Event showcases how digital technologies help illuminate the humanities

Yale undergraduate Japper Feinberg describes a project at the Beyond Boundaries symposium at Yale.
Yale undergraduate Japper Feinberg describes a project he created for a digital humanities class: an exploration of the journey of Margaret Homans, a current Yale faculty member who was in the second coeducational Yale College class in the early 1970s. (Photo credit: Mara Lavitt)

Yale graduate student Amy Giuliano knows that the experience of studying abroad can be transformative, but she is also aware that the cost of travel can make that impossible for some students. So she has designed virtual reality educational tours of some of Rome’s most historic churches.

Having her students incorporate digital technology in their exploration of literature is important to English and American studies professor Wai Chee Dimock, who makes it a requirement in her “American Literature in the World” course. For that course, one of her students undertook a digital mapping project that pairs the reading of Teju Cole’s novel “Open City” (which follows the narrator as he wanders around New York City) with an exploration of the history of Manhattan.

These two projects were among nearly a dozen that were described during this year’s “Beyond Boundaries,” an annual symposium that features the recent work of undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty and staff members in the digital humanities. The event, organized by the Yale Digital Humanities Lab and the student organization STEAM, drew a crowd of curious guests to the Sterling Memorial Library lecture hall for talks and a poster session on April 6.

Amanda Chemeche explains a digital mapping project at thte Beyond Boundaries symposium at Yale
Amanda Chemeche, a graduate student in American studies, explains a digital mapping project she did for Wai Chi Dimock’s “American Literature in the World” course. Her project follows the wanderings of the narrator in the novel “Open City” and explores the history of Manhattan, the site of his wanderings. Photo credit: Mara Lavitt)

Giuliano, who is working toward her master’s degree in religion and the visual arts at the Institute of Sacred Music, said she recently traveled to Rome with high-tech 3D camera equipment to virtually “reconstruct” the sacred sites so that students could “feel like they are walking through the space.” Her virtual reality tours, she explained, also allow students to zoom in on particular scenery or artifacts. Giuliano, who is also an adjunct professor of Catholic studies at Sacred Heart University, has shared the tours with her students there, and noted that the “interactive, immersive, 3D, experiential learning” project “gives students access to sites that they may never experience” in person.

Dimock noted that she believes “digital humanities is crucial as a pedagogical tool,” and said she endeavors to turn her classroom into a “hybrid classroom” — one that merges scientific technological innovation with the study of literature. She gave the example of the project by M.A. candidate in American studies Amanda Chemeche to map out the “Open City” narrator’s travels in Manhattan in such a way as to bring alive the landscape. Dimock said that since Chemeche is more familiar with one interactive software application she used for the project, called Walk Jog Run, “in a sense I am the student.”

Sharing her project “John Ashbery’s Nest,” Yale senior lecturer in the humanities and English Karin Roffman noted how the reading of poetry can be less challenging when the reader is able to be drawn visually into a poet’s real world. She collaborated with Digital Humanities Lab graphic designer Monica Ong Reed to create the website “John Ashbery’s Nest,” which takes visitors on a virtual tour inside the late poet’s house in Hudson, New York. Roffman told the audience that she was surprised to discover that Ashbery, whose poems often make reference to material objects, was a collector. The website features Ashbery talking about various material objects and their relation to his poems. “I hope it will be a model for serious study of other artists,” said Roffman of her project. 

A guest at the Beyond Boundaries symposium explores the John Ashberry’s Nest website.
A guest at the Beyond Boundaries symposium explores the “John Ashberry’s Nest” website, which features a virtual tour of the late poet’s home in Hudson, New York. The website was created by Yale faculty member Karin Roffman in collaboration with graphic designer Monica Ong Reed of the Digital Humanities Lab. (Photo credit: Mara Lavitt)

Yale undergraduate Kenneth Seals Nutt described his collaboration with Katherine Thornton, a postdoctoral associate in computer science, to create a linked-data web application called “Science Stories.” In celebration of 150 years of women at Yale, the two decided to launch their project with the stories of five Yale-connected scientists: Grace Hopper ’34 Ph.D., Maxine Singer ’57 Ph.D., Dorothy Horstmann (the first woman appointed a professor at the Yale School of Medicine), Katharine J. Bush 1901 Ph.D., and Dorrit Hoffleit, who taught at Yale 1956-1975. Their app combines Wikidata and an international image archive to tell the stories of the women.

In another project related to women at Yale, Jasper Feinberg described his work on a digital project to tell the story of co-education at Yale through the eyes of one woman, Yale faculty member Margaret Homans ’74, ’78 Ph.D. His multimedia project features images, maps, and other interactive material tracing Homans’ journey as a student on campus.

Thomas C. Duffy, the director of University Bands and adjunct professor of music, summarized a music-focused intervention he and Yale School of Nursing professor Linda Honan created to help nursing students identify normal and abnormal heart and lung sounds and to more accurately interpret those sounds. He noted that making comparisons between heartbeats and musical beats, for example, can be especially helpful for the visual learner.

The benefits of collaborations between computer scientists and scholars in the humanities were illustrated in a talk by Benedict Brown, a lecturer in computer science. He showed how computer programs built by computer scientists help in piecing together — almost like a puzzle — fragments of objects or structures found at an archeological excavation site, for example, or in creating virtual reconstructions of excavated material using 3D models. Likewise, he noted that a 3D scanner can create thousands of excavated remnants for study that are less fragile than the original fragments.

Among the numerous other presenters were undergraduates Maria Gargiulo and Jessica Ambrosio, whose “code4good” project invites students to use technology to address social problems; postdoctoral associate Saima Akhtar, who shared an update about her project documenting cultural heritage in Syria; and Paul Messier, director off the Lens Media Lab of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, who described how an effort to build up data sets around photographic collections can help those who study the materials.

Students, postdoctoral associates, and staff also explained their digital humanities projects during an hour-long poster session.

In closing remarks, Susan Gibbons, the Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian and deputy provost for libraries and scholarly communication, noted that all of the projects showcased cross-disciplinary collaborations, and said she hoped that audience members would be inspired to think about meaningful collaborations in the digital humanities in their own projects.

Next fall, the DH Lab will have brand new digs in the Franke Family Reading Room on the first floor of Sterling Library,” she added, noting it was a testament to the growing use of digital technologies in the arts and humanities throughout the campus.

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