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A Note from the Director

by Rosetta Marantz Cohen

Rosetta Marantz Cohen, Director, Kahn Liberal Arts Institute
Photo by Jon Crispin

Have you seen the new iPad app for T.S. Eliotís The Wasteland? If not, you should. For a nominal fee, you can listen to four or five scholars and actors read the poem aloud; you can survey dozens of critical interpretations of individual passages; you can look at drafts and glossaries; and you can even watch actress Fiona Shaw perform the poem in an eerie, Victorian drawing room as a transcript moves over the bottom of the screen. It's a fantastic resource in so many ways—visual, historical, literary, and theatrical.

Technology is changing the humanities. Right now, digital technologies offer access to works that would have taken months or years to track down. Handwritten, intimate correspondences are uploaded with glossaries and critical commentaries. Ancient cities are digitally mapped, with homes and temples made available for intimate viewing (see UMassís wonderful "Pompeii Quadaporticus" project).

Digital mapping also opens the way to new kinds of thinking about contemporary urban space. At a conference I attended last summer, in a session on mapping the urban landscape, we were shown how data on virtually any aspect of urban life becomes freely available through a kind of "guerilla" scholarship where ordinary city-dwellers upload information on topics ranging from sound maps charting the noise from nearby highways to maps of the best places to pick apples off the ground (on both public and private property).

The goal of much of this new digital work is to democratize what was once arcane or rarified scholarly knowledge. Right now, through technologies like Commentpress, researchers can place their drafts online and solicit open comments, or share citations and notes using tools like Zotero. HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) has coined the term Citizen Humanists to describe this explosion of collaborative, democratic scholarship.

It is easy to see how all of this new technology could profoundly transform the academy, deepening and expanding the ways we think about texts and objects. There is, of course, a downside to all this digital scholarship. Those of us who love books and the slow, intimate rituals of library research may feel a sense of loss in the inexorable shift to online materials. And while digital technologies open the way for wonderful teaching opportunities, they also pose new teaching problems—creating complex questions about what is valuable and what is ethical.

The extraordinary research potential of the Digital Humanities, its ethical and practical complexity, and its essentially collaborative and interdisciplinary structure all make this a perfect subject for exploration through the Kahn Institute. In the fall, we will be hosting the first in a series of short-term collaborative colloquia, centered on faculty research in the Digital Humanities. This is one of a number of short-term projects (our collaboration with the Museum is another) that we hope will have an ongoing life, with Project Fellows meeting periodically over the course of multiple years to share their work and talk open-endedly about their experiences as digital practitioners across fields. We hope you will consider joining us.

Rosetta

 

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