Digital Humanities - Some History

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I wrote earlier in this week's series a bit about Digital Humanities history which goes back to what was called "humanities computing" in 1940s and 50s. An early example being Roberto Busa's efforts in the 1940s to create, using an IBM mainframe, a computer-generated concordance to Thomas Aquinas' writings.

The term "digital humanities" is believed to have been coined in the late 20th century. There isn't a single definitive origin point, but I first started to hear the term in academic circles in the 1990s. I recall a bunch of people doing research and writing dissertations on the intersection of computing technologies and humanistic inquiry.

In 1996, John Unsworth, a professor at the University of Virginia, used the term in his essay "What is Humanities Computing and What is Not?" The term "digital humanities" (DH) has become increasingly common in academia and it encompasses a broad range of activities that involve applying digital tools and methods to humanities research and scholarship.

DH includes a number of new ways of doing scholarship that involve collaborative, transdisciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching, and publishing. For some older faculty, there was resistance because DH brings to the study of the humanities a recognition that the printed word is no longer the main medium for knowledge production and distribution.

The first specialized journal in the digital humanities was Computers and the Humanities, which debuted in 1966. The Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) association was founded in 1973. The Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC) and the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) were founded in 1977 and 1978, respectively.

Soon, there was a need for a standardized protocol for tagging digital texts, and the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) was developed and launched in 1987 and published the first full version of the TEI Guidelines in May 1994. This led to Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is a tagging scheme for digital editing.

Researchers also began experimenting with databases and hypertextual editing, which are structured around links and nodes, as opposed to the standard linear convention of print. In the 1990s, major digital text and image archives emerged at centers of humanities computing in the U.S. (e.g. the Women Writers Project, the Rossetti Archive, and The William Blake Archive[demonstrated the sophistication and robustness of text-encoding for literature.

The advent of personal computing and the World Wide Web meant that Digital Humanities work could become less centered on text and more on design. The multimedia nature of the internet has allowed Digital Humanities work to incorporate audio, video, and other components in addition to text.

The shift from calling this work "humanities computing" to "digital humanities" has been attributed to John Unsworth, Susan Schreibman, and Ray Siemens who, as editors of the anthology A Companion to Digital Humanities (2004). The newer term created an overlap between fields like rhetoric and composition.

In 2006 the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) launched the Digital Humanities Initiative (renamed Office of Digital Humanities in 2008), which made widespread adoption of the term "digital humanities" in the United States. DH got a big boost at the 2009 MLA convention in Philadelphia, where digital humanists had their field hailed as "the first 'next big thing' in a long time."

What comes next?

What Happened to the Digital Humanities?

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A former colleague recently asked me, "What happened to 'digital humanities' which seemed so big twenty years ago?"  It was his opinion that the digital humanities (DH) was dead. We talked. I disagreed about it being dead but I agree that it seems a bit lost or less visible. Our conversation will play out this week in several posts here under the Digital Humanities category.

The definition of the digital humanities is continually being formulated by scholars and practitioners. Since the field is constantly growing and changing, specific definitions can quickly become outdated or unnecessarily limit future potential. Digital humanities are not dead. It is still an active interdisciplinary field.

Digital humanities descends from the field of humanities computing, whose origins reach back to the 1940s and 50s. Pioneering work by Jesuit scholar Roberto Busa beginning in 1946, and English professor Josephine Miles in the early 1950s might be considered its origin.

Busa and his team worked with IBM to create a computer-generated concordance to Thomas Aquinas' writings that was known as the Index Thomisticus. Other scholars began using mainframe computers to automate tasks like word-searching, sorting, and counting, which was much faster than processing information from texts by hand.

The field grew as archaeologists, classicists, historians, literary scholars, and a broad array of humanities researchers in other disciplines applied emerging computational methods to transform humanities scholarship.

Digital humanities projects often involve collaboration between scholars from diverse disciplines such as computer science, linguistics, history, literature, and cultural studies. Today, natural language processing and AI offer new opportunities for text mining and ways to analyze large amounts of text and find patterns, trends, and insights.

You have probably heard of the efforts to digitize and make accessible a wide range of cultural heritage materials, including manuscripts, artworks, photographs, and historical documents, through online archives and repositories.

Google Will 'Help Me Write'

Google recently introduced a new feature to their Workplace suite that they call "Help Me Write." This generative AI will first appear in Gmail and Google Docs. At the moment, it's available to a select audience of invited testers.

Like other generative AI, you will be able to enter a prompt and have a first draft created. for you.,An example Google shared is not having it write a paper for your English class, though it will probably be able to do that. They show the example of having it create a job description for a regional sales representative/

It's another AI tool that might frighten teachers because it seems to help students unfairly but I think this may be a misperception. As with other AI tools, such as the much-discussed chat GPT, I think the best thing educators can do is to introduce this to students and guide them in the ways that it can be best used and best used legitimately.

The evolution of digital literacy in classrooms will never end. Yes, these kinds of AI- assisted-writing tools present boyj opportunities and challenges for educators. But ignoring them or trying to ban them from student use is certainly not the solution. This tool and others like it are an opportunity to improve student writing skills and critical thinking. 

Google Announcements

       Google Demo

Facebook for Educaton

Facebook is probably not at the top of most educator's list of sites to access for resources, but Facebook for Education’s free resource hub is being used to help support learning communities.

The website features access to:
Get Digital: Free lesson plans, videos and activities to help you lead discussions with students about online wellness, digital empowerment and inclusivity in the classroom and at home
Tech Prep: Personalized coding tools and resources to help your students build foundational knowledge and tech careers
Products: How-tos and best practices for Facebook products like Messenger and Pages
Programs: Information on Facebook programs, including Computer Science programs like Facebook University, which provides hands-on internships to college students from underrepresented backgrounds.

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Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

You might not think of the lower half of K-12 as an audience for this but the K-12 section of the site. offers resources for that wide range. I would say that most of what is offered is focused on developing skills toward STEM careers. 

The cynically-minded might say that they have heard that Facebook is working on an under-13-years-old version of Instagram and that anything they offer as "educational" is really just a way to get the next generation into the Facebook world. There is truth to that and since Facebook wants to be a big player in the metaverse that those kids might grow into, early indoctrination is key.

More optimistically-minded folks will say that you always have the option to use or not use Facebook or any social media and also the ability to use it in smarter ways - which is where educators can help. Their computer science programs can help support learners on that tech skills road. "Code Forward" is an online program for 4th-8th grade educators and organizations that uses videos and interactive activities to inspire interest in computer science and tech.

I suspect that some students will discover and use these resources before their teachers discover and use them. That's a start but I would feel a lot better if they entered this world of tech with some guidance.