The Humanities, Rebooted

April 14, 2014:

Neubauer Collegium Catalyzes Digital Humanities Innovation at University of Chicago

By Emilio Comay del Junco

Ask a group of people what they understand by “digital humanities” and – assuming they know what you’re talking about – you’ll likely get as many different responses as people you ask. Some digital humanities research combines traditional research methods in the humanities with new computing tools, such as data visualization, text mining, and statistics. Other times, digital humanities research applies empirical and experimental methods – more commonly used in the natural sciences – to questions that humanities disciplines have historically tried to answer with comparative and hermeneutic methods alone. Some digital humanities projects take the form of curating online collections, while others apply humanistic modes of inquiry to the study of new digital media.

So, what’s the common thread running through these projects that merits them being given the “digital humanities” moniker?  Rather than the specific questions they answer, the best place to look is in their innovative research practices. Digital humanities projects are often highly collaborative, driven by a need to seek out technical expertise from multiple fields. As a result, the research tends to transcend the boundaries between academic fields as they have traditionally been conceived.

For example, the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society project Global Literary Networks, led by Hoyt Long, assistant professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Richard So, assistant professor in the English Department, aims to “explore the ways that literature and creativity operate within complex social and linguistic systems” by using computational techniques borrowed from disciplines like linguistics and applying them to corpuses of poetry from around the world.

Using extensive bibliographic metadata on US, Chinese, Japanese, and Latin American literary journals, Long and So employ network visualization software to uncover global patterns of transnational textual flows. In the case of Japan, they used data on translated poems to show where specific European and American poets were being published. They found that these groupings tended to reflect both the nationality (e.g. British poets were more likely published by the same journal) and genre of the poets being translated. The visualizations also revealed that the most-translated poets, such as French Surrealists like Eluard and Cocteau, were being published by multiple, otherwise fairly distinct sets of journals: the French surrealists thus represent not only the most-translated Euro-American poetry into Japanese, but also a point of contact between various Japanese journals and their literary communities. In all of So and Long’s work, computationally driven forms of reading are “essential to articulating these macro-scale arguments,” reframing traditional literary categories and offering new understandings about the social and global dimensions of cultural production.

Innovative application of digital tools to traditional objects of research is also driving UChicago Professor Yuri Tsivian’s Neubauer Collegium project, Cinemetrics Across Boundaries: A Collaborative Study of Montage. For years, Tsivian has deployed statistical methods of analysis within an open-access online film database of his own creation in order to study how montage has changed throughout the history of cinema. Users visiting his cinemetrics website – which is open to anyone and is used both by academics and amateur film lovers – click every time there is a scene cut, resulting in precise quantitative data which could be used to compare films based on average shot length, numbers of shots, and more.  Since its launch in 2005, users worldwide have contributed measurements of thousands of films to the online database and cinemetrics itself has emerged as a burgeoning subfield of cinema studies.

With support from the Neubauer Collegium, Tsivian has brought Daria Khitrova, a scholar of Russian literature and Michael Baxter, a statistician from Nottingham Trent University to UChicago as Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellows to work on the Cinemetrics Across Boundaries project. Together, Tsivian, Khitrova and Baxter are exploring how methods in computational analysis can open new questions in the field of film studies and other meter-driven arts. This relationship was recently featured in a New York Times article that used Tsivian’s tools to discuss gender imbalance in Hollywood films, using statistical measurements to show that lead actresses get significantly less screen time than their male counterparts. The Cinemetrics Across Boundaries collaboration exemplifies how digital humanities projects bridge the gap between computationally intensive research, traditional objects of humanistic inquiry, and scientific methodologies.

The University of Chicago takes an inclusive approach to the digital humanities, embracing a broad range of topics including the humanistic study of digital media. Understanding how digital media are creating new forms of social learning was the impetus for Melissa Gilliam, professor and OB-GYN at UChicago’s medical center, and Patrick Jagoda, assistant professor of English, to create the Game Changer Chicago (GCC) Design Lab, which the Neubauer Collegium is supporting for three years. The GCC Design Lab employs design and research specialists, as well as both undergraduate and high school students, to create games – including card, board, computer, mobile, and immersive ‘alternate reality’ games – that function to increase awareness about sexual health among youth on the South Side of Chicago.

By bringing scholars who are at the intersection of art, narrative, and health studies together in a laboratory environment with game creators and players, Gilliam and Jagoda are exploring how digital media encourage new forms of storytelling that are open-ended, multi-authored, and non-linear – engaging theoretical questions central to the digital humanities. The GCC Design Lab setting offers the, “possibility of collaboration between the humanities and the sciences,” said Jagoda. “In creating The Source [one of Game Changer’s signature games] we brought humanities interests in critical thinking and narrative to bear on topics in science and engineering.”

Speaking on a recent panel entitled What Are the Digital Humanities?, Jagoda explained that the digital humanities “foreground building and making” of new tools and approaches to a wide variety of inquiry. He went on to explain that practice-based research methods in the digital humanities “are not an alternative to [traditional] thinking, but a way to test and transform concepts.”

The collaborative nature of digital humanities projects also extends beyond the university’s academic departments. For example, James Nye, Bibliographer for Southern Asia at the University of Chicago Library is one of the lead investigators in the Neubauer Collegium project, Audio Cultures of India: New Approaches to the Performance Archive. Bringing together faculty in ethno-musicology with scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, the project has amassed an archive of sound recordings of music and speech from across India, to which they plan to apply techniques borrowed from the natural sciences, such as pattern analysis, to obtain quantitative information on data mining techniques for dealing with big data pioneered in the natural sciences. Nye explained that the one-year Neubauer Collegium project is laying the groundwork for a, “larger exploration of how the methods of big science might elucidate and facilitate the humanistic understanding of music, speech and other audio expressions.”

The expansion of the digital humanities at the University is also being actively fostered by the Division of the Humanities through the newly formed Digital Humanities Forum (DH Forum). Co-directed by So and Long who have been pioneers of the digital humanities at UChicago, the DH Forum is an essential meeting space that hosts workshops and lectures by visiting scholars, as well as UChicago faculty and graduate students pursuing digital humanities research of all stripes.

With its diverse cohort of faculty research initiatives, the Neubauer Collegium will continue to be a center of digital humanities activity at the University of Chicago. The interdisciplinary research team leading the project The Body’s Role in Thinking, Performing, and Referencing is using motion capture data to analyze body movement and gesture, leading to a richer understanding of how our physical actions affect learning and reflect creativity in sign language, sports, and the performing arts. In Art Scenes: An International Perspective, a global network of scholars led by UChicago faculty in sociology, are combining large-scale data analysis with aesthetic interpretation to study how consumption and lifestyle patterns influence social and economic development in post-industrial, knowledge-driven societies. And faculty in political theory, sociology, and art history are using massive data sets to study how the simultaneous transformation of social, economic, and cultural networks produced the conditions for large-scale political and cultural innovation in Renaissance Florence. Through these and many other projects, the Neubauer Collegium is fostering transdisciplinary research from across the University and emerging as a natural home for innovation in the digital humanities at UChicago.


The Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago was founded in June 2012, and is named in honor of Joseph Neubauer, MBA’65, and Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer. The Neubauer Collegium supports collaborative research on questions that are beyond the scope of any single individual, discipline, or methodology, focusing resources on complex questions to which the humanities and social sciences can make vital contributions.