RELI/ENGL 39, Fall 2015, University of the Pacific

Author: Andrew J. Rocha

Spatial History and Digital Humanities

How did space impact history? and how do digital technologies help scholars answer that question?

Today, scholars use technologies (similar to Google maps) in order to look at how geography relates to the people in a specific region. Using those digital technologies, scholars can look at how space changed overtime and how the society changed within the space. Jenna Hammerich ‘s article on GIS (Geographic Information System) technology provides a few examples of how studying spatial history answers questions like “Why did African American families settle almost exclusively on the near north side of St. Louis in the 1940s?” By looking at the northern area of St. Louis and other neighboring areas, scholars can see how the northern area could have been more convenient to African American families in the 1940’s.

I’m an English major, but I have always loved history, so I thought that this idea of using technology to answer questions relating to history. At least, at first…I started to think of the digital humanities really had a place in answering these questions. Couldn’t scholars answer these kinds of questions without digital technology? Well, Professor Colin Gordon, quoted in Hammerich’s article, answered my question, by saying that answering such questions and making discoveries would be possible without GIS technology, but “It would have taken longer.”

I think that is a reoccurring “theme” within the digital humanities. Scholars can answer questions about history and the humanities without digital technology. But the technology is time and cost effective (and probably fun to use).

Perpetua, Felicitas, and the “Hollywood Version” Christian

I genuinely enjoyed this last article. No, I didn’t hate the other articles or texts, but I thought that this article was really interesting to read and not difficult to understand. I just wanted to mention that…

Before I talk about how much I love Perpetua and Felicitas, I want to talk about how the aricle first addressed this idea of the “Hollywood version” of Christians during that era of Ancient Rome and religious persecution.  I’m sure many people believe this “Hollywood version” – Christians hiding in dark alleys and roaming from place to place via secret tunnels. The article ensures readers that it was not like that at all. There was religious persecution but persecution was small and more of a concern for local communities. There was a fear of Christians, not because of radical actions against the state, but because Christians did not take part in major pagan rituals and events, which could be interpretted as radical and offensive to the state at the time.

The two martyrs that the article talks about (and who I will never forget) are Perpetua and Felicitas. These were two Christian women who chose to die rather than participate in pagan practices of worship. Perpetua especially was ready to die for her faith even though she had not been baptized as a Christian. She could have easily gotten out of her execution but Perpetua stuck to her beliefs and God and died a martyr. Felicitas was a mother, to die would mean to leave her child without their mother, but Felicitas stuck to her faith and also dies the death of a martyr.

Some might ask why these women chose to die rather than lie about their religion and get off scot-free. These women were devoted and if you look at the Biblical verse, Matthew 10:32-33, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” To hold onto their faith, the lives of Felicitas and Perpetua would be put on the line, but to deny their faith would put their souls at risk. At least, that is likely how Felicitas and Perpetua might have saw it. Only they know their reasons.



Culture made Digital

After reading the blog post by Melissa Terras about the reuse of cultural-related contnent and Robert Leopold’s study about the Cherokee case study, it seems that the question being asked is not “Should content relating to culture be made digital and public?’  but “How does content relating to culture made digital and public?”

Leopold demonstartes how cultural related data, if made public, should protect individual identities that might be negatively impacted by the data. Leopold brought to light ways in which information and data about cultures can be made available to researchers while still maintaining certain identities confidential.

Terras’s blog post seemed to be more about making cultural resourses not just available for researchers and students, but also about making it convenient to access.

I think that both texts brought important information to light. Information about Cultures should be easily made available to researchers and students while at the same time protecting individuals who might be hurt by the data.

[Note: The computer that I am using is not letting me access the Leopold pdf. So, I apologize if my recollection on the text is off.]

What happened to privacy?

“Can you send me that picture?” It’s something we’re asked after coming home from a family trip or a vacation at Disney World. As social creatures, we are always sharing photos via the internet of us having really awesome adventures. However, most of the time, we are not alone in those pictures. We take photos with our friends, family, and some old person that just wandered into the background. It wouldn’t be a problem if we just kept the photos for ourselves and occasionally showed them to visiting friends and family. But in today’s digital age, our photographed memories are plastered all over social media for the entire world to see. I might sound really dramatic, but why is that a problem?

I’ll tell you. Maybe someone doesn’t want their photo on the internet, exposing them to be judged by some strangers on the internet who can then pass it on to their friends, and their friends, and on, and on, and on. And what about when those photos are used for advertisements or other forms of promotions. Some people might not really be comfortable with having their face used to sell the latest fancy product, especially if they weren’t asked for permission.

I have a professor who asks that their lectures not be recorded, out of fear that they will be taken out of context, and end up on Fox News. That’s a big problem, especially if people have to fear that their actions, that in context might be innocent, will be placed before a public audience to scrutinize. With all of this digital technology making it harder to live private lives (Google Glass, for one example) we should remember to be decent humans and give our fellow people the respect and privacy that they deserve.

Why do people matter in the Digital Humanities?

When it comes to any study or innovation, I believe that people matter. All people, no matter their race, gender, social class, or disability. Especially in any branch of the Humanities, because the Humanities is about people and how things like art, philosophy, and history relate to people.
So, when it comes to the Digital Humanities and the creation of new technology (like computer programs) all people – of all backgrounds and various abilities – should be kept in mind. The podcast, talked about how personal computers were advertised to primarily male consumers. Thus, it is primarily men who grow up using computers, and when it comes to taking a class about computing, a man who has spent his life with a personal computer has an advantage in the classroom over a woman who understands the math behind algorithms and computing, but might not be used to using a computer. And if a teacher does not provide aid to those (primarily women) who are not used to a computer, than it is men who pass the class and women who have to struggle. In a classroom, a teacher should be ready to help everyone and should not assume that everyone is of the same level of experience.
That leads me to the Williams text, which talks about people with disabilities and other disadvantages when it comes to using technology and computer programs. I like how the text points out that computer are an assistive technology not just for people with special needs but all people. Computers make things easier for able-bodied people so the same should apply to those with disabilities. When technology is convenient for those with disabilities it is convenient for everyone. And like Williams points out, it is the right thing to do.

The Digital Humanities are…???

So…What are the Digital Humanities? After I had enrolled in this course I had trouble telling people that I was going to take a Digital Humanities course. I had trouble, because I really did not know how to describe the Digital Humanities. I thought that it was a branch of the Humanities relating to digital technology – how things like art and literature connect to technology. But after the first week of the course, I am not entirely sure. This post will be my way of “thinking aloud” and producing an answer to the question: what are the Digital Humanities?

I read the Sample and Spiro texts with the hope of finding a clear description of Digital Humanities, but I might be more confused than before, because it does not seem like Sample or Spiro know how to describe the Digital Humanities. The reason that they cannot give a clear definition to the Digital Humanities is because people are still debating to this day what the Digital Humanities are. There is division between Digital Humanists, to quote Sample: “One tension in the digital humanities that has received considerable attention is between those who build digital tools and media and those who study traditional humanities questions using digital tools and media.” Are the Digital Humanities about creating or studying? That is the question to answer.

I’m currently just a student taking a Digital Humanities course, so I could be wrong, but I believe that the Digital Humanities can be both about creating and studying. I could be wrong, but I am sure that the Humanities is made of artists who produce literature and works of art and scholars who study the literature and works of art. The Digital Humanities can be that too, especially if the Digital Humanities is seen a branch of the Humanities. In class, I’ve had to use Voyant, a digital tool, to dissect and examine dozens of documents, and in another class I’ve listened to Dr.S talk about the idea of putting a person’s mind into a machine and the idea of programming the mind itself. The Digital Humanities can be about creating and studying. I will conclude with a quote by Spiro: “I believe that articulating a set of values for a community should be done by the community.”

Voyant, Shakespeare, and the Benefits of Digital Technology

I’m an English Major and on many occasions I have had to read many classic works of literature and I have had to analyze and compare different texts. I have a process that I follow when I write essays, and I am sure many other students follow the same steps:

  1. I read the text.
  2. I highlight specific passages that make an interesting point or that I will want to find in the future.
  3. I figure out what I want to write about.
  4. I look through the text again, searching for passages that support my thesis.
  5. Write my paper.

That all probably sounds pretty familiar. Almost everyone who has had to write a paper follows that process, or at least something similar.

However, in this age of technology and algorithms, there are new applications and tools make it easier to look through texts and show readers things about classic works that they have never seen before. Voyant is a tool that does exactly that. Voyant can take dozens of documents, analyze them, and produce graphs and charts about the use of language and words in those documents and compare their usage.

By putting 23 Shakespeare plays into Voyant, the tool can tell me that “SHALL” is the most common word in throughout those plays. Voyant can also tells me that Hamlet is the longest text of the 23 documents with 34,183 words and that Comedy of Errors is the shortest with 18,080 words.

Do you want more? OK. Othello is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. If you have not read it I suggest you do, it is a beautiful tragedy. If I am writing a paper about Othello, I will probably write about the love between Othello and Desdemona, the hate Iago has for Othello, and all of the death and murder that occurs in the play. With Voyant, I can see how often the words “LOVE”, “HATE”, and “DEATH” occur in the text, as well as how frequent they appear throughout the play.


As you can see, “LOVE” and “DEATH” are not mentioned in the beginning but the word “HATE” is there. In fact, “LOVE” is not mentioned at all but the word “DEATH” becomes really common in the end. I think that this information is interesting because it says something about the relationship between the characters and it also says something about the mood. There is a lack of love and death is a specter that hangs over the play.

Voyant can do so much more, and there are probably other programs that can do even more than Voyant. I think that Voyant and similar applications, show that digital technology and algorithms have a benefit to humanists who want to examine classic works in way that is faster and perhaps more efficient than spending hours or days, reading and carefully examining each line of text.