The Digital Humanities

Who was the most influential English writer?  Dickens, Twain, or Austen?  Let’s hire a computer coding humanities grad to figure it out.  “Traditionally, literary history was done by studying a relative handful of texts,” says Mr. Jockers, an assistant professor of English and a researcher at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska. “What this technology does is let you see the big picture — the context in which a writer worked — on a scale we’ve never seen before.”

The article in the NYT writes, “Mr. Jockers, 46, personifies the digital advance in the humanities. He received a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Illinois University, but was also fascinated by computing and became a self-taught programmer. Before he moved to the University of Nebraska last year, he spent more than a decade at Stanford, where he was a founder of the Stanford Literary Lab, which is dedicated to the digital exploration of books.

. . .

“Quantitative tools in the humanities and the social sciences, as in other fields, are most powerful when they are controlled by an intelligent human. Experts with deep knowledge of a subject are needed to ask the right questions and to recognize the shortcomings of statistical models.

“You’ll always need both,” says Mr. Jockers, the literary quant. “But we’re at a moment now when there is much greater acceptance of these methods than in the past. There will come a time when this kind of analysis is just part of the tool kit in the humanities, as in every other discipline.”

For the answer to the opening question . . . 

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