure of ‘redundancy’, scholars studied the extent to which a word in a text is predicted by the word that precedes it. They discovered that texts of the canon differ from uncanonical texts precisely by their smaller measurements of ‘redundancy’, or the unpredictability of their language. The researchers were able to conclude the following: the texts of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott were much more unexpected for the reader, and therefore they did not sink into oblivion. Canonical texts, by the way, are in fact also distinguished by less lexical variety: classical authors did not over-complicate their works with an abundance of obscure words; rather, they made unexpected combinations using a relatively small lexical range.
Collaborating with computer scientists, digital historians investigated the mechanisms by which the first revolutionary parliament of France (the National Assembly of 1789-1790) functioned. Almost 45,000 Assembly meeting transcripts available in the French Revolution Digital Archive served as the material for this project.
The researchers came up with two quantitative measures to analyse the speeches of the politicians:
‘Novelty’, i.e. the extent to which what was said differs from that which was said in earlier parliament speeches.
‘Longevity’, i.e. the extent to which a speech influenced the content of later speeches, and how thematically similar later speeches are to earlier ones.
It turned out that the first parliament of the French Revolution as a whole gravitated towards speech with a high level of ‘novelty’, which particularly distinguished the speeches of the leftwing radicals—Robespierre was among the record holders. As for the speeches of the conservative politicians—the monarchists, as expected, were less ‘novel’, though they established a political agenda with stronger ‘longevity’.
The authors of the study came up with a third measure, ‘resonance’, which balances the novelty and longevity of a speech. The analysis showed that the key figures of the National Assembly, both on the left (Robespierre, Pétion de Villeneuve) and on the right (Jean-Sifrin Mori), have the highest resonance. Conservatives in parliament were concerned precisely with ‘conservation’, that is, keeping the political agenda on one course. By virtue of high ‘longevity’, those on the right could have no less ‘resonance’ than their liberal counterparts, despite the lesser amount of ‘novelty’ in their speeches.
Of course, history or various cultural studies don’t deal only with texts. Digital Humanities is also making inroads in the field of image processing. For example, by using computer methods, researchers can compare drawing styles in comics or assess the visual complexity of the impressionist and avant-garde movements.
Main tasks and aims
Digital Humanities is the attempt to translate an impression into objective reality. Biologists have Linnaeus’s system of taxonomy and Darwin’s theory of evolution; chemists have the periodic table. Yet philologists or historians still do not have general theories with predictive power. Perhaps digital analysis of large cultural corpuses will help create such a theory. At least many practitioners of the digital humanities hope so.
There were certainly previous attempts in the humanities to develop generalising theories. But many of these studies were stymied by the fact that people didn’t have the tools that would allow them to analyse volumes of material so large that they would require a whole lifetime to get through. Now we have the tools that allow us to view cultural materials from a bird’s eye perspective and discern patterns in them.
We should also not forget about the dim, but important, example of the digitisation and preservation of our cultural heritage. We like to say that everything is digital, but this is actually a somewhat rosy picture. Not everything is digital, and what is digitised is not always available—certainly not with one click. We seek to change this as much as possible with the help of various digitisation and digital preservation projects.
How does this programme differ from others relating to data analysis?
It differs first and foremost in its orientation on the humanities. A graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in the humanities can feel a little lost in the digital world. He or she understands a lot about complex cultural phenomena but finds it difficult to work with data, receive and process quantitative parameters, and conduct statistical testing of a hypothesis. We are ready to teach all this from the most basic level up.
We have developed this Master’s programme not for those interested in mechanised translation, corpus research of language, or textual analysis for business. Our ‘clientele’ are those who want to learn something about the poetics of Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, or, say, Russian dramaturgy, using new tools.
Who should apply
Our experience shows that about 60-70% of the demand for education in the field of Digital Humanities comes from scholars in the humanities. Therefore, we invite first and foremost students with undergraduate degrees in the humanities who seek to improve their technical skills a bit and obtain new tools for their research.
The remaining 30-40% of those interested are those from the social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics, and programming. Of course, we are very pleased to welcome them as well. One of our missions is to bring techies and humanities scholars together. Creative unions like this sometimes lead to previously unimaginable results.
What the programme will look like
Digital Humanities is a project-oriented field, and much of the programme’s curriculum will be built around a design and research seminar. Students will team up with classmates of different skillsets in ‘mini-startups’ comprised of 3-4 people—one student may be better at programming while another may have a strong background in a humanities area. Under a mentor’s supervision, teams then carry out their projects.
The projects may be the creation of a corpus of artistic or historical texts with a special humanities-oriented search interface, an electronic dictionary, a collection of images that can be explored by digital means, and much more.
What courses will be in the programme
Foundation Course on Digital Humanities. This course covers the different methods and tools that are used in digital humanities research. This includes authorship identification and computer analysis of style (stylometry); corpus methods; network analysis and its applications in historical, philological, and cultural studies; electronic cartography; mechanical readers that scan and/or markup texts; work with open data; and much more. An important part of this course is to show that you can now do a lot without knowing how to programme; one simply needs to learn how to use ready-made services with buttons and a visual interface.
But, of course, we will also have a Programming Course. In this course, students gain experience with a computational linguistics programme. Within two years students learn how to programme quite well and subsequently feel reasonably prepared if they go on to become IT company developers. Note that programming knowledge is not required in order to be admitted to the programme.
Mathematics. There will be a preparatory course in mathematics for those who need a refresher on the basics, and after that there will be a course on the mathematical foundations of data analysis. The course covers the theory of probability, linear algebra, the foundations of mathematical analysis, and elements of mathematical statistics. Knowledge in these subjects is crucial for a scholar who wants to, at the very least, understand the content of published research in the field, understand where quantitative methods are being used, not be scared off by formulas, and make use of all these subjects in the future.
Introduction to Data Science. Here, students will study and learn how to use modern tools of statistics, quantitative analysis and data visualization.
Evolution of the humanities. This course traces the development of the field of humanities—from its beginnings to how it is now being transformed. We discuss the traditional objects of inquiry that humanities scholars have always studied and what objects of inquiry have appeared with the dawn of the digital age. In addition, the course examines the attempts of humanities fields to systematise, formalise, and identify general laws of the development of art and culture.
Web development. A student research project is 10 times more powerful if it exists in the form of a web application. This course acquaints students with the basics of web development. It is unlikely that our students will become professional developers, but they will be able to speak their language, and they will be able to lead teams as project managers.
Potential employment for graduates
Firstly, the field of Digital Humanities in academia is rapidly growing. Universities are not only opening Master’s programmes in the field, but full-scale graduate programmes and research centres similar to our Centre for Digital Humanities, as well. It is now commonplace to see announcements for new Digital Humanities PhD and postdoc positions on academic listservs. Secondly, the field provides opportunities for graduates outside of academia as well. These potential fields include edutainment, new educational technologies, and the promotion of the humanities. Commercial companies today are showing more and more interest in things where digitalisation and culture collide.
One example of this is ‘Live Pages’ (‘Zhivye strasnitsy’), a joint-project by HSE and Samsung. It is both a mobile app and website for interactive, gamified reading of literary classics—the app now has 12 Russian-language novels and 1 English novel. Users can read classic novels in an innovative format: you can view them in a timeline format, in the form of a geographical map showing different places of the plot’s action, or you can play a game that teaches you trivia related to the novel (i.e., words, concepts, phenomena related to the time period, and the social relations between characters in the novel). HSE ‘digital humanists’ prepared the texts and data for the application.
Today there are a lot of different initiatives related to the digital representation of culture—from commercial companies, to libraries, to museums. Yandex, for example, has launched the interactive site ‘History Map’ (‘Karta istorii’) in collaboration with Mikhail Zygar’s team and, as well the project ‘Big Museum’ (‘Bolshoy muzei’), which was done jointly with Moscow Polytech. ABBYY and the State Museum of L. N. Tolstoy organised the wonderful project ‘All of Tolstoy in One Click’ (‘Ves’ Tolstoi v odin klik’), which aims to digitise all of Tolstoy’s works. ABBYY is also currently engaged in digitising posters of the Bolshoi Theater. And Google launched the project ‘Chekhov lives’ (‘Chekhov zhiv’). So there are many possibilities beyond the academic ‘ivory tower’.
If you are interested in Digital Humanities, we recommend checking out:
Centre for Digital Humanitarian Studies projects page, where a large number of diverse projects are listed
Public System ‘Blok’ (‘Pablik ‘Sistemnyi Blok”’) (named in honour of the Russian poet Alexander Blok)
Lecture by Daniil Skorinkin "Network Analysis of Fiction" (in Russian)
These days, no scientific research is carried out without the use of digital media for the production or dissemination of knowledge. The term ‘Digital Humanities’ reflects this process and constitutes a scientific field where humanists not only aim to use a certain software, but also to understand research using quantitative semantics. However, digital infrastructures are not the same globally. In her talk at the HSE April International Academic Conference Dr Gimena del Rio Riande addressed various issues that arise in connection with digital humanities.
Gimena del Rio Riande, a researcher at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET, Argentina), studies the development, use, and methodologies of scholarly digital tools, as well as how new scientific fields like digital humanities are ‘born’ in a country where technological issues are part of the social, cultural and economic context. At the upcoming XIX April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development, she will be giving a lecture entitled ‘Understanding Cultural Persistence and Change’.
The scientific landscape is changing before our eyes. Different sciences are becoming more and more intertwined with one another, and this sometimes creates quite unexpected combinations, such as the digital humanities. This field is developing rapidly, with conferences and summer schools now being held on the subject. In addition, HSE recently devoted an entire week to the Digital Humanities. But what is this field and why is it so important?
Frank Fisher, Associate Professor in the School of Linguistics, moved to HSE in 2016, having previously worked at Göttingen Centre for Digital Humanities. With his significant experience in the field, Frank instantly gave boost to digital humanities research at HSE. He became the co-founder of the Centre for Digital Humanities at HSE and is leading a new Junior Research Group on digital literary research. In January Frank became a co-director of DARIAH, a pan-European research infrastructure, with hopes to leverage his involvement there to the benefit of research projects at HSE.
The first Moscow-Tartu School in Digital Humanities has taken place at the Leo Tolstoy House and Museum in Yasnaya Polyana. The school‘s aim is to create an interdisciplinary academic environment in which modern computer methods are applied to the study of texts. The school was organized by the HSE School of Linguistics, Leo Tolstoy House and Museum in Yasnaya Polyana, and the Department of Russian Literature at the University of Tartu.