New course highlights growing academic recognition of digital humanities

Professor of Computer Science Anthony Bucci (seated) engages in discussion with Professor of Classics Marie-Claire Beaulieu during her presentation in their class on Nov. 28. (Rachael Meyer / The Tufts Daily)

Coming from two distinct backgrounds, Associate Professor of Classics Marie-Claire Beaulieu and Computer Science Lecturer Anthony Bucci have teamed up this semester to offer an introductory course that provides insight into the emerging interdisciplinary field of digital humanities.

Digital humanities, in the context of the course, is primarily concerned with creating digital representations of ancient artifacts and using them to analyze, research and share knowledge, according to Beaulieu. She believes it represents the future of the humanities field and a growing trend in academia.

“This is where our field is headed in classics, as well as [in] many other humanities fields,” Beaulieu said. “We are increasing the use of these methods to pursue our own research.”

Joseph Auner, dean of academic affairs for Arts and Sciences and music professor, explained that the course is an example of a growing movement at Tufts to integrate digital analysis into the humanities and to create a more interdisciplinary environment at Tufts.

“The area of digital humanities is increasingly important, and every university is thinking about strategies toward supporting new kinds of teaching and research in the digital humanities,” Auner said.

Tufts already offers outlets in the area of digital humanities, including geographic information systems (GIS), which is supported by Tufts’ Data Lab, a university-wide resource that allows students to access data, workshops and research materials. 

Another digital humanities resource at Tufts is the Perseus Digital Library. Developed by classics professor Gregory Crane, Perseus is a digital archive of ancient texts from the Greco-Roman world.

Beaulieu said that students use this database heavily in Introduction to Digital Humanities and that it is readily accessible to all Tufts students.

Following this trend toward greater integration of computing and the humanities is the introduction of a new graduate program through the Department of Classics, which will begin next fall. In September 2016, the department announced that it was launching a graduate program through which students earn an M.A. in Digital Tools for Premodern Studies. This program focuses explicitly on using computational methods and other digital techniques to analyze data from the ancient world.

Beaulieu explained that the Introduction to Digital Humanities course is crucial in shaping the direction of this new graduate program.

“This class is a prototype for the introductory class of the new graduate [program] in Digital Tools for Premodern Studies,” she said.

Beaulieu emphasized the benefits of focusing on this digital direction for those in the humanities field, such as herself.

“This makes [our research] shareable, so we can aggregate things and other people can re-use our transcriptions to do other work, such as making large databases, analyzing trends,” she said. “We learn much more than we would have by just using analog methods.”

Beaulieu added that an emphasis on understanding computing has become pervasive across the humanities. For this reason, she feels that interdisciplinary courses like this one could be useful for any undergraduate student at Tufts.

Bucci is excited about the course’s ability to inform students and academics about the problems that arise when humans and machines interact through the study of both texts and artifacts.

“I really enjoyed the idea that we can gain insight into something that happened so long ago via actual artifacts, which were found and were then encoded into data,” he said.

In creating the introductory course, Beaulieu and Bucci said they were approached by Soha Hassoun, the chair of the computer science department, who was looking to increase the availability and approachability of computer science education to non-majors.

The class currently has eight students from a range of backgrounds, according to Beaulieu. Students have been gaining hands-on experience through the data analysis techniques they learn, which Bucci said subconsciously teaches them important computer science skills.

“What is exciting about it is that we are teaching [computer science] skills without them being [computer science] skills. The students are doing things equivalent to coding while not writing code the way they would in a computer science course,” he said. “I think that students who might have a little apprehension about coding can learn a lot and recognize later that they had skills they didn’t realize they had before.”

Speaking as a computer scientist, Bucci noted that this is an innovative way of looking at computer engineering, as it offers the depth and historical context that typically comes from humanities fields.

“Most computer software related jobs are creating applications for banks or bureaucracies, and that can be very dry,” he said. “I feel like certain individuals in computer science who are looking for something more interesting can explore Latin, Greek and other classical fields in a way that they never dreamt would be possible [through digital humanities].”

Bucci feels that this course could change the way students view both computer science and the world.

“I would like to instill in students greater confidence in their abilities to work with computational techniques while also gaining a more informed skepticism of data products,” he said. “I would like to be able to see students look at these things with a discerning eye and understand the process behind making graphs and infographics. They will be able to see the world a little differently.”

Meha Elhence, a first-year enrolled in the course, explained that the class holds a unique niche in academia as it brings together two seemingly different arenas.

She said that the students in her class are currently working on their final projects, for which they develop a hypothesis about ancient civilization and then seek to answer it through computational techniques. Her group is investigating whether or not the deities worshipped in a certain region had any effect on the names of the people in the area.

Elhence explained that while she may not pursue classics or computer science as a career, she has gained important skills through the class that could help her in the future.

“I now know how to take data and make it meaningful by visualizing it in some sort of graph and making something that is easy for everyone to see and understand,” Elhence said. “[The course] has also taught me to teach myself things and learn how to use data analysis, despite never having used it before. I’ve learned to not always give up on something just because it seems boring at first.”

Junior Giles Bullen, who is majoring in film and media studies, said that students are getting more out of this class than just basic knowledge of digital humanities.

“[You gain] a specific mentality of not only questioning the data, where it comes from, why it appears the way it does, what it says, but also gathering it yourself and reexamining how you look at something like a book and the ways you can understand it,” he said.

Students will again have the option to take Introduction to Digital Humanities in fall 2017, according to Beaulieu. Seeing as this was the first time this course was taught, she said that she might change a few things the next time around.

“I would like to approach [the class] from a unified perspective — it could be mythology or ancient religion,” she said. “It’s something that we are very familiar with and students are very interested in.”

While Auner described Tufts as somewhat of a leader in the field of digital humanities, he noted that the university is looking to further develop its involvement in the field.

“A big thing that we are exploring is the level of centralization,” he said. “Currently, there are a lot of faculty working in this area, but it is distributed across many disciplines and departments.”

Auner said these new initiatives at Tufts could move forward in several different directions to provide a broader and more comprehensive education for students. 

“The traditional model of humanities research is the solitary researcher working in an archive on some question,” he said. “Now the archive is more of a virtual archive, and rather than the single scholar, there are teams of scholars working together and teams of people who are not scholars in the older sense. And you can ask really different questions because of the kinds of information you have.”