• Image Credit: MacRumors


    Alison's Stab at Defining the Humanities in the Age of Big Data

    Trying to explain what humanists do and how they take an interest in their object(s) of study...

    Humanists study humans in all of our variety. The art that we create, the writings we leave, the receipts we generate, the programs we write, the games we generate, the music we compose, the poetry we craft, the buildings we design, the policies we implement, the dances and plays and movies we produce—all such activities are the stuff of the humanities, and humanists often study them through the only means left to us: their records, data, traces, leavings. Sometimes we study this material closely, one piece at a time, sometimes we study it in the aggregate, finding large-scale patterns and shapes, but at all times we study and describe what it means to be human.

    Humanities scholarship has always been deeply invested in, and tied to, its research data. Indeed, the totality of the source material studied by humanists is amongst the bulkiest, least thoroughly-investigated, most valuable data that humankind possesses. It fills millions of cubic feet of space in the archives, museums, libraries, attics, and crypts of the world. It now also fills terabytes and petabytes of storage space on computers scattered across the globe—sometimes in places inaccessible even to their creators. The material that the humanities takes as its primary sources comprises the totality of the enduring records of human existence.

    Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, many disciplines of humanist inquiry are acknowledging and confronting the vast amount of source material not yet tackled by our predecessors. It is almost as if it had not previously been possible for us to fathom what it would mean to grasp at the totality of the information stored in all the various sites of human recordkeeping. While it is doubtful that any humanist assumes that we can read it all or know it all about ourselves—generations of past humanists have already made it clear that this is not a fruitful line of attack—digital technologies have offered us the power to transform our approaches to this immense amount of material, allowing us to make thinkable many issues and questions that we had not dared approach previously.

    What is more, the very means by which all scholarship is being produced is undergoing radical transformation. Before the global reach of the Internet, before the assumption of instantaneous communication and collaboration across the planet could be made, humanities research had the habit of being a solitary activity—the researcher against his/her currently available sources. At the present historical moment, however, collaborative research, often enabled by technology, has not only become possible, it is showing its advantages. For one thing, it allows the disciplines of the humanities to interact and reinforce one another, as different perspectives are often present to challenge and transform assumptions that do not always hold true. For another, working together, we can see more than we could individually. Indeed, final research products are also taking on new forms—such as interactive digital projects or publicly-available web sites—that not only allow researchers to investigate new methods for visualizing and presenting their studies, but also allow them to reach audiences and publics that proved more difficult to address when academic print publishing was the de facto norm.

    • Temporalities
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • VMW

    What's Been Going on in Itinera for the Past Couple Weeks

    For the month of January, I've been researching for Itinera to catalog the travels of artists and artifacts around Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.  The project has had its ups and downs, but so far, all is well.

    When I first started working in Itinera, my graduate mentor Jen assigned me to input information straight into the database.  I have no past experience with computer programming.  This was actually one of the reasons why I chose this research project, in the hopes that it would prepare me for more tech-oriented positions in the future.  I was a great programmer, when Jen sat directly next to me and dictated instructions on how to individually do each step.  But it wasn't all that great when she let me do it on my own.

    NB: Right now, I am really bad at computer programming.

    The information that goes into Itinera is important and public.  You're tracking the cross-country movements of real people who have lived and died, and real art that has existed for hundreds of years.  This is not something an undergraduate researcher wants to mess up.

    Since then, Jen has taken pity on me.  I'm now directly researching information and prepping it to go into Itinera.  So we've taken a couple leaps back.  This task is much less stressful and requires more page turning than button clicking.

    I'm currently researching the Elgin Marbles (or the Parthenon Marbles), which is a collection of antique sculptures, inscriptions and architectural pieces that decorated the Acropolis in Greece from about 447 BCE up through 1800.  By that time, Athens was pretty miserable and sketchy in term of being a city.  But they had their Marbles!

    Cue: Lord Elgin.

    Around the turn of the century, a Scottish diplomat named Thomas Bruce (but I'll call him Lord Elgin, since that's one of his titles), decided to seize the Marbles from the Parthenon and send them over to London.  Elgin initially sent a group of artists to Athens under the assumption that they would just sketch and study the sculptures at the Acropolis.  But after a lot of back and forth, he decided that he wanted the Marbles, so he basically just took them.

    The Elgin Marbles are tricky to track because rather than being one solid object, they're broken up into seperate sculptures and friezes at different countries and museums throughout Europe.  Most of the collection is either in London or Athens, but Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna, and parts of Germany have some sculptures as well.  Since Elgin was a diplomat, he traveled a lot between England and then-Constantinople.  Elgin also sent other people on Marbles-related missions around Europe during this time.

    The overall story of the Elgin Marbles is pretty dramatic, laced with political controversy and ethical questions.  So far in my research, at least two people have been imprisoned.  There is a lot of sneaking around and stealing about this affair, too.  I've even found one account of adultry between Elgin's wife and her lover.  It'll be interesting to see how the Elgins' marriage [spolier] fell apart.

    Tracking the movement of the Elgin Marbles and all the people involved is pretty fascinating.  It's interesting to see why there was (and continues to be) all this controversy about the Elgin Marbles when, with an unsentimental eye, they're really just a couple hunks of old rock.  But caring about history means being sentimental about old things, so I think the Elgin Marbles are pretty awesome.

    Photo courtesy of

    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW

    What do you value about studying the humanities?

    Our colleagues over at have brought our attention to an "idea comparison" engine that they have set up to talk about what the value of studying the humanities might be. You can visit the survey here: It presents you with a series of dyads, allowing you to pick between different options...including "I can't decide." You may also add your own thoughts. A peek at the results is also revealing...

    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW