Meet the (Digital) Historian: An Interview with Robert Nelson

Rob Nelson (Ph.D., College of William and Mary) is the Director of the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond and is a scholar of nineteenth-century America. Erstwhile’s Beau Driver spoke with Dr. Nelson about the possibilities and pitfalls of using Digital Humanities techniques in historical scholarship.

Rob Nelson

Erstwhile blog: Hello Dr. Nelson, Could you introduce yourself and maybe tell us a bit about your background?

Robert Nelson: I’m Rob Nelson. I’m the director of the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond. We work on digital humanities projects that for the most part focus on American history.

My training is in American studies, and my research and teaching has mostly concentrated on nineteenth-century American history, much of it focused on different “isms”: abolitionism, Spiritualism, nationalism.

I started working in what’s now called the digital humanities back in grad school in the late 1990s through the Walt Whitman Archive. I started working on that less because I was interested in humanities computing than because I was interested in Whitman (and earning some money as a poor graduate student). The opportunity to work on the archive was extremely serendipitous, giving me an early introduction and entree into the digital humanities that’s shaped my career.

EB: Because you use the term a couple of times, I have to ask, how do you define “digital humanities”?

RN: Well, I try not to, but since you ask.

The digital humanities is a broad term and a big community. At a most basic level, the digital humanities denotes research and teaching in the humanities that involves the use of computation or digital media to do something that would be very difficult or impossible to do using analog tools. A practitioner of the digital humanities might use text-mining techniques to study thousands of novels, develop tools that enable students to explore and analyze an online database, or publish “digital scholarship” that’s interactive or media rich. So some of it is about form: experimenting with the possibilities of new media for generating and sharing scholarship. And some of it is about method: using computation to study culture. And sometimes it’s about audience: using the web to reach non-academic audiences, often trying to get them somehow actively involved with exploring the humanities.

EB: I’m quite fond of the three-part definition of “form,” “method,” and “audience” that you have outlined. With this in mind, can you give us some ideas on what the Digital Scholarship Lab does?

RN: At the DSL we definitely try to use the web to reach audiences beyond the academy with our work. Last year we produced an enhanced edition of a spectacular historical atlas first published in 1932, Charles Paullin’s Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. We added animations and interactivity to most of its nearly 700 maps. The primary audience for that work was not other historians but members of the general public interested in history–or if not history than something idiosyncratic that one or more of the maps somehow spoke to. I’ve been describing that work as a “prelude” to a larger project: a new digital atlas of American history we’re starting to work on. While we do want that work to be useful and interesting to other historians, we hope that it has a broader appeal than that too.

Not all of our work is aimed at a broad public. We do experiment with new methods that somehow involve computation. A good example is my work on topic modeling. Years ago, I developed a project called “Mining the Dispatch” that allowed people to explore a topic model of the full run of the Richmond Daily Dispatch during the Civil War. While I’d love it if more people made use of the site, not surprisingly the audience for topic modeling of historical texts tends to be other digital humanists and some historians. That project was a starting point for research on Civil War nationalism that I’ve been doing using topic modeling.

EB: At the Digital Scholarship Lab, do you make all of your work available to the public, or at least, to other historians who may want to utilize your findings? Also, do you have tools available to scholars that are looking to do their own digital investigations?

RN: We do. It’s all available on our website.

To date we haven’t done any significant tool development to speak of. Other digital humanities centers have made tool building a priority. The Center for History and New Media with Zotero and Omeka is probably the best example–those are spectacular tools. Our projects have are definitely content focused instead, mostly concentrating on American and more particularly on Civil War-era American history. Part of this is practical–as a very small center to date we haven’t had the resources to develop general-purpose software applications. But more than that it reflects our interests and priorities–we’re more interested in experimenting with digital humanities methods to explore and encourage exploration of American history than we are on developing general-purpose DH tools.

EB: I know that you have had an opportunity to travel and to talk about your work with the DSL and digital humanities. What do you think are the forces that are driving this new “turn” in digital scholarship and what are some of the most exciting things (tools, ideas, studies) that are on the horizon?

RN: I think the increased visibility of digital humanities might be somewhat new, but it reflects the maturity of an enterprise that’s been developing for at least two decades now. While there’s obviously a considerable amount of important “DH” work that’s been published lately, I took the publication of essays by Matthew Wilkins in American Literary History and by Cameron Blevins in the Journal of American History within the past year as particularly encouraging. Not only are those two remarkably similar essays both very thoughtful, the fact they they appeared in two of the premiere journals in the humanities indicates that humanities scholars who aren’t particularly interested in the digital humanities are now finding work developed using computational methods significant enough that it warrants publication in top journals. I single out those two essays, but there’s more work all the time that’s appearing that focuses not on describing digital humanities methods but instead applying them to generate new insights into history and literature and culture. Again, that digital humanities methods are increasingly generating new knowledge about the humanities is, I think, partly responsible for the broadening interest in DH.

My sense is that there’s another, different answer to your question as well. Much of the interest in digital humanities continues to be about audience. There’s always been an emphasis upon non-academic audiences in what’s now called digital humanities. Back in the 1990s, projects like the Valley of the Shadow and the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive were launched to make important materials available to anyone with access to the internet. Ten years later with the emphasis up participatory experiences and interactivity we associate with what was called “Web 2.0,” digital humanities worked to develop projects that democratized history by engaging people in dialogue and exploration. Today the digital humanities is seen as an important tool as scholars and universities emphasize civic engagement and public humanities. This isn’t so much new but perhaps an intensification of goals and emphases that were important during an earlier “turn” to digital media two decades ago.

EB: In your opinion, what are some of the pitfalls of digital scholarship? How should we regard these new ways of accumulating data?

RN: One of the challenges is assessment and peer review. When much of the digital scholarship sidesteps the process of peer review that’s the norm for scholarship that appears in journals and as monographs—you can just publish it yourself; that’s what my lab does—how do we retain some of the useful functions of peer review: providing critical feedback that improves work before it appears and that helps readers navigate through the deluge of material available to locate research that has been critically assessed by experts in the field. There’s some very thoughtful possibilities being explored—I’m thinking particularly of the work of Kathleen Fitzpatrick and initiatives like Comment Press and PressForward–to explore how evaluation and critique of work can be done online not by a couple of experts but by a community of practice.

Of course, one of the most daunting challenges for digital scholarship is preservation. I’m no expert in the field, but from what I know about the strategies being explored for long-term preservation of born-digital scholarship I’m not particularly optimistic. Given the pace of change in all things digital, preserving digital scholarship is both a technically formidable and perhaps a prohibitively expensive task. I expect that a lot of it will simply disappear through technical obsolescence. That’s not the end of the world, but one would hope the most significant work would have some lasting power–and that’s not going to be easy or cheap to accomplish.

A broadened audience for history and the other humanities is, as I’ve said, one of the major attractions of digital humanities. But that comes with pitfalls too—though perhaps instructive and exciting ones. When we write for other historians we have a pretty good sense how our work will be read and understood. When we create work that’s more open ended on the web, I’ve learned we have far less of a sense of what audiences will make of and do with it. In the grand scheme I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing, but when you want people to learn something about history and instead they use your project as a fun diversion you have to adjust your expectation and goals.

And when we write for our peers who aren’t, for lack of a better term, “computation thinkers,” we need to develop strategies that allow them to adequately understand the methods used so they can both comprehend and critique arguments. In most cases that’s something that can be done, but it’s challenging.

EB: Based on your experience, what is the future of Digital Humanities? Where are we heading now with regard to these new methods and tools?

RN: I think it was a Danish physicist who wrote “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” It’s hard enough to understand where the sprawling field of the digital humanities is now without making claims about where it’s heading. I’m more comfortable saying where I’d like to see it head. As I’ve mentioned, I think we’re seeing more and more digital humanities work that offers a humanities payoff—that tells us something new and insightful about the past or literature. I hope we see this trend continue with more application of digital humanities methods and tools to generate really interesting and innovative interpretations.

EB: Thank you for taking the time, Dr. Nelson.




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