I conducted a workshop earlier this month here at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to “incubate creativity” for interested students who attended with the purpose of participating in the Shout Out for the Humanities Student Contest organized by 4humanities.org.
Both undergraduate and graduate students can participate in the contest that 4humanities.org is organizing. The theme of the contest is:
“Why is studying the humanities–e.g., history, literature, languages, philosophy, art history, media history, and culture–important to you? To society? How would you convince your parents, an employer, a politician, or others that there is value in learning the humanities?”
I noticed that humanities centers at several universities (UCSB, UI Chicago and IUPUI@Indianapolis among them) were already planning workshops to “incubate” submissions to the context by students, and so it seemed to make sense to organize a workshop right here at UIUC, because it occurred to me that:
(1) The content/topic of the contest itself is (or ought to be) of interest to all of us who care about the humanities
(2) Not only the HathiTrust+Bookworm tool (which, of course, is what this blog is about), but also the Word Similarity Tool (built by David Mimno of Cornell using text data provided by the HathiTrust Research Center) potentially allow some of the students to build interesting philological arguments in support of what they choose to write about the theme — through discovering historical lexical trends associated with words having to do with the humanities, and exploring the trends of how other words have tended to co-occur with those words over different, particular time-spans of historical time. Basically, with the help of these two tools, students would be able to build “philological” arguments to provide context for their thesis / argument.
In the workshop, I had the students who attended explore the words that they said they found interesting/attractive about the humanities — words like “narrative”, “plurality”, and “story” were some of the words that came up. Did these words always used to be equally prevalent as now? How have their fortunes fared over time (as shown by usage trends), especially when the query is narrowed using facets (by Library of Congress class, by country (USA or UK))? And, using the Word Similarity tool (which creates a co-occurrence table), what other words have tended, over time, to co-occur with the words that “define” the humanities for the students? These were some of the things the students explored.
It occurs to me that it will be useful for the students to be reflexive about the tools — are “counting”-based (statistically based) tools like these antithetical to the humanities? One can probably argue that some kind of “bridging” of the “two cultures” (to use C.P. Snow’s phrase) takes place when we use text-analysis tools like this to take a philological approach to humanistic inquiry and argumentation — here I am also thinking of Rens Bod’s book A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to the Present (2014), in which Bods suggested that quantitative thinking had always been a part of the philological tradition has in fact been quite integral to the genealogy of the humanities.