Report NASA Conference 2016

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On 15 and 16 September 2016 about 30 scholars met at the Roosevelt Study Center to discuss the state of the field of American Studies after the digital turn.

Introduction

The first call for papers generated few responses, and the program committee feared cancelation of the event. Investigations into the lack of enthusiasm revealed the ruling skepticism towards digital humanities not only within American Studies, but all of the humanities.

Eventually a colorful international blend of participants, from those well-equipped within the digital humanities as well as self-declared technological novices, met for two intense days of exploration and discussion. There were enough skeptics to start a fundamental discussion about the purpose and the means of digital humanities, including our co-organizer George Blaustein, who opened the meeting by listing the terms “digital humanities,” quantitative data, and “digital turn” as things he as possible symptoms of an emerging corporate university. By the end of the conference, however, he granted that his initial reservations had turned into expectations.

Over the two days of the conference participants discussed a wide range of ideas about the digital humanities and American Studies. From its impact on American Studies methodology and teaching, to possible tools, projects, databases, and issues of publishing and digitization. A few themes on what digital humanities has brought to American Studies stood out.

Necessity to Digest Massive Sources

Keynoter John Corrigan from Florida State University positioned the new digital methods as additional tools to produce deep maps about complex problems. These new technologies could actually liberate American Studies’ long and not always productive polemical and activist character. They bring the field back to its interdisciplinary roots, which have endowed Americanists with the ability to bridge very different pockets of data. The question today begs if they can now do the same thing for big data.

Corrigan’s reassuring comments and fitting examples made many participants decide that the digital ‘turn’ is an overstatement. The output of databases and tools should be viewed as a new set of sources, that inductively add complexity to numbers and open-ended gestures to conclusions. Working with digitized sources is an iterative process of scholars moving back and forth between their close reading of sources and ‘zooming out’ to gain a broader perspective of the context of their findings. So there is no exclusivist claim.

Obscuration and Amplification

In her keynote Miriam Posner from UCLA argued that humanist’s hesitance about digital humanities is caused by the fear that the tools and techniques to analyze big data overgeneralize. Because historians break down categories and timelines, big data makes them feel uncomfortable. The difference between a focus on the unconscious and identity that is central to cultural analysis might compete with the explicit and countable results of digital humanities.

Selection of sources and biases in data collections may obscure some voices and amplify others, which may lead to distortions in historical research. For example, Alexander Dunst from the University of Paderborn showed how digital collections of graphic narratives had a gendered and racial bias that might be result of publication practices. On the other hand, social media has made it easier to directly contact groups and find sources that were otherwise out of reach.

Teaching and Presenting

Presentations also focused on the impact of the digital on American Studies teaching. For example, Dario Fazzi from the Roosevelt Study Center explained how hundreds of international students enrolled in his Massive Open Online Course (also known as ‘MOOC’) on “The Rooseveltian Century.” 

Aynur Erdogan (Groningen University) showed how her students worked with digitized sources and databases. Mostly though, the digital humanities have not yet made an impact on American Studies teaching, because they are not integrated in current curricula. A student survey showed that graduate students would like to get acquainted with these new methods, but that they are mostly absent in their courses.

Maps featured in multiple presentations as a new way to frame or present data, because locations are not subject to change, even though mental maps may differ greatly from geographical ones. There was also interest in using digitized maps as teaching tools. Damian Pargas from Leiden University sought to create a contextualized map to help students better understand the narratives of slaves who ran away.

More visualizations and apps may allow a broader audience to engage with the outcomes of American Studies research. A barrier of digital presentation is that it often does not receive the same credit as a monograph or a peer-reviewed journal article. Even when a website or an app is an obvious outlet to publish a mixture of different sources, scholars will still rather publish a book.

New Avenues

In his keynote Antal van den Bosch from Radboud University Nijmegen offered practical examples of digital sources and tools that could contribute to American Studies research. He showed how the computer could help historians in uncovering hidden “near events” such as strikes in large databases. He argued that computational methods save time and open up new research avenues and patterns to explore. Melvin Wevers from Utrecht University showed how he mined newspapers to identify how America functioned as a reference culture for Dutch tobacco debates.

Finally, Frank Mehring from Radboud and Hans Krabbendam from the Roosevelt Study Center discussed image mining with examples from a project on the circulation of Marshall Plan photographs as a means for a cultural analysis of the imagery.

Results

At the round-table forum concluding the conference the participants agreed that the program had succeeded handsomely in bridging the gap between what seemed two separate shores of cultural interpretation and the digital computation of phenomena.

Thanks to expert keynote presentations, concerns about the loss of meaning were critically evaluated. Far from a departure from traditional methods, the participants showed a reciprocal turn towards each other for enrichment, patterns, and best practices. The result was a confirmation of the fact that the digital world has a positive impact on research, teaching, and publication of American Studies that encourages cooperation and exchange.

Everyone went home with a fundamental grounding of digital humanities and an armful of quick results, ranging from useful websites and reapplication of existing databases, to the existence of short intensive courses on programming. The organizers realized this is only beginning and that more American Studies researchers and students need to engage and discuss the possibilities of digital humanities. Next steps should be taken to organize workshops, examine funding opportunities, find publication forums, compare transatlantic differences, and develop appropriate pedagogy. Big data is here to stay, and the conference showed that Americanists are well equipped to critically evaluate and reap the fruits of this exciting development.

Click here for the Program.

Lisanne Walma and Hans Krabbendam