For the last reflection before our final research assignment, my Digital Humanities in REL course was asked to re-evaluate what we’ve learned throughout the semester. We focused especially on what it means to ‘do data’ and what that might result in for scholars and students and research participants and everything and everyone in between. Because the concept was a bit broad, we tried to narrow our focus with a working definition of Digital Humanities and together came up with this definition:
Digital humanities combine technology with theory. Working in digital humanities requires the recognition of human error and contribution to what seems “given” when using technological interfaces present everywhere. We must critically examine the digital world, just as we analyze literature, by leaving room for humanistic contribution and not completely trusting what appears at face value. We complicate the “givens” of computational methods because knowledge production is a political act.
Dr. Wieringa’s DH in REL Class, Fall 2020.
While far from perfect, you can get the gist of what we think it means to do data in the digital humanities and in religious studies more specifically. For me and my classmates, it was important to point out that knowledge does not exist on its own, but in a context that is situated and dependent on the knowledge producer.
Text analysis has been a popular form of computational analysis since it’s inception. Whether you support close reading, distant reading, or a healthy mixture of both, there is always something to be learned when evaluating, comparing, and considering the words used by scholars, authors, poets, and anyone in between.
Voyant Tools is a popular online source for analyzing digital texts. Any user can upload their word source and then play with the various visualizations offered by the site. All of the visualizations show the various relationships between the digitized words and can be connected and presented in unique ways. The image above shows the first page Voyant shows after analyzing the American Medical Association (AMA) Journal of Ethics, July 2018 edition. The screenshot shows the page exactly as it first appeared. I did not make any edits or refine any key-terms. This is why abbreviations like ‘dr’ are visible.
In my first semester of graduate school, I took Debates in Method and Theory with Dr. Russell McCutcheon. In the second half of the course, we read Constructing “Data” in Religious Studies, which was (at the time) the most recent addition to the NAASR Working Papers series. If you have time to deep dive into what it means to ‘do data’ in Religious Studies, then this collection of papers is a must-read. Data is broken into the subcategories: Subjects, Objects, Scholars, and Institutions. Each scholar takes a step back to reconsider the ways that data is constructed and not discovered.
In Digital Humanities in REL, which I am currently taking, we were asked to reflect on what counts as data for the study of religion. It kind of feels like cheating to bring in a powerhouse source like Constructing “Data” in Religious Studies, but then again, it would be just plain wrong to neglect it. Data — as I have repeated endlessly in other blog posts and in almost every class discussion — does not speak for itself, and beyond that, data does not exist by itself. This is why these subcategories of Data can exist. Social actors employ tools (like subjects, objects, scholars, and institutions) to construct data.
The final project for my Digital Humanities course asks students to create a data review exploring a research question of interest. Part of the source data must come from the Longitudinal Religious Congregations and Membership File, but other data sources can be drawn on for support as well. The problem for me, as it often is, is narrowing my research interests. At first, the plan was to evaluate what scholars and digital humanists even mean by ‘data’ and what counts as ‘data’, but this seemed to close to my comfort zone — more humanities than digital — and I wanted to challenge myself a bit. In the long-run, I have decided that I will tie in some commentary on data, but more to provide some ethos for myself than to be the main example of my data review.
The Viral Text’s Project is a digital humanities project that aims to help scholars understand the themes and decisions that helped newspaper content ‘go viral’ before going viral was the hip thing to do. The project created an algorithm that ‘reads’ newspapers and traces its reprinting in other areas. By following the reprints they visualize how certain newspaper trends went ‘viral’.
Most newspapers at the time did not have intellectual property rights, so editors and publishers of papers in smaller cities would literally cut and paste the newspaper sections from larger newspapers into their local papers. This created a sort of modge-podge of ‘viral’ material that publishers thought their readers might be interested in.
Below is a presentation I gave for a Digital Humanities course which asked students to constructively critique and assess a digital humanities website. The Viral Texts Project was the focus of my presentation.
Imagine this: You’re the driver of a trolley filled with people. Up ahead you see five people chained to the tracks, unable to move. If you pull a lever, you can change the direction of the trolley towards a different track, but in doing so you’ll kill a bystander who does not have time to step out of the trolley’s way. What do you do: kill one person or five?
When you phrase the question that way, it seems obvious that five saved lives are better than one. But the Devil’s in the details, as they say, and the phrasing of a question says a lot more than the ‘correctness’ of an answer.
No wonder medical school’s infamously ask aspiring physicians questions like these. Saving lives can be quite literal in many medical situations, and (fortunately or unfortunately — depending on who you ask) the residing physician assumes responsibility for the outcome of a patient’s recovery. So much so, that many even compare physicians to ‘gatekeepers’ who decide a patient’s fate as if it’s a binary choice as simple as opening or closing a door. It is easy to see why a relationship between medicine and ethics has to exist, but harder, it seems, to define that relationship.