Day 2 of Digital Humanities at Guelph Workshop

by Geoff Keelan


Our second day in the topic modeling workshop was a bit more grueling than our introduction, but much more enlightening. The morning was spent learning about the math and the foundation behind topic modeling from Julian Brooke.  Math is not something that comes naturally to us humanists (or at least to me), but its value was quickly apparent.  I finally understood what topic modeling programs were doing for us.  Yesterday, numbers and words were just magically appearing after running my program. Today, they were appearing because of the probability that certain words are close together from a topic and the probability of how common each topic was in a document.

Understanding how a digital tool works is as important as yesterday’s lesson about why we should use them. Especially given the somewhat suspicious and ambiguous nature of our results. If you don’t understand what’s happening behind the scenes, it’s a lot less clear what your results means for your research. I found after the explanation from Julian that I better understood how I could use topic modeling for my project, which for this workshop specifically looks at Hansard Parliamentary Debates.  Namely, the limitations with how my source was organized: I had a dozen files for each parliamentary session from 1914-1922, but I needed to divide those files into much smaller ones. I am hoping to split them by day and create a much larger (but still relatively small for DH!) body of sources. As the program models the probabilities of topics and words, having a large number of documents allows for better tracking of commonalities or outliers.

At least from what I understood. It’s a bit daunting to even repeat back what I have learned as it is so far outside of my traditional realm of knowledge.  Still, this workshop has done a lot to demystify topic modeling and digital humanities as a whole, even if I don’t quite have a handle on it yet. This evening’s Keynote Lecture from Jennifer Roberts-Smith, “Your Mother is Not a Computer: Phenomenologies of the Human for Digital Humanities,” was also a bit outside of my area, but one comment from the Q&A stuck with me as we headed to dinner. Jennifer described digital humanities as a shifting field, but one that is increasingly looking towards describing what it means to be a human being in a technologically mediated age.  As in, how does the digital age make us different from Shakespeare? This question is immensely interesting to historians because figuring out the influence of differing contexts (spatial, temporal, of identity, etc.) on individuals and communities is at the core of our discipline. While it’s much easier to find answers in the past with the benefit of hindsight, we have a skillset that allows us to at least wonder about it in the present.  Perhaps, like topic modeling, it comes down to guessing at probabilities – but as we are learning, that has value if we know what to do with it.

Day 1 – First Steps with Digital Humanities @ Guelph

by Geoff Keelan

For months I have been reading about Digital Humanities online, following people on Twitter, and thinking about it, but I have never actually participated in something like the workshop at Guelph this week.  It’s fitting that on the Day of DH 2015, I am starting an exciting journey. As a historian, I have thought a lot about History in the Digital Age and its impact on how historians communicate it.  This is the first time that I ever had a chance to use digital tools though and actually step towards becoming a “digital humanist.”

Today I was introduced to topic modeling in a workshop led by the knowledgeable Adam Hammond. One quote from an article by Megan R. Brett stands out: “Topic modeling is not necessarily useful as evidence but it makes an excellent tool for discovery.”  For us historians, who ask questions of the past using a body of sources, it is important to remember that topic modelling (or any digital tool I imagine) does not provide answers, only signposts to where our answers might lie. The term “topic modeling” is a bit confusing at first, but Adam explained that it might be better understood as “discourse modeling” or “conversation modeling.” For my project, which studies Canadian texts during and after the First World War with a myriad of different voices, Adam’s explanation made it click.  MALLET or other topic modeling tools seem much more useful as a way to explore the conversations Canadians were having about the nationalism and imperialism, rather than just the “topics” they were discussing.

One of the lessons I learned on this first day was that digital tools are not magical spells but simply tools that change according to the need and the user.  As Susan Brown explained tonight in her talk on “Emergent Modes of Digital Scholarship,” some of these tools are easier and faster reflects of analog processes, like looking up journals in a database rather than a library catalog (which I have never actually experienced, so I’ll take her word for it!).  However, some create entirely new ways of researching or collaborating on projects which have never been used before. These new ways are most interesting to me because, as Susan said, they are changing the methodological foundations of disciplines themselves. What’s exciting is that we do not yet know where this transformation will lead.  Like any historian, I appreciate a good revolution.

Here we go

By Susan Brown

Created during the introductory session of the workshops! So exciting that this is happening on Day of DH.

We’ve got folks here from University of Guelph, Western University (lots of them), University of Oregon, Cornell, Waterloo, University of Toronto, U of Pennsylvania, York University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Trent University, McMaster, Ryerson.

We’ve got librarians, alt acs, profs, undergrad and grad students, and postdocs from a wide. range of disciplines and departments.

People are here to work on: 19thc British lit, 19thc American history, 18thc lit, law and copyright, 19thc architectural photos, representations of the prison, comparative lit and literary, identity struggle, multi-culturalism and minorities including Jewish-Islamic struggle in Europe, historic house museums, 18thc rare books, development of anthropology, Early modern drama, gender and early modern studies, post-WWI Canada, narratives and photographs of Richard Wright, Jane Austen’s creation of external space through her prose, feminism in early modernism, the letters of and digitized texts related to Eliza Fenwick, corpus linguist interested what words mean exploring topic modeling, spatial humanities expert exploring digital scholarship tools, children’s literature archive of toys, books, comic books and periodicals.


DH@Guelph Summer Workshops: Public Events

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Here’s information about the public events on offer as part of our inaugural summer workshops. Anyone in the Guelph area is most welcome to join us!

Tuesday, May 19    

5:15 – 6:30   Opening talk by Susan Brown (Whitelaw Room, Library 246B)

“Emergent Modes of Digital Scholarship”

Wednesday, May 20

5:15 – 6:30  Keynote address by Jennifer Roberts-Smith (Whitelaw Room, Library 246B)

“Your Mother is Not a Computer: Phenomenologies of the Human for Digital Humanities”

Jennifer Roberts-Smith is associate professor of Drama in the Department of Drama and Speech Communication at the University of Waterloo. She is Principal Investigator of the Simulated Environment for Theatre (SET) project and serves as Associate Editor, Performance for Queen’s Men Editions. Her current research interests include practice as research in early English theatre history, digital visualizations of theatrical text and performance, and technologically assisted environments for the interpretation of cultural phenomena. In 2014, she received an Ontario Early Researcher Award for her work on digital tools for theatre education with the Stratford Festival.  

Thursday, May 21

5:00 – 6:30 Discussion panel (Whitelaw Room, Library 246B)

“DH, early career scholars, and Alt-Ac”

Panelists:  Adam Hammond, University of Guelph, Aimée Morrison, University of Waterloo, Andrew Ross, University of Guelph

DH@Guelph summer workshops

An early start

Getting an early start on Day of DH on a sultry Ontario evening because I hadn’t managed to set up an account before. But I think I’m up and running now.

Wonderful that it’s being hosted in Spain this year: it definitely enriches the linguistic flavour of the event!

Looking forward to it and will be rejoining when it’s (my) morning. It’s going to be a full day with the DH@Guelph Summer Workshops starting.