Spotlight: Digital Humanities Summer Faculty Workshop Projects

This article is the second in a series to highlight the five 2016 Digital Humanities Summer Faculty Workshop Projects sponsored by the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities (AKIH), and co-organized by Northwestern University Libraries (NUL) and the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences’ Multimedia Learning Center (MMLC). Each summer five faculty projects are chosen for their role in developing digital humanities pedagogical and research projects with meaningful roles for students.

Next up is Dr. Jules Law and his project "Technologies of Language." The idea of this project was to look at theories and philosophies of language from the last two centuries to explore the question, "What if language itself is what forms the world?"

I recently caught up with Dr. Law to see how his project has been going…

Q: Since the summer workshop, how has your project evolved?

JL: The goal of this course was to explore the evolving nature of language and books in a digital age.  We approached this by trying to develop creative ways of producing digital “editions” of some books currently housed in the University Library’s McCormick Library of Special Collections.  To this end we studied theories and philosophies of language, the history of book production, and the ever-proliferating digital technologies, platforms and applications being developed for the web.

I think that I began preparation for this course with the fantasy that I could get far “ahead” of the students and then “lead” them to the new knowledge and technologies that the course was designed to explore.  But it immediately became clear that the students had vastly different kinds and degrees of expertise in web-based technologies, and that some of them were far ahead of me.  

Student example from Sarah Lim, who produced an interactive digital proof based on Book II, Proposition IV of Henry Billingsley’s translation of Euclid’s renowned Elements textbook which describes a core algebraic identity through concrete geometric figures used to design page layouts. When you scroll over colored text, the shapes they represent will appear on the grid.

Was there anything about the project work and the student involvement that surprised you?

I suppose what surprised me the most, was how much intuitive technical knowledge and facility my students already had when it came to web-based forms (even those that were theoretically new to them), and how little familiarity they had with the nature and history of the physical book form!

Student example from Li Kim Leeks, who digitized John Ogilby’s Asia, the First Part by using StoryMap JS, to allow a contemporary audience to read the ‘geographic’ parts of his text together with the maps that he ‘grafted’ into the pages of the book. A user can follow the story by scrolling through the points on the map.

How do you feel that your approach to the course’s material has changed as a result of the project?

I think I knew this in advance, as a result of the summer workshop, but I “forgot” it in the intervening time between the Summer and the Winter Quarter, when I offered the course:  just as a lawyer should never ask a question she doesn’t know the answer to, a teacher should never assign students a task she hasn’t already tried out herself.

I have a much better sense now of how to write the prompts and instructions for the various assignments.  And for that I have to thank my students, who showed me the truly amazing potential in all these projects and platforms—possibilities I only dimly saw in advance myself.  

One final thing I learned was that the philosophical texts I assigned were denser than I had remembered; we definitely needed to slow down and read less, and more patiently, in that part of the course!  But of course those readings also provided the opportunity for some of the course's most exciting engagements and interventions.

Student example from Alaina Kafkes, who digitized the poem “Easter-wings” by George Herbert to explore the question: should the greatest priority in book digitization be maintaining fidelity to the exact appearance of the printed text or recreating the author’s intended user experience with some artistic liberty? This example reflects a literal interpretation of the words translated to the digital realm.  

What was the student reaction?

I think everyone enjoyed some portion of the course, though as I told them from the beginning, this was one of those courses that could only truly “come together” down the road, since there were so many moving parts.  One of the exciting things for me was seeing students become equally enthralled with the “new” materials (the digital platforms) and the “old” ones (the rare books).  

Student example from Julia Popham, who studied – through digital means – a physical copy of John Donne’s Poems by J.D. With Elegies on the Authors Death, printed in 1633.

What Northwestern departments or teams did you work with on the project?

I benefitted from an enormous amount of inspiration and support for this course:  intellectual, imaginative and technical.  Three people without whom the course would never have got off the ground in the first place are the digital humanities librarian, Josh Honn; the digital humanities post-doc, Daniel Snelson; and the IT director for Weinberg’s Media and Design Studio, Matt Taylor.

But I also got tremendous creative and technical help from Cecile-Anne Sison, Instructional Technology Lead, and director John Bresland, both of the Media and Design Studio. And of course the librarians in the McCormick Library of Special Collections—chiefly Sigrid Perry and Jason Nargis—were invaluable resources.

What do you see as the benefit to humanities instruction as it moves into a more digital realm?

Digitality raises some of the most profound issues and questions that humanism can deal with:  what is the nature of identity? What is the nature of communication?  What is the nature of knowledge?  What is the nature of embodiment?  As we work with digital platforms and digital texts--and communicate increasingly with students and with each other in digital ways--the vexed and challenging nature of the medium becomes ever more important.

This medium is becoming at once more foregrounded and more invisible, and it is the challenge of the humanities to trace both those processes.  To reflect on the digital is to reflect on the nature and meaning of the human, and on what we quite appropriately think of as the “limits” or “boundaries” of the human.