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Class on digital humanities premieres with tech-savvy approaches

New class offers MIT students the chance to pair technical know-how with real-world art and humanities projects at local museums.
The ICA is the location for an MIT student digital humanities prototype project.
Photo: Frankphotos
Detail of student-built Aggregate Search Engine for Comédie Française Registers Project
Detail of photograph from the Edgerton Digital Collection

Among the humanities initiatives at MIT are a range of projects in the digital humanities — a field of research, teaching, and creation that brings together humanities disciplines and computational approaches. Methodologies and techniques for digital-humanities projects include web-based media, digital archiving, data mining, geospatial analysis, crowdsourcing, data visualization, and simulation. This story examines how MIT humanities faculty are engaging students with the potentials of digital humanities for research and innovation.

First offered in the spring 2013 term, and taught by Professor James Paradis and Principal Research Associate Kurt Fendt of MIT's Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, CMS.633 (Digital Humanities: Topics, Techniques, and Technologies) gave MIT students the chance to pair technical know-how with real-world humanities projects for such clients as the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (ICA) and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Students were introduced to key digital humanities concepts, including data representation, digital archives, user interaction, and information visualization, and given opportunities to apply these to a variety of challenges. In addition to devising solutions for the two Boston museums, students also took on the MIT-based Comédie-Française Registers Project and the Edgerton Digital Collections, grappling, in both cases, with a common digital-humanities problem: how to make use of vast amounts of data.

“Digital humanities is a fresh approach," Paradis says. "It's thinking about how new forms of representation can be used to solve problems. It’s applied humanities.”

Putting ideas into action

Because this class took place at MIT, where many students are adept at computer programming, participants were able not only to conceptualize the tools that might prove useful to their clients, but also to build them.

“Many other schools who are prominent in the digital humanities offer more traditional humanities courses than we do,” Fendt says. “They simply don’t have students with the building experience that MIT students have.”

MIT student teams immediately put their ideas into action: Those working for the Comédie Française Registers Project and the Edgerton Digital Collections developed tools to help scholars mine rich new sources of data; those working for the museums found new ways to use technology to enhance the visitor experience. “Students could really examine real-world problems and experience what these institutions are dealing with,” Fendt says.

Information tools for museum visitors

For the ICA, the challenge was to make better use of the museum’s large lobby. Students responded by designing “the i SEE a Portal,” which employs a graphical user interface and a Python game module to engage visitors in a touchscreen display intended to be installed in the lobby. “It’s dynamically rearrangeable, so it’s a playful, interactive service,” says Dmitri Megretski ’13, an electrical engineering and computer science major.

For the Gardner, students were challenged to design media for the hallways connecting the museum's original building — which has a no-mobile policy — to the Gardner's new wing, a space that welcomes new technologies and interactions. Students developed a digital guestbook that doubled as an interactive artwork. Employing data visualization techniques they had learned in class, students proposed different ways to display visitors’ tweets about the museum. In one, the letters of each message appeared to fly off the page, changing in real time as new messages came in. In another, the tweets appeared as a succession of word clouds. “People want to see what they wrote, see their mark,” says Birkan Uzun ’15, an electrical engineering and computer science major.

Tools for asking new questions

Visualizing data was also a central concern for students working on the Edgerton Digital Collections, an effort to provide the first online access to the research notebooks of MIT pioneer Harold “Doc” Edgerton (1903-1990). To enable scholars to glean information quickly, the students developed a timeline spotlighting Edgerton’s interactions as referenced in the original source materials. “You can see what kind of experiments Doc Edgerton was working on and who he was working with,” says Chau Vu ’14, a biology major, noting that the tool also allows users to click through to view the original notebook pages.

Facilitating historical research was likewise the focus of the Comédie-Française team, which developed a visual search engine to assist the ongoing effort to make the complete registers of the Comédie-Française theater troupe (1680-1800) accessible online. The tool makes it possible to search the theater’s extensive records (which until 2007 could only be seen in Paris), filter results by such categories as date, genre, title, and playwright, and represent them through dynamic visualizations.

Like many projects in the digital humanities, this one allows scholars to ask new questions about the material, Fendt says. “The Comédie-Française usually performed two plays a night, a comedy and a tragedy. So, one question is, how did they decide on those pairings? Such questions cannot be easily answered by poring over handwritten documents one by one, but tools like this can help us gain new insights."

All of these exploratory projects demonstrate the breadth of projects being undertaken by those involved in digital humanities. Both Fendt and Paradis say they look forward to seeing what direction the class will take next term, when a new set of students will address fresh challenges.

“This was our first run — and we have big hopes for this course,” Paradis says.

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill
Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski

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