A few years ago, John Shanahan read the writing on the wall.

“Digital technologies are increasingly important in humanities research,” he says. 

“Now, people being trained—in English, art, history—are using digital tools, such as data mining algorithms or text analysis programs, to do new types of research. And the possibilities are endless, really. What could we discover from scanning 10,000 unread novels from the 19th century?  What conclusions might we draw by studying thousands of paintings at the same time? Or searching tens of thousands of newspapers? Imagine reading as a three-dimensional activity, with images and sound popping out of the pages of a book.  A lot of exciting things are happening at the intersection of humanities and technology.”

Paul Jaskot, a professor in the History of Art and Architecture program, agrees: “When I use mapping technology to visualize construction activity in Germany between the two world wars, I’m not looking at 10 buildings or 100 buildings, but rather tens of thousands. So, never-before-seen patterns emerge. And I can ask new questions: Was religious architecture more important than we had previously thought? Why were housing estates built in unexpected places? The tools let me see evidence at different scales, not only spatial but also temporal, and I can see not only bigger, but also smaller, at the same time.”
To give DePaul humanities students competency in the new tools and methods, Shanahan—an associate professor of English, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, and director of undergraduate Liberal Studies—collaborated with peers across the university to design a graduate certificate in digital humanities. Also, working in a team that includes Antonio Ceraso (an associate professor in the Writing, Rhetoric, & Discourse program and director of the New Media Studies program) and Robin Burke (a professor in Computing and Digital Media), he’s adding a digital component to DePaul’s ongoing support of the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” program.

In both initiatives, cross-discipline teamwork distinguishes DePaul’s approach.

A New Discipline

Ceraso, who teaches “Markup and Text Encoding in the Humanities,” says that digital technologies allow scholars to gain insights that challenge “subjective or intuitive” readings. As an example, he cites a text analysis done by digital humanist Matthew Jockers on an American classic:

“One chapter in Moby Dick—a long chapter almost solely about whales—is usually perceived as difficult. Working with the digitized text, Jockers uses lexical varietyor the ratio of unique words to total number of wordsto measure its complexity. As it turns out, that chapter, despite its whale and whaling vocabulary, reuses the same words more often than most of the other chapters do. By the measure of lexical variety, it is less complex than the other chapters. In fact, it’s the fourth ‘simplest’ chapter out of 135. That raises questions about what readers ‘feel’ and why they feel it. In a case like this, the data challenges an intuitive premise, and that’s interesting.”

In her class—“Places, Humanities, and Geographic Information Systems”—Julie Hwang, an associate professor of geography, teaches students how to use GIS technology to visualize data related to subjects within the humanities: “How do we represent qualitative experiences with data? GIS can enable a humanities researcher to catalogue places, map out changes over time, and measure the relationship among variables and events. For instance, it's been used to examine the interrelationship of unemployment and political upheaval during the Civil War. The objectivity of the data adds another, new dimension of understanding to the study of this time period.”

Graduate student Maureen Kudlik discovered an enthusiasm for data-driven inquiry even before becoming the first student admitted to the certificate program. 

“While reading ‘The House of Seven Gables,’ I noticed a lot of words referencing light and dark,” she recalls. “So I counted them, page by page—of course, I’d use a computer program to do the counting now. That helped me place the book in the context of the time. Imagine how dark it was in the mid-19th century. So, light was a big deal: American landscape painters were experimenting with chiaroscuro, and daguerreotype was an emerging technology. I enjoyed making all those connections, and I like to say that digital humanities is making me a scientist of reading.”

Lauren Peterson (BA ’15) echoes that sentiment when talking about her capstone class, “Literature in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” co-taught by Shanahan and Megan Bernal, associate university librarian for Information Technology & Discovery Services:

“I decided to make a video to explore the relationship between literature and media by looking for activities in Chicago connected to Jane Austen. I found wonderful ones, such as Stone Cold Austen, a woman’s arm wrestling team, and Jane-athon, a hacking event in which catalogers, developers and vendors pull together metadata about tons of Austen-related materials. By thinking about an author I love in such a different dimension, I pushed the boundaries of what I thought I could do as an English major. This is the best class I took at DePaul.” The class won the 2013 Thomas and Carol Dammrich Faculty Innovation Award.

A Stake in the Game

In a project with the Chicago Public Libarary, DePaul researchers are investigating the sociology of reading. By including students in the work, they’re giving real-world credibility to the topics explored in the digital humanities classes.

“We’re looking at circulation data from the ‘One Chicago, One Book’ program to answer the question: Who reads what books and why?” says Burke. “We can see patterns of a book’s popularity by neighborhood, and we’re beginning to combine that data with digital analyses of the books themselves: Are they complicated or simple in their language? Are they set in Chicago? Are they set in the past, present or future? Do any or all of these attributes correlate to a book’s popularity?”

Called “Reading Chicago Reading,” the project is rare among digital humanities inquiries in that it aspires to make predictive claims. “We’re hoping to produce insights that the library would find useful, maybe even for choosing books that target certain types of readers,” says Shanahan. “Above and beyond that, we might be able to link reading to other activities, such as voting or volunteering.”  Also innovative in the project is the mining of social media data. “We’re going to be tracking what people say about each book over Twitter, following a literary event as it unfolds over time,” says Ceraso. “That hasn’t been done before.”

Ask a Librarian

For Bernal, the networked library services and programs around the world—and the digital skills needed to access them—make librarians natural partners in digital humanities efforts. “We have the expertise to help faculty create a database, launch an online exhibit, organize an archive of special objects such as Twitter data, or participate in web publishing,” she says. “We support faculty in using digital technologies in their teaching and research, as well as in leveraging vast digital collections, like the HathiTrust Digital Library, for computational inquiry.” 

Anyone interested in exploring the possibilities can take the first step at http://library.depaul.edu/services/digital-services/Pages/default.aspx

DePaul University is one of the country’s most innovative schools, according to U.S. News & World Report. This story is the first in a new series highlighting the many ways faculty innovate in their research, in the classroom and in the community.