Looking at data with the eyes of a Humanist: How to apply digital skills to your Humanities research questions

In my recent post on how to get started doing DH, I basically said that the essence of being DH is looking at data with the eyes of a Humanist and gave some tips on how to get started in just 10 days.

However, it’s not that easy.

Learning digital skills and the problem of skill transfer

A problem I see a lot is that H people fail to transfer their newly won practical DH skills to their own research questions. They don’t know how to look at their own material as data. They don’t know how to leverage digital methods to help answer their own research questions. But if it isn’t compatible with their own research, they’ll never deepen their knowledge enough to actually profit from their DH skills. If you don’t use them, they are forgotten quickly.

So how do you make this transfer which I think is, so far, being neglected as a skill which has to be taught in DH curricula?

It’s not the H people’s fault

In the last post,I also mentioned how it can be difficult (and all the more crucial) to link theory and practice when it comes to the DH. But another problem is linking practice and research question. DH education can fail if it stops after the theory. But most people don’t realize that it also – more or less – fails when you stop after the practice.

Didactics have shown that it is unexpectedly hard to transfer skills. Skill transfer is an ability which has to be taught and acquired by new adepts. Yet current DH education programmes don’t seem to have grasped that part. I feel that, often, it is especially the people who are deeply rooted in Humanities research who find it very difficult to make the transition to becoming a ‘real DH person’. Because they know what they want to do and end up in classes where a million things are explained yet none of them seem even remotely relevant to their own research questions. Actually, from what I’ve seen, people who don’t really have strong Humanities research interests of their own  ‘domain of origin’ seem to be able to make the transition to DH person much more easily. Those people who would have difficulty continuing in Academia because they don’t immediately know how to come up with their own research questions often can find a home in the DH where they can figure out what they want. That’s good for them.

What a loss for the DH!

But it’s also a bit sad for the others – and especially sad for the DH – when talented Humanists abandon the DH again because they don’t see how they could effectively apply them to their own work.

I personally think this is a fault on the part of DH teaching, not on the part of those outsiders. They are interested. They wanted to learn or they wouldn’t have signed up for a class.

(From personal experience, I often feel that DH people will explain these unsuccessful-transfer-fiascos as being the Humanist’s fault or due to their lack of interest or lack of commitment to try and learn new digital skills – which sometimes might be the case but I suspect mostly it isn’t). It has always been my opinion that if a teacher doesn’t manage to get their content across, it’s the teacher’s fault most of them time. Or at least in some way or in that they should have tried harder. To me, it tends to sound like a bit of a lame excuse if teachers blame their lack of success in teaching on the students alone.

The trias of DH skill acquisition

In DH teaching, I think we often forget that the ‘newcomers’ might not already know how to apply digital methods to their own research questions. And fail to recognize that this (skill transfer) is a different ability from just learning how to use digital methods. We have to teach

  1. how to use digital methods (practical skills),
  2. why to use digital methods (theoretical framing) and
  3. how to link the two (transfer), i.e. using newly learned digital methods on your own research questions and coming up with research questions which can be answered with digital methods. This third part is still missing in most DH education.

I have taught this class about quantitative text analysis which was mostly “How to come up with QTA research questions? What are limits and possibilities of QTA methods?” (as requested by the head of department). I summed up some of this in my post on Formulating Research Questions For Using DH Methods. We were to only use GUI tools, instead of programming like I originally intended. But to my great surprise, teaching tools and how to use them was quite enough content to fill a whole semester course. Had I just taught programming, I would have been so busy with that that we might have never gotten around to answering the important question of why you should or shouldn’t be using QTA in the first place.

So in order to find a way of linking your research interests with newly learned DH methods, you need to start with some very basic applications and move on to your real research questions. Here are some ideas.

Ways of encouraging skill transfer in the DH

A way to do encourage skill transfer in the DH, for example, is to feed your texts into Voyant Tools, if you’re in a textual studies field. Play around with your corpus. It should be of sufficient size, just one page of text might not be very fruitful. First stick with the methods close to what you know. For example, just use the concordance tool. Come up with a research question this could help you answer.

Which word is critical enough to your text or your argument that a study of its usage would benefit your research? Start with that. That not ‘very DH’ but it’s a first step of learning how to apply your new digital skills to your research. Of course, in the end, using (exclusively) Voyant for your research will make you look like ‘not a real DH person’ in the long run. You’ll be expected to do the programming and more ‘techie’ stuff at some point. But there’s not need to start with something so difficult that it scares you. Start with something close to what you know, something you’re comfortable with.

But as long as you have never even seen what results of QTA look like or what common problems are, there is no need to burden yourself with learning programming techniques you might not even end up using. Learn what you need when you need it. For now, take a close look. Maybe it’ll turn out this really isn’t a useful method for you personally. But don’t worry, there are still many others out there. For now, it’ll be enough to become (actively) aware that words you look for come in different conjugations or inflections for which you might want to have a short cut (regex!) or to realize that your historical texts don’t necessarily have consistent spelling for one and the same word.

For collecting the basic skills, as a reminder, this is about what I recommended in the last post:

Quickstart Guide ’10 days of DH skills’

  • Learn XML and familiarize yourself with 3 standards (TEI being one of them).
  • Learn how to convert between Word .docx and XML using Oxgarage and how to manipulate XML using regex search-and-replace.
  • Learn XPath; run and manipulate an XSL transformation.
  • Do a mini web design tutorial (including minimal examples of HTML, CSS and JS).
  • Do 10 days of a Hackerrank 30 days of code in either JavaScript, Python or Java. Look at an example in all three to see how they differ.
  • And then, of course, there’s the Humanist part of theorizing and reflecting about how, when and why to use digital methods on your data. This is less straightforward to teach.

Hope this helped someone. If you’re an H person motivated to become DH, don’t let yourself discouraged – neither by having to learn new skill which seem daunting at first nor when you don’t yet get how you can apply those new skill to your research. You’ll get there.

Bye for now!

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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