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Q&A with Associate Professor of English Literature Rachel Buurma '99

Associate Professor of English Literature Rachel Sagner Buurma

"At its best, digital humanities work helps students think critically and creatively about the role of digital technology in their academic work, their social lives, and their professional futures," says Associate Professor of English Literature Rachel Buurma '99.

Beginning on Thurs., April 9, Swarthmore College will host Re:Humanities, a two-day annual national digital humanities conference for undergraduates, pioneered and organized by students of the Tri-Co colleges (Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, Haverford). The first national digital humanities conference of its kind, Re: Humanities is now in its fifth year and will feature undergraduate presentations, lectures, and keynote addresses from cutting-edge digital humanists Wendy Hsu and Whitney Trettien. Hsu will present “Enacting Humanist Possibilities: From the Academy to the Publics," while Trettien will give a talk, "Destroying the Book to Come." 

Helping lead Swarthmore’s digital humanities’ effort is Associate Professor of English Literature Rachel Sagner Buurma '99. A digital humanist since her days in graduate school, Buurma teaches and researches in the areas of 18th- and 19th-century literature and is Swarthmore’s liaison to the Tri-Co Digital Humanities initiative.


Q: What are digital humanities?

A: The digital humanities use digital technologies, techniques, and methods to do humanities work. We often think of what has come to be called "distant reading" as the most characteristic form of DH (digital humanities) – data-mining sets of 10,000 novels for evidence that might help us learn new about fiction, or mapping millions of datapoints extracted from a corpus of government documents or ships' logs to help us reinterpret a historical narrative we thought we knew well. But DH also includes using humanities methods and interpretive frames to think about digital culture and the effect of technology on society; the Critical Making Twitterbot workshop this past fall offered one demonstration of this kind of work. More broadly, histories and theories of social media fall into this category. 


Q: Is this a new approach to learning? 

A: There's a long history of computer-assisted humanities – since the 1960s scholars have been using computation to ask and answer questions about literature and history. And scholars have been doing "distant readings" of texts for much longer. In the early 2000s, the phrase "digital humanities" started to become popular. But many of us use these techniques and frameworks without even thinking of ourselves as doing DH work. 


Q: How does this approach help students?

A: At its best, digital humanities work helps students think critically and creatively about the role of digital technology in their academic work, their social lives, and their professional futures. It's one thing to do research for a religious studies paper using a digital archive; it's another to be able to to be able to determine the digital archive's capacities as well as the assumptions, or the inclusions and exclusions, built into both the database and its interface. And it's still another thing to be able to take information out of a database and re-organize it in new and creative ways. Digital humanities helps students learn how to do all of those things, as well as much more.  


Q: How can students get involved? 

A: They can contact me or Nabil Kashyap, Swarthmore's digital initiatives librarian, to join our email lists, and they can check the Tri-Co DH website for announcements. We have lots going on in April, and will have a new set of events in the fall. 

There are more and more Swarthmore faculty DH projects involving students. Professor of History Allison Dorsey's Black Liberation 1969 class created the truly remarkable Black Liberation 1969 Archive, which is a model for both digital scholarship and project-based pedagogy; Assistant Professor of English Literature Lara Cohen has students working on a digital editions project in collaboration with the Library Company of Philadelphia; Associate Professor of Russian Sibelan Forrester has students involved in making tools for tracking multiple translations of Russian texts; Visiting Assistant Profesor of Art History Tom Morton teaches a class on digital Rome; Professor of History Tim Burke teaches a class on histories of digital cultures; my Victorian informatics class thinks about the long history of literature as information and involves critical approaches to digital tools, and my Rise of the Novel class, starting in Fall 2015, will involve a text-mining component networked with several other classes at other universities – all related to my own digital bibliography project, the Early Novels Database.

Swarthmore's SPEED program has been another great source of DH projects involving faculty, staff, and students. More broadly, Information Technology Services and the libraries have been engines for creating and supporting these new programs and classes. Academic Technologist Andrew Ruether '94 and I are even collaborating on a media archeology project to help students think about communication history by constructing a telegraph that uses Morse code to send Twitter messages. That's a lot, and it just scratches the surface of what has been happening at Swarthmore in the past year.


Q: Have approaches in digital humanities changed due to shifts in digital media?  

A: One of the things that digital humanities do well is help students think critically about the rapid pace of technological change. And as digital technology becomes more pervasive in all aspects of our lives, this kind of thinking is more and more important. Sometimes we imagine that digital technologies or techniques are the province of only certain disciplines, but that’s not true in everyday life and it shouldn’t be true in college. One thing digital humanities can do is show people that the construction of an antithesis between technology and humanities is a limited thinking about the world. And at Swarthmore, we're extraordinarily lucky to have a Computer Science Department that is interested in and supportive of DH work; many computer science faculty are involved various DH initiatives, projects, and programs. This, believe it or not, is not the case at all institutions! 


Q: What do you like best about the Re:Humanities conference?

A: It opens a window into the next generation of digital humanities work; the students presenting at this conference are from all over the country, and their work represents many of the newest and most exciting developments in DH. Another impressive thing about the conference is that it is really student-run; the Tri-Co Digital Humanities student working group truly makes the conference happen.


Tri-Co Digitial Humanities programming continues on Weds., April 22, when Stephen Downie from the Hathi Trust Research Center will give a public talk and host workshops for faculty, students, and staff on how to incorporate text-mining tools in teaching and research. 

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