A Digital Humanist Puts New Tools in the Hands of Scholars

Andrew Councill, The New York Times, Redux

Daniel J. Cohen, of George Mason U.
February 26, 2012

When Daniel J. Cohen went to work at George Mason University in 2001, its Center for History and New Media boasted a name and little else. Run from the office of its founder, Roy Rosenzweig, the center soon graduated to a modular trailer jokingly called "the van in the parking lot with the fiber-optic line running into it." Raccoons took refuge beneath it.

Today the center is a well-oiled machine with more than 100 Web projects, which reach 16 million people. Its staff works in an office suite that feels like a dot-com, Nintendo station included. And Mr. Cohen's specialty of digital humanities—thinking about how technology can advance scholarship in fields like history—is ascendant, with popular-press write-ups and a growing presence at major academic conferences.

THE INNOVATOR: Daniel J. Cohen, George Mason University

THE BIG IDEA: Find new ways to do humanities research using digital tools, and give even non-techy scholars the ability to use them.

Still, 20 years into the life of the Web, Mr. Cohen feels that many scholars don't grasp the full potential of digital tools. They dismiss computer techniques for reading mass amounts of text. They see the Web as a place to distribute electronic copies of articles rather than as a platform that fosters new ways of thinking.

"I'm particularly worried about the humanities," Mr. Cohen says in his corner office at the George Mason center, which he has run since 2007. Traditional forms of scholarly communication suffer from "inertia" that keeps them hanging around "long past their freshness date."

His solution: Hack the academy.

Mr. Cohen is a leading architect in the design of a parallel academic universe, one filled with alternatives to tradition on many fronts. Meetings? The center's staff started a series of free-form academic "camps" for people interested in mixing digital tools and humanities scholarship. Publishing? Mr. Cohen's shop built PressForward to aggregate blogs and other online scholarship. Tools? His center developed Zotero, which helps scholars gather sources, and Omeka, which lets institutions mount online exhibits without dirtying their hands in the digital plumbing.

"He's a huge force for good in the profession," says Anthony Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton University. Mr. Grafton, who recently stepped down as president of the American Historical Association, predicts the field will increasingly move into digital work. And Mr. Cohen will be "a very important person in teaching generations of historians to do that, not by taking what is basically a book and slapping it on the Web, but by doing something which is distinctively digital."

Mr. Cohen keeps up a highly visible online presence, with a digital humanities blog and more than 7,000 followers on Twitter, but in person he doesn't come off as the tech-hipster type. The modest 43-year-old scholar greets a reporter wearing an ensemble of blue button-down shirt, green V-neck sweater, and gray slacks. When he mentions how the center once consulted a brand expert about changing its name—perhaps something snappier, with a futurist word like "Next"—he rubs his face and flashes a sheepish look.

Mr. Cohen trained at colleges steeped in tradition, earning a hat trick of Ivy League degrees from Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. He intended to major in math as an undergraduate. Growing up outside Boston, he had so excelled with numbers that he ranked among the 20 best high-school students in New England and competed in the 1985 International Math Olympiad, "trying to score higher than the Soviet kids."

But he felt out of his league among the math minds of Princeton's storied Fine Hall. He branched out to studying religion and the history of science. His early research explored how a group of 19th-century mathematicians considered math a "language of God."

Mr. Cohen might still be cloistered in obscurity had he not crossed paths with Mr. Rosenzweig, a pioneer of using technology to reshape history scholarship and reach the public. In 2001, Mr. Rosenzweig hired Mr. Cohen to undertake a science-history project, which would be the younger scholar's first foray into digital humanities. The research effort grew out of a concern that science was expanding rapidly while the history of science was not. Mr. Cohen investigated how to capture the difficult-to-preserve born-digital objects of modern science, like giant databases.

Then came 9/11. Mr. Cohen and colleagues deployed the techniques they had honed in the science project to document the attacks. E-mail, voice mail, blogs—more than 150,000 items went into the center's September 11 Digital Archive. The Library of Congress now archives the collection, its first major digital acquisition.

These days Mr. Cohen thinks a lot about how to do history in an era of abundant digital materials. In a recent project, he examined whether one scholar's famous assertions about Victorian thought, made on the basis of close reading of classic literature, held up against an analysis of Google's collection of over a million Victorian books.

Critics view such "distant reading" as superficial. Others, like the historian Zachary Schrag, grouse that Mr. Cohen's publishing experiments risk destroying what's valuable about traditional scholarly communication, like good editing that improves manuscripts and filters out the "crud."

Mr. Cohen pushes back against the pushback. For example, he views big data-versus-close-reading as a false fight; better, he says, to adopt a hybrid approach that draws on both. That response reflects Mr. Cohen himself: a smart mix of old and new.

Dan Cohen speaks about digital humanities at the Coalition for Networked Information: