By Shehryar Nabi, A14
Classics graduate student and
teaching assistant Tim Buckingham, AG14, center, meets with
students at the Eaton Hall Classics Library. Buckingham's
research is being funded by a grant awarded to the Perseus
Project, an open source digital library of documents in
classics, history and literature.
Classics graduate student and teaching assistant Tim Buckingham, AG14, looks over the work of Paul Kuta, A14.(Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)
Classics students look over manuscript scans in Perseids, an online platform that supports collaborative editing. (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)
Students taking Professor Kris Manjapra's research seminar on the Bay of Bengal hold a video conference with a classroom at BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In addition to these conferences, interaction between students at Tufts and BRAC will occur through group projects and a course blog.
Incorporating technology into the humanities is part of an
emerging concept known as the digital humanities. The practice of
using software to support teaching and research in the humanities
fields, however, has implications beyond merely facilitating current
academic work. By using technology to rethink how to pursue the
humanities, professors and software developers have made public
engagement with academia, dialogue between classrooms around the
world, and student involvement in professional scholarship more
"People are active in building in a new space for scholarship in a digital world," says Gregory Crane, the editor in chief of The Perseus Digital Library and professor of both classics and computer science at Tufts. For the last twenty-five years, Professor Crane has been at the forefront of creating new digital communities for the humanities. "Our goals are to advance the intellectual life of society and to advance a dialogue across civilizations."
The Perseus Digital Library, one of the earliest efforts at Tufts to create an open source database for accessing primary documents, has been instrumental in creating an infrastructure for numerous projects that teach the humanities with digital tools.
Perseids, a new platform that falls under the framework set up by Perseus, allows students to annotate and translate ancient Greek and Latin documents. These contributions link to morphological trees to represent the grammatical relationship between words in a text. With this functionality, Perseids users engage with primary source material and make new additions to scholarship. This is what students are doing in classes taught by Marie-Claire Beaulieu, an assistant professor of classics and developer of Perseids.
"What's very important to me is that students are contributing to this data," says Professor Beaulieu. Under her supervision, students published the first translations of some Latin manuscripts and Greek inscriptions. Student feedback, Professor Beaulieu notes, was very positive. "A lot of students told me it was very motivating to publish."
Open contribution for discovering new knowledge is also the purpose of the Bodin Project, an effort to create a digital version of an often-cited yet untranslated sixteenth century text written by the political philosopher Jean Bodin. Led by Ioannis Evrigenis, an associate professor of political science at Tufts, the project will ultimately allow users to make online annotations to the three existing editions of the text and contribute to the translation of a new fourth edition. This will bring students into a domain normally held exclusively for specialists.
"You don't need to be someone who has been preparing thirty years for that particular task," says Professor Evrigenis.
Kris Manjapra, an assistant professor of history, uses technology to take the idea of democratized learning to a global level. He currently teaches a course on the Bay of Bengal in which Tufts students interact with students at BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh, through video conferenced classes, group projects and a course blog. He also curates the archive at Corpora, a repository of video and audio documents that includes filmed lectures and oral histories. This combination of global collaboration and multimedia archiving will allow student work to have a lasting impact on the study of history.
"We want student work to add to the body of knowledge, not just have student work disappear once it has been handed in," says Professor Manjapra. "It actually becomes something durable."
Another digital tool that encourages student contribution, Social Book, is used at Tufts by both Professor Evrigenis and by Nancy Bauer, Dean of Academic Affairs for Arts and Sciences and associate professor of philosophy. Social Book creates an online version of the assigned text that students comment on and highlight together. When using the digital text, students enrich the class discussion by referring to comments made electronically. The classroom also becomes a more comfortable environment for sharing opinions.
"It made the class socially easier because students knew one another," says Dean Bauer. "Students who were a little more reticent to speak had already impressed people online."
While these projects demonstrate the successes of the digital humanities, there remains ample room for continued experimentation. Maintaining high standards, coordinating different interests and materializing big ideas are ongoing challenges facing both professors and software developers.
But professors are optimistic about the support they will receive at Tufts to address these challenges, because of Tufts' orientation towards both major research and a liberal arts education.
"This is a great space in which to foster a new kind of scholarship in which our students are active contributors as a matter of course," says Professor Crane. Following this course, the convergence of technology and the humanities may even make the "digital humanities" indistinguishable from the humanities itself.
"It's not the digital humanities," says Professor Crane. "It's the humanities in a digital age."