Transforming the Humanities Through Technology

October 30th, 2018
The UA Center for Digital Humanities is helping faculty and students embark on wide-ranging research projects applying cutting-edge technology
Imagine being able to walk around a Buddhist temple in China without leaving your desk. Or observe with the click of a button how African dances evolved. Or read ancient scripts with real-time translation.
Those are just some of the ways digital technology is creating new opportunities to study who we are, where we came from and ultimately what it means to be human.
The UA College of Humanities’ new Center for Digital Humanities exists at the intersection of advanced computational technology and the world’s most enduring questions about the human condition. Projects already underway apply technologies like data visualization, digital storytelling, 360-degree immersive video, digital mapping, and virtual and augmented reality to subjects including traditional African dances, Buddhist temples and rituals, ancient writing and languages, and religious expression in social media.
That combination of technologies and humanities, a synthesis of different modes of thought and exploration, can spark exciting new opportunities and unexpected directions for research, says Bryan Carter, director of the Center for Digital Humanities.
“With digital humanities, when you start a project, new questions are spawned because you’re visualizing them in a new context,” Carter says. “There are all these ways you can see the world differently and experience it differently.”
Carter describes the Center as a “dedicated research and innovation incubator,” purposefully structured with a unique collaborative framework to support research projects by faculty members.
“Often, faculty and students don’t have the necessary coding skills, so it’s farmed out to some entity. What we’re trying to do is eliminate that uncertainty for faculty members and students by integrating both the content and technology development in-house," Carter says. "This makes it much easier for faculty and students to understand and drive their digital projects in their entirety.”
For College of Humanities Dean Alain-Philippe Durand, making technological innovation a high priority in the college will help advance faculty research and increase career potential for students who major in humanities disciplines.
“With the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we’re looking at a future that demands a wealth of skills that combine the traditional language, cultural and critical thinking expertise of the humanities with the technologies that are transforming our world," Durand says. "By becoming practiced in this kind of transdisciplinary knowledge-making, our graduates will have a distinct advantage.”
Carter began pushing the boundaries of cutting-edge technology and humanities in his own research and teaching during the early days of digital humanities research. His long-running Virtual Harlem project is a virtual representation of the Harlem Renaissance and jazz age. It is intended to offer students greater insight into iconic locations like the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater, along with providing a variety of digital narratives to help students understand the period.
“In graduate school, I was teaching African-American literature and I realized the students were having a difficult time visualizing and connecting with the period we were studying, namely the Harlem Renaissance,” he says. “I was searching for ways they could contextualize and connect with it. Virtual reality was brand new and I submitted a proposal, thinking that maybe this new technology might engage and create an interactive experience in my class. That incorporated aspects of digital humanities before the term was popularized.”
More than 20 years later, technological advances have created a myriad of new ways to analyze and present information. The Center for Digital Humanities incorporates textual and data analysis, application creation, data visualization, GIS mapping, augmented reality, virtual reality, immersive technology, digital storytelling, social networks, cultural informatics, 3-D scanning and motion capture.
With small development awards, the Center for Digital Humanities supports pilot projects that can then be documented as working prototypes in larger external grant applications. Bringing traditional humanities research into the digital realm typically opens new avenues for faculty members to pursue, says Carter, who places a focus on diversity and inclusion while encouraging projects that explore new territories.
“I love to encourage faculty to incorporate digital technologies into their existing research agenda and watch how new avenues related to their work that they had not even imagined emerge,” Carter says. “It’s so exciting to be at the ground level of a faculty member’s introduction to emerging technologies through initial informal brainstorming sessions or to assist wherever needed for those who are more advanced.”
Ken McAllister, associate dean for research and program innovation in the College of Humanities, says the Center’s projects naturally take into account a variety of linguistic and cultural practices, representing not just digital humanities, but more specifically “globally facing digital humanities research with global implications.”
“The work being done in the Center for Digital Humanities has already resulted in new collaborations with colleagues in Russia, Germany, Mexico, Australia, India, China, Spain and Zimbabwe,” McAllister says. “One of the most exciting aspects of the Center is that it almost automatically begins to build researchers’ intercultural competence. The days of monolingual, monocultural understandings of scholarship are quickly fading.”
Praise Zenenga, director of the UA Africana Studies Program, received one of the original digital humanities development awards to pursue a project that allows him to teach his course on African dance to students enrolled online.
Zenenga’s project uses motion capture to record the movements of a professional dancer, creating a virtual representation of dances that evolved from Africa, through the Caribbean and to the United States. Students can examine the dances online from any angle and at any speed. Slow-motion, pause and rewind functionalities allow students to follow and learn the dances in an online environment.
“Teaching from the humanistic perspective – not the fine arts perspective – my primary interest in the classroom is showing students how traditional dances have evolved over space and time,” Zenenga says. “There are dances that have evolved through centuries, traveling and transforming and being expressed in different contexts. Three-dimensional motion capture can show students how these subtle variations evolved. It’s easier for students to be taken back in time and to simulate a real experience through 3-D motion capture technology.”
While continuing with the motion capture project, Zenenga is also branching out into 3-D scanning of African sculptures. The ultimate goal for both projects is similar: going far beyond what textbooks can show students.
“When we’re teaching, we want to bring that remote, distant world home to students,” Zenenga says. “That’s the main objective to me, letting people see an almost real version of this art.”
Albert Welter, head of the UA Department of East Asian Studies, and Jiang Wu, director of the UA Center for Buddhist Studies, used 360-degree cameras during a summer research trip to Hangzhou, China, as a way to virtually transport students to Buddhist temples.
“We’re going to recreate, digitally, a Chinese temple, with all the visual elements inside – statues, murals and the accoutrement – that are used in ritual,” Welter says. “We’re teaching students how to read the meaning in this temple, how to observe and how to interpret what they see. When you look at images in a Buddhist temple, they’re not all the same. It’s not as if there’s one image of the Buddha. Each tells the story that’s somewhat specific to that temple.”
The 360-degree images and video are the beginning of the Virtual Hangzhou project, which seeks to show the evolution of Chinese temples over the centuries, addressing questions about continuity and change as Buddhism has evolved over time. The virtual recreation gives students a multitude of entry points into the study of Buddhism that they can’t get otherwise.
“When you go to the site physically, you can do this work. That’s not available to students in a classroom in North America. You don’t get a complete sense of the site through pictures,” Welter says. “We want to be able to take students into the site, so that while they’re here, they can be virtually present and begin to understand and interpret. Through that immersion they can reach different levels of reading the site, of seeing and understanding contextually what it means.”
Most other universities with a center for digital humanities operate under a different structure, Carter says. The centers offer workshops and training sessions, but if they make grants, it’s typically cash awards.
“The downside of that is that faculty have to go out and find their own developers or write their own code,” Carter says. “Our center really is a different model. We take that uncertainty out and provide a developmental model and ongoing support of our faculty members’ digital projects.”
Taking the digital humanities projects from idea to reality involves a collaboration between faculty researchers and student developers in the Tech.Global program. Created in 2016 with the goal of giving students a place to gain hands-on learning in a real work environment, Tech.Global is both a 100% Engagement experience for students and an affordable technological resource for partners on campus, says director Ash Black.
“It’s a perfect example of letting the world’s needs drive your learning, and what’s great with the College of Humanities is the students are working in constant contact with the faculty members,” Black says. “It’s a very innovative partnership. We appreciate the extreme focus on research outcomes. The College of Humanities hasn’t asked us to build a widget. It’s all about exploring the possibilities of the technology.”
Many of the ideas humanities faculty members take to Tech.Global pose interesting technological problems. Black says potential solutions, such as a computerized text reader that will tease out place name data and locate it on a map, or a reader and translator for ancient scripts, can be valuable breakthroughs.
“When it comes to technology, once you solve a problem, that has other applications. You only need one search engine. You only need one mapping tool,” he says. “If you could build a machine-based algorithm to read texts and create a map, you’d solve that problem for all books written. Any particular problem we end up solving will catapult the UA forward.”
The Center for Digital Humanities sponsors three student seats, or a total of 3,072 hours, within Tech.Global. But more important than the development hours alone is the value of the projects in which student coders participate.