Digital Humanities Create New Opportunities for Faculty and Students Alike
On October 3, the School of History and the HSE Centre for Digital Humanities, with support from the Teaching Excellence Initiative, held a lecture by Dr. Andrew Janco (Haverford College, USA) entitled ‘Engaging Students in the Humanities and Sciences through Digital Scholarship Projects.’ Covering methods for engaging students in project-based research in the digital humanities, the lecture aimed to demonstrate the benefits of researchers working with students as co-investigators with their own research interests and agenda.
In bringing together digital humanities projects that are being carried out at the Faculty of Humanities, the HSE Centre for Digital Humanities attracts a wide range of participants representing different schools and has a strong interdisciplinary orientation covering philosophy, cultural studies, history, linguistics, media, and geography, among other subjects.
Seth Bernstein, Assistant Professor in the School of History
‘Many of the individual faculty involved have their own projects,’ says Seth Bernstein, Assistant Professor in the School of History an organizer of the recent lecture with Dr. Janco. ‘I have an NUG (student-teacher research group) dedicated to digital methods in research on Soviet history. My colleagues Frank Fischer and Daniil Skorinkin have an NUG that applies network analysis to theatre. Both have been successful in leveraging student interest and skills with scholarly expertise.’
In addition to the lecture, the Centre for Digital Humanities also organizeda workshop last week, the aim of which was to build a network of contacts that will help make HSE one of the main centres in digital humanities in Russia. More broadly, the Centre also works to build up the base knowledge of students who participate, for example by helping to create a course called Digital Literacy that students in the Faculty of Humanities are required to take.
The Centre has also been active in creating connections outside of Russia. Digital humanities are a very popular area of study in North America and Europe, where it is well funded. A German organization called Kontakte-Kontakty recently invited a group of Professor Bernstein’s students and Centre manager Sofia Gavrilova to participate in a ‘Memory Wiki,’ including travel to Germany and areas in Russia to discuss the history of Soviet POWs during World War II. Last week the group went to Bremen for the first meeting.
Professor Bernstein noted how the development of digital humanities has overlapped with his own training as a historian of the Soviet Union and Modern Europe. ‘Most of my research is archival based writing about how preparation for war and the aftermath of war affected Soviet society, politics and diplomacy. My digital work includes creating visualizations that model historical data, such as maps of Gulag sites or of the Soviet air network, and increasingly I am trying to combine the digital and quantitative aspects of my work with my archival research. Currently, I am writing a book about the repatriation of Soviet citizens after World War II and plan to use digital analysis in it by using databases for a quantitative analysis.
‘The humanities are changing rapidly and although I was not trained too long ago – I got my Ph.D. in 2013 – I had to learn digital techniques on my own. My impression is that now some kind of digital humanities work is common in history graduate school,’ he said.
Professor Bernstein notes several themes in digital humanities that he considers urgent. The first is connecting digital methodology with established scholarly questions.
‘Scholars who focus on digital humanities have a great command over methodological questions, like how to make a network or a database, but a weaker command of the "so what?" questions in a given field,’ he says. ‘Established scholars who work with "analogue" sources, in contrast, have a poor understanding of digital methods--or even what digital humanities is. In my view, this need is being addressed in two ways. First, digital scholars are gaining a deeper understanding of questions in scholarly fields. Second, established scholars have been taking a greater interest in digital methods--including working with students or graduate students who have a grasp of the methodology.’
Another related problem Professor Bernstein notes is the content of digital humanities works, which he says are often concerned with creating nice-looking graphics that are good for public consumption but have little to say. In contrast, he believes that scholars may have a lot of interesting points to make but have trouble presenting them in a compact way.
Space for student initiatives
In a broad sense, digital humanities create collaborative opportunities for students and instructors because students often have more sophisticated technical skills while instructors know scholarly problems better. Digital humanities also have opportunities to learn from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields as it relates to the structure of student involvement.
‘In STEM fields, it is very common to have laboratories where the group works as a team. That is less common in the humanities, where individual authorship of an essay is usually the rule,’ Professor Bernstein says. ‘In STEM, there is also more of an apprenticeship that operates at various levels (student, graduate student, postdoc, lead researcher). In digital humanities there is the opportunity to replicate that STEM model through collection of big data or division of coding problems.’
As an example, he cites his group in which students looked through more than 200,000 images of archival documents to compile a database with almost 1,000 entries. A graduate student, Irina Makhalova, managed the student group and contributed a historiographical analysis, after which he analysed the data using computational methods. ‘Together, we wrote the article, which is not just a pedagogical enterprise but a scholarly contribution,’ he says.
HSE’s role in the future of digital humanities
‘If you are willing to take the initiative, there are many opportunities at HSE to do innovative work,’ Professor Bernstein says. ‘It is hard to imagine that I would receive funding in North America for a ten-person student group dedicated to digital humanities work outside of a handful of universities, especially working in the Russian language.’
‘The main problem for doing digital humanities work at HSE is assessment, which favours traditional publications--especially articles in indexed journals. In contrast, digital work is usually published in the form of blogs or tweets with graphics. There is a problem with only publishing in blogs, of course. It is too easy to put something out there without really thinking about what you have written and without critical assessment by a peer. There is also a problem with only using traditional publications, though, as digital work is developing rapidly. If someone waits a year (or more) to publish in a journal, the findings may no longer have the same impact. It will be hard to find a balance between tradition and innovation, but I hope it is possible.’
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service