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Rebecca Sutton Koeser

Lead Developer, The Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University

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I was privileged to attend the Digital Humanities conference in Hamburg this year, thanks to DiSC (Digital Scholarship Commons). Part of the reason I took the time to write up all my notes as blog posts was as way of saying thank you for the opportunity, and to share with my colleagues at Emory a small part of the wealth of ideas and innovation I was exposed to. I was very impressed by the DH community– people seemed egalitarian and accepting, without all the hierarchy and one-upsmanship I have encountered elsewhere in Academia. I was introduced to a preeminent text analysis scholar on the streets of Hamburg; at the conference banquet, I sat at a table with an ADHO (Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, the DH umbrella organization) committee member and we all conversed about our different projects and environments at our home institutions. I was also impressed with the engagement of the more senior, established members of the community– repeatedly, in session after session, I saw them interact with younger scholars, including graduate students presenting their thesis research; these scholars asked probing, insightful questions, valuing the work and appraising it honestly and encouragingly. It was clear to me that this was not for show or a formality, but because the members of the DH community genuinely care and are actually interested in the work and the people. Maybe it has something to do with the subject material, and the type of person who attends DH, since I found myself very engaged and thoughtful, and had plenty of ideas and responses triggered by the various presentations (not always in agreement). It was encouraging to me to see and meet members of this diverse, engaging community, and to meet people like David Mimno, a researcher in Natural Language Programming who has a background in Classics and a Ph.D. in Computer Science; it gave me the strange (but somehow encouraging) sense that I might have somehow ended up at DH even if I had taken a different path. In his introduction to the opening plenary session, our German host referenced C. P. Snow and then quoted Heinrich von Kleist:

One could distinguish between two classes of men: those who are capable of metaphors, and those who are capable of formulae. Those who are capable of both are too few; they do not form a class.

He went on to say that DH proves Snow and Kleist wrong, because there are more than just a few of us– which is a bit of a strange sensation for me.

One thing that I’ve been thinking about since the conference is the distinction between Digital Libraries and Digital Humanities work. It seems obvious that there is quite a bit of overlap– in the technologies and tools, in some of the interests and projects and goals– but there are also differences. Amy Earheart’s talk on the need to recover early digital projects touches on this; it makes sense that libraries should be partners with scholars in the recovery work Earheart argues that we need to take on, since libraries have resources and skills that are suited to this kind of task, but she also voiced a concern that libraries have different goals than scholars and might preserve the content in ways that aren’t actually useful to scholars. Another moment when I felt this tension was in Sudheendra Hangal’s presentation on the MUSE software he has helped develop for interacting with email archives: there weren’t any questions for him after his presentation. Before coming to the conference, I had been working on the technical aspects of processing the Rushdie born-digital archive and dealing with email content in obsolete formats, so I was very interested in his work; but even so, I didn’t have any comments for him except that I was interested in his work and looking forward to testing it with our content. MUSE could be a very useful tool for scholar and archivists, but his presentation didn’t spark any questions or arguments, making me think that his work tends more towards the DL end of the DL-DH spectrum.

Another thing I’ve been considering, and noticed again as I wrote up my notes, is the various projects and presentations dealing with or touching on poetry. This is naturally an interest of mine, since twentieth century poetry was one of my research focusses, and I had any number of ideas for automated, digital work that could be done with poetry (if I had the time and expertise and resources) while I was slogging my way through my dissertation. Generally, I was not particularly impressed with what’s being done with regard to poetry in the DH world (as presented at DH2012), but I’m still struggling a bit with why that is exactly. I don’t think it’s a spiteful thing, where I want to denigrate the work because I’m jealous that I’m not involved in that kind of research myself. So many of the projects seem to look at just one aspect of poetry and throw the rest away. I was fascinated by Ted Underwood’s project and quite impressed with it, and for some reason looking at trends in poetic language on a large scale like that doesn’t bother me– but when scholars are looking at poetry on a smaller scale (e.g., a single poem), I find it troubling. If poetry is “the best words in their best order”1, how can we treat a poem as a “bag of words” that we shake and jumble together for analysis? If a particular analytical approach throws away the sound and the rhythm of the spoken words or the aesthetics of the poem on the page, then haven’t we lost something significant? How much can you throw away before you lose something essential that makes a text a poem? Of course, it makes sense to tackle problems in piecemeal fashion, as many of these scholars are doing. I’m interested in and have ideas like that myself– for instance, how well can poetic meter and rhyme be recognized, given current sound and speech-to-text technologies? Could we algorithmically identify poetic forms, and if so what traces of traditional forms would we find in the looser, “formless” twentieth century poetry? But I think we still need to be careful to acknowledge that we are only looking at a fraction of the poem’s totality when we use these fragmentary approaches, particularly when analyzing a single text– does it matter if we discover a powerful preponderance of Ps in a poem if that doesn’t inform our understanding or experience of the text? Thinking about this has reminded me of some comments from the “Creativity Conversation”with Rosemary Magee, Kevin Young, and Billy Collins that I attended in January. They discussed technology in relation to poetry, and Billy Collins said that “poetry is very incompatible with the screen,” and commented that it’s a problem hasn’t been solved yet; he compared poetry to sculpture in contrast to prose, which he described as water that flows into any vessel you pour it into. At the end of the conversation, each poet read a poem, and Kevin Young actually read his from an iPad, but he explained that he still writes in a paper notebook and thinks of the tablet as just another tool. Both poets seemed in agreement that the physical quality of writing is important and touched on the difference in composing or revising on the screen; Billy Collins said that if you move a draft to the computer too soon you may be tempted to revise it for the “shape” of the poem. The tension between technology and poetry that these poets describe suggests to me that there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done here, and I think there is room for digital librarians, digital humanists, the poet-mathematicians, the metaphorists and algebraists.

  1. I have to admit, when I looked up this quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge (which I had misremembered as “the right words in the right order” - probably thinking of Eliot’s “every phrase / And sentence that is right” in Four Quartets), I discovered that he also described prose as “words in their best order.” For some reason, treating a novel as a “bag of words” for analysis doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it does with poetry– perhaps because novels have at least the tendency towards the “big, baggy monster”, although maybe this is due to some kind of genre bias.