Make way for statistics in humanities!

"Digitally savvy scholars are exploring how technology can enhance understanding of the liberal arts."

mp, CT

Until the identity politics, that have so permeated and arguably destroyed the joy of the humanities, are removed, all the technological bells and whistles will not have limited affect.

DPatrickOceanside, CA
Humanities + data = social science

The confrontation with the issue of how to use data, what data means, indeed what "data" "is" will require those humanities scholars to confront the all the issues that social scientists, and the philosophers of social science, have been addressing since the creation of the field of sociology. Good luck!!

kathleen dublin, ireland

Google is giving a million Euros for research that supports the importance of their business; the government double that. But how much more do foundations, universities, and governments give to the core business of the humanities, which is interpretation and critical thinking? Right now it is a lot more, but will that continue? Funding digital humanities at the expense of rather than in addition to the traditional humanities is like funding libraries without funding scholars who study what is in them. And that reminds me, digital humanities are flourishing at a time when funding to buy -- not to mention write -- books is increasingly endangered at universities around the world, not to mention public libraries.

blert madison

In the post-theory war era, critics are returning to methodology, and this article barely begins to scratch the surface of the new push in the digital humanities. The searchability of digitized texts is, of course, opening them to fresh study, especially as Google Books and Scholar offer greater access. Other efforts, like Early English Books Online, have already moved the primary workplace for many scholars out of dusty books and onto computers. One of the most fascinating recent bits of literary scholarship that I've seen is the effort by Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore in the recent Shakespeare Quarterly, which catalogs the corpus of Shakespeare and hundreds of contemporary works word-by-word to measure patterns in the language. The results revitalize the argument that authors are important (contrary to the theory-driven "author is dead" claims), and maps out genres and other literary patterns in startling precision. Theoretical work is giving way to this kind of method-driven approach...and it's about time that something new took over in the Humanities.

Sev Online

People want metrics because metrics are a shorthand for "quality," and assessing quantity is much easier than assessing quality. It's the sort of critical thinking taught in the humanities that has become so unpopular these days.

It's human nature to seek out continually more efficient processes. It's also human laziness. So we make our rubrics and metrics (SAT, FICO, US News College Ranking) and then instead of bettering ourselves towards the cause (innate intelligence, trustworthiness, education) we teach, prepare, and worship the test.

Then SAT prep becomes another barrier for low income students. We have a credit armageddon despite AAA ratings. Colleges slip towards vocational master's degrees.

Is it any wonder, really, that our best and brightest flocked to wall street in the last generation? And our response is to cut the humanities in colleges across the country?

It used to be a long shot that China could beat us on education.

It's becoming less long.

Vincent Leung Cambridge,MA

The dichotomy between "ism" and "data" is of course false. There's no data without an -ism. This celebration of data as a thing that transcends paradigm seems naively self-indulgent and self-congratulatory.


A wide understanding of history might have warned us of the dangers, of invading Iraq or of trusting Wall Street to "regulate itself", for example. Abilities in critical thinking might have allowed our politics to be conducted rationally, rather than becoming the mad circus it too often is now. The reading of literature might have allowed us the empathy and honing of intelligence to remain capable of real community rather than being atomized into tiny "consumers" facing great corporate demands.

The humanities are not for jargonized show-offs to own, as is too often the case in universities now. Nor do they depend on electronic technologies, in particular. Books have lasted thousands of years, and some in their original forms; nothing wrong with "digitizing" them, but I wonder if the eventual costs in hardware, software, updates, upgrades, and energy may make that less economical and less accessible in the end--especially in a time of falling incomes for so many.

Either way, the problem in our understanding and appreciation of the wisdom of the humanities does not lie in its need for digitalization. It lies in our own having been distracted by an entertainment culture, poorly educated in early grades, and a mythos of the value of "gut thinking" (which might work well if we had brains in our guts instead of--well, what's there instead).

As it is, if the people remain enamored of easy answers and appalled at the idea of the hard work of real education--well, Hubris, meet Nemesis.

John McCumber Los Angeles CA

This is all very nice, but it's not about the humanities; it's about tools for the humanities. Scalpels and MRI's are not medicine, and digitizers and computers are not critical reflection.

John Kleeberg New York, NY

It's important to remember what is more and less important for digitizing information for the Humanities. It is now possible to make available to everyone for free every book, newspaper, and handwritten document published before 1923. That is a worthy pursuit, not least because it will preserve archives and libraries that otherwise will be destroyed by fires, floods, and building collapses (examples: the destruction of fire of the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, the building collapse of the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne). It will also mean that you will not have to live in New York, London, or Paris to have access to a world class library. Yet despite the great achievements in digitalization achieved in recent years (notably by Google), a surprisingly large number of common books and pamphlets from the nineteenth century are still not accessible on line.

On the other hand, just because something can be measured doesn't mean that it will produce results of scholarly significance. Much effort in recent years has been devoted to the history of human height. Unfortunately, we don't really know why people grow taller (less exposure to disease? better nutrition?) nor how good is the quality of the data (are the soldiers measured barefoot or wearing socks?). This research could easily end up being pointless. Contrast that to the vital importance of scanning and digitizing our libraries and archives so that they can be preserved and made them available to all. That way, the next time an Anna Amalia library burns up, or a Cologne archive collapses (and we know for certain that there will be a next time), at least the information will be preserved in digital form.

Timothy Burke Swarthmore

I find it depressing that so many responding to this article, despite apparently believing that they were the last people to receive real exposure to humanistic knowledge, have such a sour, parsimonious and uncharitable view of the proper character and disposition of the humanities. Not to mention the knee-jerk agitation about identity politics and theory in response to an article which is about other trends and developments. At the very least, someone who cares about humanistic knowledge should be able to respond to the issues at hand in a manner that opens up dialogue and works with the text provided rather than a canned, reflexive response about various red herrings.

For folks who actually did read the article and are interested in these trends, I think you can be reassured that digitally-mediated methods are often indeed just tools. As Eli puts it above, a way to ask questions that would otherwise have not been asked. But also, I think that many of the conversations and modes of writing that operate through digital media are less "new" than their enthusiasts and critics presuppose. One asks whether Kant could have written through crowdsourcing. In a sense, I think he did: Enlightenment writing was very much dialogic and interconnected. Every formal work by philosophers was surrounded by a cloud of letters, cafe conversations, ephemeral writings and so on. The analogy between the present and the rise of post-Gutenberg print culture, if not exact, is nevertheless illuminating. And there were defenders of pre-Gutenberg ways of writing and reading then who were just as discomforted then as some are now, some out of philosophical concern and others motivated by overt commercial or political fear at the loss of their own monopolies or distinctive forms of power.

Pete Kloppenburg Toronto

Well, in some ways this is nothing new. The humanities have long coveted science's privileged place in public discourse, its authority and seemingly unshakeable claim to ownership of Truth. So various attempts have been made to bring the flavour of science and some of its techniques and hallmarks: theoretical vigour, falsifiability, et cetera.

Philosophy, science's sibling from the cradle, has been the natural path for this kind of endeavour. And in truth, the humanities' promiscuous habit of pulling in ideas from all over the map makes this kind of statistical attack pretty much inevitable. We may note that this promiscuity has been very fruitful in the past, so we may be hopeful for this latest fling.

But (you had to know there was a but coming) we can expect a great many blind alleys to be charged down with this approach. We may gain some glimmer of insight into a Civil War battle by studying the topography of the battlefield, but we'll never turn over a rock that hides the secrets to why the Gettysburg Address continues to stand as a paragon of rhetoric. Only a fraction of the problems we encounter in the humanities avail themselves to a statistical approach. So we can be certain that we're not staring at a paradigm shift (to name-check an idea very beloved of the scientific humanities).

The real test will be how well these humanities academics can adopt the basic dynamics of sciences, as opposed to just some of the tools. Science offers the balanced pair of theory and experiment, each inspiring and doing a sanity check on the other. The humanities has long been stacked to high on the theory, and this experimental bent is welcome. But can we get to the point where an unexpected pattern emerging from the data causes some laboratory humanities professor to spot a fundamental break with orthodoxy, publish her findings, and spark a great gold rush among theorists to explain anomalous data? Will a theory be tested over and over, as science would go about validating a theory, or will we instead see just a series of one-off experiments that keep the publishing mills churning?

I'm a big fan of the humanities. I use my liberal arts education every day in business. I've seen how the dazzle of numbers can blind smart people to the fundamental human equation. Let's just hope that statistical analyses don't become the litmus test for good research. A nice bit of back and forth to test a theory and strengthen it, but both sides, please.

Lorak G. Selrak Vancouver

I am a literary scholar writing this message on my web-enabled computer. Technology is everywhere--in my research, my communications, and the classrooms where I teach. And projects like Dan Edelstein's sound wonderful.

But even as we use technology to find new ways of enhancing humanistic understanding we must also acknowledge a paradox that non-humanists are often reluctant to examine--the ways in which our technophilia leads us to take this tool of technology as something more than a tool. Turning humans into data-points reveals something, without question. And we should not be shy about the digital humanities. At the same time, the very aim of the humanist scholar (and the reason that politics will never disappear from the humanities) is to remind the world what happens when people are reduced to data points.

In that sense technology and its affiliated practices of quantification and measurement much adored by bureaucrats and businesspeople are the very antithesis of all we stand for.

Swagato C Chicago, IL

Marshall McLuhan famously stated, "The medium is the message." We increasingly move toward a world wherein we are immersed constantly in a mediated existence. Thus, traditional barriers between 'levels' of information break down, resulting in greater flow. The humanities, especially in the United States, is in dire need of a methodological change, and digitising information can only help. However, I am not so sure that 'crowdsourcing' academic ventures is the way forward. Could Kant have written his Critiques by a collaborative effort across continents and schools of thought? At some point the individual still stands apart. The tools, yes, they must indeed be refreshed as necessary.

julia hiawassee, ga
"Digital Humanities"?

Not only is this an oxymoron, it is a frightening one. Must everything be "digitized"?
How can the Arts be "quantified"? The Great God Data is, I feel, anathema to creativity and the human soul.
Technology may have proven itself valuable in the fields of science and economics, but, please leave the worlds of literature and art alone! To quote Descartes: "The heart has its reason that reason does not know."
As an artist and a humanist, "j'accuse".

Thomas Clarke Phoenix Ariz.
The only way Humanities can survive is by borrowing money and then sell products like Goldman Sachs / Lehmann formula as humanity default swaps. Every time humanities fails to make a contribution - someone pays some banker and vice versa.

Defunding NEH will begin next Spring... Then I hope the only "research" these pseudo-scholars will be doing is watching adult content on the internet.
How many dollars does China spend on the humanities - hmm let me guess - Zero ?

Cathy ME

... perhaps if the Chinese had the opportunity to study the humanities, they wouldn't be living in a Communist stupor blinded by the state's "allowing" them to engage in capitalism as political dissidents and intellectuals are tortured in prisons and deemed insane.

Your cynicism, Thomas Clarke, is nothing more than that. It certainly is not a marker of your intelligence, something in which you are clearly lacking as evidenced by your myopic, narrow, uncomplicated, simple view of the world.

I'd love it if puerile American philistines like yourself would move to China.

Chinese students come to the US and are astounded by our libraries, archives, and humanities programs. In China, a student cannot investigate the past, because the state does not want to save and make available archival evidence that might undermine the regime.

You may take things like the study of history for granted or write them off as insignificant, but our very abilities to study history here or to simply visit an archive is indicative of just how free the United States is in comparison to your beloved China.

You want the US to be more like China? Keep advocating for more cuts to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

If you like China so much, why don't you move there? Narrow-minded automatons who think the world is black and white are China's bread and butter. You'd fit right in.

As for me, I'll stay right here in the United States where only the cynical and the stupid think it's a question of studying the humanities or the sciences.

Jim Maryland

It's called Scientism, and it arguably was John Dewey's contribution to American life. Where parochial studies once dwelled on school lunches in kindergartens, the computing power has pushed it into the university. As a former university tech worker and doctoral candidate, I am glad that data mining is coming to the humanities. However, it raises a number of foundational issues about that very division that the current Foucaudian fascinations are not prepared to handle. Cultural relativism ultimately has little to make of hard data, and materialism has no room for the rather unchanging character of humanity thought patterns. Correlating the subtle moves over time AND space that make humanities like a symphony of slightly changing variations on a theme still will require human discernment and argumentation.

Amature Historian NYC

Nice. American is trading more hard science for Women's studies, African American studies and delayed success, etc.

Maybe we can export liberal arts in the future just like we are exporting financial services now.

Who cares China has real scientists and we have fake ones. We do not like to study anyway.

Ibarguen Ocean Beach

Map or mine it how you will, however diligently, however accurately, however exhaustively, the shape of the archive is not the shape of the past.

But then scholarly confusion of the one for the other is nothing new, now is it?

Eli Boston, MA

I did a digital search of this articles for the word "question" and I found two references:

1) data can reveal patterns and trends and raise unexpected questions for study

2) We’re able to ask new questions

I also searched for the word "answer" and found no references. This is NOT a way for quantifying data to find answers. It is not half baked social science (some think [with some justification] that most of social science is half baked.) It is just an ingenious way to help raise questions that still need to address with humanistic intuition and sensibility.

This work does NOT dilute or undermine humanistic inquiry it makes it stronger.

Several comments miss an important point of this article. The reason to data mine is not to answer questions but raise questions that would not have been asked otherwise. The article gives examples of finding questions but no examples of finding answers. However it should be pointed out that often the hardest part is finding the relevant questions that answers are relatively easy to get once you have the questions.

Discovery science is not "bells and whistles" but a fabulous tool just like the microscope of the telescope that expanded the horizons of what could be studied.

F.M. Arouet Wa

"Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts." Albert Einstein

Recommend Recommended by 8 Readers .51.Paul HartnettHollister, CaliforniaNovember 16th, 20104:20 pmIt is not meaningful. Data collection is scientistic, so if one wishes to name it by its meaningful sobriquet, it is scientism. Scientism is the feigned attempt to appear scientific when picking out small datum said to reflect the world.
The entire school 'reform' movement is based on this. (Yes, I do not think of it as reform. It is a trojan horse for vouchers.) Data sets are collected within the institution, but not outside, where the cultural effect is greatest. (That is, the culture does not value education. So you're surprised the schools reflect this?)
All of this is tied to the much larger ism, professionalism. That is the ideology that has become dominant in a dog-eat-dog world.

Leo Toribio Pittsburgh, PA

There is reason for hope when the internet begins to serve the humanities as it has served science and engineering from its inception. But there is also cause for concern.

While the wealth of information on the internet can be a good source of insight into many areas, including the humanities, there is also a danger inherent in automated processes that can often trivialize or even obscure the real significance or meaning of information. That is especially true in the area of humanities.

Half a century ago, computer programs were written to perform word counts on texts by unknown writers or texts attributed to known authors with some uncertainty. The frequency of occurrence of certain key words and phrases in two texts, one known to be written by say, Geoffery Chaucer, and the other unsigned, can give us a pretty good idea if the latter writing was probably from Chaucer's hand, but it tells us nothing about the ideas expressed.

Leo Toribio
Pittsburgh, PA

juliahia wassee, ga

You see? All this talk of digital humanities has rattled my brain - I correct myself: I was quoting Blaise Pascal, not Rene Descartes. And ended with Emile Zola, although perhaps stretching his meaning. My once clear thinking has sadly succumbed to the negative effects of digitization.

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