Reflections on Digital Scholarship Week at Reed

The last week of March was Digital Scholarship Week at Reed. Instructional Technology Services and Library staff, with generous support from the Center for Teaching and Learning, organized the week-long series of events to showcase digital methodologies in research and teaching at Reed. Students and faculty from a variety of disciplines were among the presenters. I enjoyed the way that talking about digital scholarship brought scholars from different disciplines together in one conversation.

As someone with a background in the humanities, one of the questions that interests me is how scholars of the humanities use digital methods, so I was very glad that Dr. Miriam Posner (’01) returned to Reed as part of Digital Scholarship Week. Dr. Posner is a faculty member and coordinator of the Digital Humanities program at UCLA. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale in Film Studies and American Studies. Dr. Posner presented a workshop on visualizing data in the humanities and a lecture on her work on the visual culture of lobotomy in the United States.

One of the barriers to doing digital humanities research is thinking of evidence as data. Digital methods require data that is machine operable in some way, and the types of evidence that many scholars in the humanities use are not well suited to this. Dr. Posner has called humanities data “A Necessary Contradiction.” Although many students and faculty at Reed are involved in digital scholarship, Reed’s strong focus on textual interpretation and close reading may make the digital humanities seem like an awkward fit.

Dr. Posner, though, is a Reedie, and her lecture, which is available to view, demonstrated how digital humanities methods can complement archival research. At the outset of her lecture, Dr. Posner noted that we wouldn’t reach the “digital” part of her lecture until nearly the end. Most of her lecture was richly illustrated with archival materials, primarily the photographs of lobotomy patients taken by Dr. Walter Freeman, the focus of her study. But in her research into these photographs, Dr. Posner faced a question for which digital humanities methods were useful. Dr. Posner argued that Dr. Freeman used patient photographs as evidence that lobotomy was a successful medical treatment. She wondered if patient photographs were a common form of medical evidence in the time that Dr. Freeman was working. To answer this question, she used a program to scrape images from medical journals, sorted the images into categories, and then represented her results graphically—all done with the help of digital tools. Interestingly, Dr. Posner found that the data she’d collected digitally did not match the evidence she found in the archives: patient photographs were not commonly published in medical journals. Using this information, Dr. Posner suggested that medical researchers like Dr. Freeman commonly used patient photographs in the illustrated lectures they presented at medical institutions across the country rather than as evidence in published articles.

Dr. Posner’s lecture showed that applying digital methods to humanities research can both address questions that benefit from quantitative analysis and also raise new lines of inquiry. During her workshop on visualizing data in the humanities, Dr. Posner also suggested that scholars of the humanities may make more use of data than they think. Workshop participants used Palladio to visualize metadata from the Cushman archive, a collection of photographs at Indiana University. Using cleaned data, we created a map and network analysis of the photographs. The workshop focused on metadata, or information about, in this case, archival material—a body of evidence that humanities scholars sometimes underutilize. Metadata is a valuable organization tool, it is can also be a way to think about evidence geographically and chronologically and explore relationships between pieces of evidence. You can find an outline of Dr. Posner’s workshop on her blog.

I left Digital Scholarship Week with many ideas about how digital tools can be used in teaching and research at Reed, and I’m excited to talk about what data looks like in the humanities, how we organize and clean data, how we use data in research, and how we can use visualization tools to illustrate our conclusions.

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