The new age of digital humanities

Clemson history professor Vernon Burton argues that the increasing presence of computer technology will impact the future of the humanities

Mar. 30, 2012 9:49 am

A Clemson University professor is making the case for computer technology as a teaching and research tool in the humanities and social sciences.

During Thursday’s “Cyberinfrastructure and the humanities” lecture, Vernon Burton came to speak in Sitterson Hall about the changing role of technology in the social sciences and humanities.

Burton, a history professor and the director of Clemson’s Cyberinstitute, is a world-renowned historian who is known for his work about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

The Cyberinstitute creates infrastructures supporting multidisciplinary and large-scale data driven discovery, he said.

The most exciting part of the Cyberinstitute is the Social Media Listening Center, he said. It is an interdisciplinary research lab and teaching facility that opened in early 2012.

Burton’s lecture illustrated the need for technology in the humanities through the story of the “Three Little Pigs.”

He said he used to tell the story to his five daughters, but the message of the story applies to the humanities’ shift to technology.

He said certain building materials stabilized the house, just as certain innovations strengthen the foundation of the humanities.

“Knowing our history is essential for democracy,” he said.

In fact, Burton argued that humanities technology is the cornerstone of the digital revolution. Humanities technology, such as databases, allows historians to archive, analyze and interpret human activities and history, he said.

“Social science technology is way for us to understand the human record,” Burton said. “We use all evidence available to get history as right as we can.”

Burton used “word clouds” as an example of how technology can be used to teach patterns and themes in history.

He said he made a word cloud for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the most frequently used word was “dedicated.” Other frequently used words were “nation,” “dead,” “great” and “people.”

Burton said he did the same thing for the Emancipation Proclamation. For this word cloud, the word “States” was used most frequently–even more than the word “United.”

He said word clouds illustrate the differences between the two speeches. For example, he said, the words in the Emancipation Proclamation are much more legalistic because that speech tried to establish the legitimacy of Lincoln’s order. But the word clouds also show that the word “people” is common across both.

“The subtle interpretations between these two documents is made more apparent with word cloud,” he said.

He said that it would be possible to do this analysis without computing, but it would be a difficult task.

“It would take forever,” Burton said. “And who would want to?”

Burton also generated word cloud illustrations for the writings from Lincoln’s inauguration to the Gettysburg Address and another word cloud for the writings from the Gettysburg Address to his death.

He said these word clouds represent how Lincoln’s political emphasis shifted over the course of his presidency. This task would be much more difficult without computing, Burton said.

The importance of these technologies, he said, is that they are readily available to students as well as professors.

Still, he acknowledged the problems that can arise with humanities technology.

“Researchers often struggle with the plethora of data sources,” he said.

And financial pressures may prevent research universities from investing in humanities technology.

Bringing new technology to the social sciences may also increase the disparities between those with access to it and those who do not.

“Technology must not widen the gap between those who have access to information tools, and those who do not.”