History digitized: digital humanities evolve the history degree

Your parent’s history degree may be going the way of the dodo. Earlier this year at the Archeological Institute of America, Kristina Neumann, doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati, showcased new research on trade routes in the classical Near-East.

Neumann’s work, however, utilized traditionally ‘non-classical’ methods. She compiled a digital database of archeological records and mapped trends she found in coin circulation to Google Earth.

Research like this is becoming more common as younger  — technologically savvy — generations move into academia.

“I really believe that this sort of presentation of material will help to open up new questions and avenues of research about the ancient world,” said Neumann.

“My maps helped me to see how the city fit in the middle-east and what changes occurred for it as a result of being brought into the Roman Empire. We really haven’t done enough on this.”

Younger historians like Neumann are employing technologies and computer algorithms previously reserved to other disciplines to publish their research. It’s changing the skillset of their field.

Universities are being challenged to adapt their programs to these new methods, coined the ‘digital humanities.’

In Ottawa, major changes have happened just this school year.

Shawn Graham is a Carleton University professor and teaches courses in digital history. He now sits on the committee of Carleton’s new graduate program in digital humanities. This is the first year the program has been offered.

“It’s become a new lens to look into material,” says Graham.

He is referring to an algorithm project he developed that studies classical social structures using thousands of digital ‘Romans’ interacting among each other within a computer program.

“I can run these agents over and over again from many different starting positions and I can get a complete landscape of possible activity in the past.”

Graham sees the skills taught in the digital humanities as important to a student that wants to utilize core methodology in rapidly evolving technologies during their careers.

“If you have a broader sense of how these things fit together you can roll with it.”

At the University of Ottawa, Canadian Studies professor Jo-Anne McCutcheon see’s the growth of digital humanities at her own institution.

“There is movement, a lot of professors use digital research and try to apply it in their own classes,” says McCutcheon.

While no program at University of Ottawa deals specifically with digital humanities yet, the university is making movement towards it. This includes the hiring of a full-time library employee capable of teaching geographic mapping of data digitally (GIS).

Change in the humanities isn’t limited to graduate studies either. Kenneth Wright, first-year student of classics at Carleton, benefits already from digital humanities projects like online primary-source archives.

“Theoi.com is a constant reference for anything mythological, easier than carrying an Oxford Classical Dictionary around,” said Wright.

“How can we better explore our topic, especially for the benefit of our students,” said Neumann.

“The hope is to find out these new paths to better bring people into this discussion about history and the past.”

Indiana Jones famously said onscreen that X never, ever marks the spot. While that still might be true, the ability to explore archaeology for students and academics through digital humanities allows your first destination to be your own computer.