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At the Crossroads of Computer Science and the Humanities

The 6th annual Digital Humanities of Utah Conference (DHU6) merges technology and the humanities.

Although "Digital Humanities” sounds like an oxymoron, it is an essential and growing field of study in many colleges across Utah; for the past 6 years BYU, USU, UVU, Utah Tech University, Weber State, and SUU, have been coming together to share advances in the field. This year was BYU’s turn to host. Presenters were chosen from submissions from faculty, PhD and master's degree students. Panel presenters showcased how their use of technology improves their study of a humanities topic. This year’s presenters covered many fascinating topics on how existing technology helps us tell a fuller human story. Below is a summary of just three of the presentations which give the best overarching feel for the scope of the DHU6 conference.

Computational Text Analysis. Within the humanities vast amounts of data are readily analyzable—data too vast for human analysis. But not for computers. For example, Lloyd Kevin Alimboyao Sy looked into how dialogue in novels is structured using computational text analysis to create dictionaries of specific words used by each character. This same project also considered how direct discourse varies from indirect discourse in novels. Sy’s early work has focused on cataloging discourse in Jane Austin novels, since these reliably use quotes to differentiate spoken text. This work of cross referencing could take hours for a human, but a digital program can complete it in nanoseconds.

Pedagogical research on audiobook efficacy. Ashley Nadeau presented another angle on how technology can improve humanities studies by discussing how students can do “close readings” of audiobooks. For example, students might write what they learn as they listen to a segment multiple times to understand its complexities. Nadeau discussed how audiobooks are often stigmatized as “not reading,” and seen as lesser than physical books in academic circles. As of 2021, her studies show that 46% of participants 18 years or older are auditory learners. These students benefit more from utilizing audiobooks than from reading the physical text.

Geomapping in short literary works. The conference keynote speaker was Kenton Ramsey, Assistant Professor of African American literature and Digital Humanities at the University of Texas at Arlington. He spoke about why data-rich African American stories matter to the Digital Humanities. Ramsey’s most recent project correlated specific places from Edward P. Jones’s short stories with current maps of Washington D.C. His data points show how characters migrated—tracing navigation routes, journeys, and mobility stories that real people can relate to. Changing demographics become apparent as we see how the areas from the stories are different from Washington D.C. today. Some Black landmarks discussed in the short stories no longer exist, showing how Jones’s stories preserve a specific time, place, and culture that no longer exists. Ramsey quoted Toni Morrison: “I think there’s data then information that comes from data, then knowledge that comes from information. And after knowledge, wisdom. I am interested in how to get from data to wisdom.”