digital_humanities
Photo: Courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski/Creative Commons

While many people may expect Shakespearean novels and Javascript to fall in different academic realms, Penn is finding a way to bring them together.

In February, the School of Arts and Sciences received a $7 million donation from 1979 Wharton graduate Michael Price and his wife. The money will be used to establish the Price Lab for the Digital Humanities, a project within SAS’s ”Humanities in the Digital Age" initiative, which aims to digitalize humanities education.

Associate Dean for Arts and Letters Jeffrey Kallberg, who leads the planning team of the Price Lab, said the team is currently working on acquiring hardware, recruiting staff and selecting a location. The lab, he said, is expected to start fully functioning next spring.

Kallberg talked about the importance of understanding the significance of digital humanities in the modern information age. “The idea of digital humanities is to integrate the methods of natural sciences into the study of humanities,” he said. “It is a field where people with content expertise and technical expertise come together.”

English professor and Director of the Penn Humanities Forum James English mentioned that in the natural sciences, research is often attached to a lab — for humanities research, there aren’t many “labs” or equivalent places to go to apart from the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. The Price Lab aims to be this “hub” for humanities research that uses computer technology to aid students and faculty.

While students may wonder how the Price Lab will work, Kallberg gave a hypothetical example. “Suppose you have an English major student taking a class in 19th century novel, and he is doing a research paper. This student might have to go through 10,000 English novels. Now it is obviously difficult to read through all of them, but we can construct queries and write programs to answer questions about these novels that no human beings can,” he said.

Digital humanities extends beyond just literature. Kallberg mentioned that digital technology has been used in fine arts, archaeology, music and many other subjects.

Although officially dubbed the Price Lab, the project will entail more than just a physical structure, English said. “There will obviously be spaces and infrastructure, but that’s not gonna cost $7 million. The money will mainly go to a wide range of activities, including course-related projects, boot camps, summer workshops, certificate programs and research for both faculty and students,” he said.

Another benefit of working in the Price Lab will be the interdisciplinary experience. English said that digital humanities projects tend to be team-based, unlike typical humanities research, which is based on individuals. Because the field fosters large projects, people from a variety of subject areas, from literature to computer science to linguistics, can get involved.

“Ultimately I hope to see more crossover between students on the humanities track and on the quantitative track to work on the same projects,” English said.

As the benefactor of the $7 million gift and the SAS Overseer, Price himself is excited about the news.

“I believe that humanities is what leads to creativity. And frankly, it’s too hard to study everything in humanities, so we try to save people’s time with digital technology,” Price said. “My end goal would be to enable every Penn student to absorb as much humanities as they want to and to present this content to them in a format that they enjoy.”

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