Digital Humanities Forum merges technology with arts, literature


The event drew speakers from Stanford, Brandeis and the Maryland Institute for Technology




As a sign of changing times, digitization has entered realms of studies not traditionally associated with technology.

The Digital Humanities Forum, an offshoot of the Penn Humanities Forum, is a new resource for scholars to use technology in areas such as art and literature.

The term “digital humanities” refers to an array of activities, such as the use of social media platforms as research environments and data mining within literary works, according to English professor James English, who is the founding director of DHF.

“In the humanities it’s been less clear how much computer technologies have to offer,” he said. “Digital humanities have been a way to test what computers can and can’t do for us in those fields.”

DHF evolved from ideas explored during Penn Humanities Forum’s 2010-2011 theme year of “Virtuality.” The Humanities Forum —which is also headed by English — is a venue for University scholars in the humanities to discuss their research.

“A number of the presentations and events we did were exploring some of the new forms of work, research and scholarship that are emerging [in] digital humanities,” English said. The projects brought attention to the fact that digital humanities were in need of a niche at Penn.

DHF’s first public event, a symposium entitled “Libraries, Labs and Classrooms: Locating the Digital Humanities,” was held on Sept. 28 at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Featuring speakers from Brandeis University, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities and Stanford University, the panel discussions centered on how different environments can influence research in digital humanities. DHF plans to sponsor such symposiums once a semester and host discussions on digital work.

Mitch Fraas, a member of the DHF executive board, said the project is aimed at both sharing and gathering knowledge about how technology can be involved in academia. “The point is to encourage … new skills and research methodologies, share work that’s going on and bring people to campus to inform [us] of what’s going on elsewhere,” Fraas said.

Executive board member Chris Mustazza, the director of Student Technology and Social Sciences Computing, said in an email that DHF will “help to further bring together humanists with technologists to create cutting-edge scholarship and new ways to conceptualize long-studied works of art.” Such collaborations will further Penn’s reputation as a hub for the digital humanities, he added.

Currently in its start-up phase, DHF has received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will support the project through June 2014. English said if students and faculty express significant interest in this type of research, the Forum will hopefully secure more funding.

DHF will support research particularly conducted by faulty and graduate students. While all students are encouraged to take on projects, English said, faculty are able to conduct multi-year research and receive funding more easily. “A lot of work in digital humanities takes some time to get off the ground,” he said. “We have to identify faculty who are interested in devoting a chunk of their careers to new, digital work.”

According to Fraas, DHF will have a project funding cycle every semester. Interested faculty and students can submit applications for a start-up grant, which will be subject to review by the executive board. There is potential to fund about half a dozen or more projects.

The program will also offer grants for those who wish to attend digital humanities classes during summer and winter breaks. These grants will provide up to $1,200 for travel, lodging and tuition at the digital humanities institutes at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities or other proposed venues.

English said eventually he’d like to see a certificate program for graduate students. “It’s the generations of grad students who’ll do the most work in digital humanities,” he said.

While this discipline is relatively unfamiliar to many scholars, English believes this will change with a new generation of scholars.

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