Summer Camp for Digital Humanists

June 27, 2008

Set in Chicago in 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition was a showcase of art, architecture, technology, and commerce in a moment of supreme confidence and optimism about the future.

But the "White City," as the fair was called, wasn't built to last. It was thrown up quickly in little more than a year, and many of the buildings were made with a mixture of hemp and plaster. With the exception of the Palace of the Fine Arts — now Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry — little remains of the exposition but pictures, maps, artifacts, and the ground on which it stood.

For scholars in a wide range of disciplines, the Columbian Exposition remains one of the richest episodes in the cultural history of the United States. In the last five years, general interest in the event has been renewed by Erik Larson's best seller, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.

In response to that convergence of interests, Lisa Snyder and the Urban Simulation Team at the University of California at Los Angeles's department of architecture and urban design have recently started a project to re-create the Columbian Exposition in virtual space. Using three-dimensional modeling, combined with more traditional scholarly research, the Urban Simulation Team has developed a new method of assembling dispersed materials in an interactive, visual format that brings the past to life in ways that are both engaging and academically rigorous. (Snyder is a senior member of the team and associate director of outreach and operations for UCLA's Experiential Technologies Center.)

The technology for the re-creation of historic environments is familiar to many of us from video games like SimCity, Grand Theft Auto, and the online virtual world Second Life. The association with video games might make historic simulations seem like mere entertainment, but serious historic re-creations require even more research than many scholarly monographs. More than 2,000 hours have already been dedicated to the Columbian Exposition, and it remains a work in progress. Such simulations also require extensive day-to-day teamwork, involving scholars and programmers from fields that typically do not interact with one another.

Historic simulations are a lot of work, but the results are stunning. You can see a preliminary version of the Columbian Exposition — including video clips and screen shots — on the UCLA team's Web site. Urban simulations are only one development among many that I encountered in May at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria (see

Snyder's presentation at the institute was punctuated by something I had never heard before in an academic context: gasps of astonishment.

Instead of listening to a paper, we flew over Lake Michigan past a detailed rendering of the Exposition's vast Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, into the Court of Honor, up to the animated Columbian Fountain, and, from there, underground to see the workers operating the fountain's plumbing system. Along the way, pop-up images and texts provided the footnotes for the project and portals to more traditional sources of information.

The University of Victoria has sponsored the summer institute for seven years now, and participants sometimes come for several years in a row, taking seminars at progressively more advanced levels.

This year I attended one of the more basic ones on the fundamentals of text encoding, just to get a sense of what one of the instructors, Julia Flanders, director of Brown University's Women Writers Project and president of the Association for Computers and the Humanities, described as the utilities that run underneath all the attractive surface features of Web sites. Other sessions included "Multimedia: Design for Visual, Auditory, and Interactive Electronic Environments," "Digitization Fundamentals," and "Issues in Large-Project Planning and Management."

With his eternal sandals and cargo shorts, Ray Siemens is the head counselor of this academic summer camp. Once described as the "Johnny Appleseed of the Digital Humanities," Siemens holds the Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing at Victoria and is a professor of English with an interest in the Renaissance. He is also one of the editors — with Susan Schreibman and John Unsworth — of A Companion to Digital Humanities, an indispensable overview and a partial who's who of the field. First published in 2004, it is now available online. (Siemens and Schreibman have also recently published another substantial collection, A Companion to Digital Literary Studies.)

The roughly 100 participants in this year's institute were an unusual mix, different from that of any academic conference I've ever attended. For one thing, there were a lot of Canadians — the digital humanities seem to have been planted quite extensively north of the border. But there were also many people from far-flung U.S. institutions, including me, who were drawn to what has become one of the international gathering places for this developing field. A substantial percentage of the participants were librarians, instructional technologists, and other information professionals, but the whole range of the humanities was represented with some clustering in English, history, and foreign languages.

The atmosphere was informal and friendly. Perhaps it had something to do with the legions of semi-tame rabbits that frolic all over the campus. More likely, it stemmed from the lack of established hierarchies. I saw a doctoral student and an assistant professor in the digital humanities teaching the graying eminences of traditional subjects. People here recognized the increasing interdependency of the work of those traditional academics and the highly skilled professionals who are sometimes regarded as mere "support staff."

Of course, many elders in the field — for example, Alan Liu, a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara — have been prominent for decades, but the institute has a youthful atmosphere about it that made me feel slightly older than average at 40, even though the average age in my discipline is near the deep end of the 50s. The mix included many graduate students, too, who are, no doubt, attuned to something that just might be the Next Big Thing.

As with any emerging field that is growing faster than its self-theorization, the digital humanities is vaguely defined. Some uncertainty persists about what characterizes the field besides a spirit of cooperation and an eclectic group of people who identify themselves with it. One of the summer institute's activities is to gather video interviews with participants, asking them to define the digital humanities, describe the skills it includes, and identify some of the best work being done.

Essentially, the digital humanities seem to be a collective effort to use information technology to improve our understanding of the human experience. The field can do that using traditional methods — now made considerably easier and more accessible — such as the bibliography, the concordance, and the authoritative edition aimed at the production of essays and monographs by individual scholars.

But, more significantly, the digital humanities is also about the merger of scholarship from multiple disciplines with new tools for computation, visualization, and communications, often to create interactive projects that can appeal to people at varied levels of interest and expertise. The digital humanities have already begun to redefine what constitutes scholarship, authority, teaching, and merit in academe.

Beyond that, the notion of "academe" itself, as a semi-cloistered and solitary enterprise, is being challenged by theincreasingly open and collaborative quality of information gathering and analy-sis.

I've already mentioned another compelling speaker at the institute, Alan Liu, one of the leading theorists of the field. In addition to his scholarly work — most recently, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (University of Chicago Press, 2004) — Liu is the creator of Voice of the Shuttle, one of the oldest and most useful humanities-research Web sites. He has also written a widely circulated policy statement for teachers on the use of Wikipedia by students that strikes a balance between its convenience as a "good enough" resource for some uses and its limitations in terms of scholarly authority.

As Liu explained at the summer institute, Wikipedia now has more than two million articles on just about any imaginable subject, but it is often difficult to be sure that any entry is credible because we don't know much about the authority of the authors. One can go into the editorial history of an entry — "the social context of knowledge production" — and see how disagreements between authors have been negotiated over time. But conducting an investigation of that kind defeats one of the primary purposes of Wikipedia: to get information quickly.

Liu's solution is to find ways to make the credibility of an entry — or sections of an entry — as easy to read as a traffic light.

Instead of requiring users to rely on an extensive editorial history, entries can be shaded to signify the credibility ratings of the authors behind the content. Entries might also include graphic representations of the modifications of the page over time, indicating the cycles of controversy and consensus: showing readers when information is stable or contested, and, in the process, making them more discerning and critical.

Since it's clear enough that Wikipedia — and other sites based on reader-generated content — are too large and accessible to police themselves effectively, Liu argues that the responsibility for that policing should be adopted by the already existing structures of authority, including academe in particular.

I have to agree: We can't get our students into the libraries; we hardly go there ourselves anymore, as much as we might love them. The time has just about arrived when information that is not online does not exist for most people. Academe exists, in part, to evaluate and establish credibility, but the training methods and reward structures of the humanities — in most cases — strongly discourage the kind of engagement that Liu proposes.

Of course, Liu's presentation raises more questions than it answers: There are, after all, so many complications about the means by which credibility can be rated. We all know the peer-review system is not perfect.

But Liu's vision of a more public, collaborative, and service-oriented role for professors has considerable appeal to me, and it charts some of the steps that must now be taken into this new world of online knowledge production.

Even with many apparent challenges and questions, I left the Digital Humanities Summer Institute as excited about the future as someone might have felt leaving the Columbian Exposition in 1893. (All of the invited lectures at this year's institute are available online as podcast videos.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture and welcomes comments and questions from readers directed to his attention at