Humanities Stepping into the Digital Age

By Dan Shewan
Posted January 12, 2014 01:00 PM

Humanities stepping into the digital age.
Humanities stepping into the digital age.

Students pursuing bachelor's degrees in humanities subjects may find themselves pondering the philosophical works of Plato or examining the implications of historical anthropology on modern society. Some individuals could be forgiven for assuming that topics such as database manipulation, mathematical visualizations and geographic information systems would be lacking from their college's humanities syllabi, but according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, this is most definitely not the case.

Deconstruction Goes Digital

Traditionally, humanities subjects have focused on human culture. In days past, students would be faced with the prospect of wading through dense hardback tomes on everything from the classics of ancient Greece and Rome to the evolution of linguistics, but today's humanities students are being tasked with deconstructing technologies as well as historical texts.

Many colleges and universities are embracing the so-called "digital humanities" movement, and see the development of course curricula to include the analysis of the cultural implications of technology as a way to breathe new life into the humanities.

"Critical engagement with the digital infrastructure that permeates every aspect of our lives - that's a pretty important role for the humanities to play," Johanna Drucker, an experienced "digital humanist" at the University of California, Los Angeles, told The Chronicle. "The humanities deans are really looking for ways to increase the perceived value of their offerings in their fields and to save their departments by increasing enrollments and getting resources."

Visualizing History

The task of making historical subjects appealing to today's students is far from easy. However, according to technology blog i09, one professor has leveraged modern technology to accomplish just that.

Ben Schmidt, an associate professor of history at Northeastern University, used publicly available data sets originally compiled by 19th Century oceanographer Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury and available online at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's website to create a visualization of 19th-century shipping routes - one of the most important factors in migration, language development and other factors. In addition to the major nautical routes that helped define international trade during the 1800s, the visualization also includes data on weather patterns, such as the trade winds, that affected the import and export of goods around the world.

It would seem that technology is revolutionizing virtually every facet of higher education. The work of professors such as Schmidt and schools like UCLA prove that even the most scholarly and traditional disciplines can benefit from a 21st-century makeover.

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