19th Century Scholarship For the 21st Century

When David Mimno came to class to discuss topic modeling and MALLET, he first showed an image of the Perseus Digital Library, referring to it as ’19th century scholarship’. Now, Professor Mimno had a hand in the creation of that website, so I wouldn’t think he meant that as an insult. But he did go on to say that technology offers ‘more’ for the humanities than what the Perseus Project has done.

This made me wonder about the implicit criticism of ’19th century scholarship’ versus new computational humanities research. My understanding of the value of the humanities has everything to do with enrichment — that is, personal growth engendered by reading, understanding, and discussing the thoughts of other people exploring what it is to be human. Put another way:¬†increasing wisdom through study. I accept that not everyone holds this view.

If we use MALLET to determine the difference in word use by male and female authors, we have certainly learned something about humanity. But it seems like a different project from the one I understand to be that of the humanities. Does the new, computational approach ‘engender personal growth’? I am ready to believe that it can, but not nearly as obviously as, say, studying Shakespeare’s Sonnets would. So far, the current approach¬†seems to be more concerned with studying humans and human texts in a ‘scientific’, fact-oriented manner.

So that may be ’21st century humanities scholarship’, as opposed to that of the 19th century. But it needn’t be ‘either, or’. We can use Digital Humanities tools and methods to enrich the experience of students who are reading humanistic texts, much in the way done by the Perseus Digital Library, for instance. We can, as my colleague Gioia Stevens points out, use topic modeling to improve discovery of digital texts, which would unquestionably help in the individual pursuit of self-improvement.