New College Marrying Humanities and Technology to Push Boundaries
For centuries, scholars analyzed the works of ancient Greek writers by painstakingly counting every syllable of every word, line-by-line, work by work – a process that could take years.
Those scholars could never have imagined that a young college student would do the same work, but in minutes, using his knowledge of Greek, Latin, and a language that did not even exist then – the Python programming language.
Academics have harnessed the power of computers to analyze the classics since the late 1970s, but New College thesis student Tyler Kirby developed his own software for this task, and was able to examine the works of Cicero, and in particular the influence of Dionysus and others in his style in new ways.
His project, under the guidance of classics professor David Rohrbacher, is just one of many at New College where the humanities are finding partners in technology. President Don O’Shea says the pairing of the seemingly different fields makes sense.
“The arts and the humanities are humankind’s way of dealing with complexity, of reflecting the way in which people live,” he said. “Technology makes our lives easier in some ways, it complicates in others. But the marriage of those two is what advances what’s good, or what should be good, in our civilization.”
Students and faculty have been making innovative advancements across New College. Some examples:
- Arts student Jessica Pope did an Independent Study Project (ISP) titled “Digital Drawing,” teaching herself to use Photoshop to reproduce her skills with pencil and paper, and brush and canvas.
- Erich Barganier, a 2014 Fulbright recipient with an AOC in Russian and music, built on his proficiency with several instruments to compose and perform electronic music.
- Sarah Russell, a computer science AOC, developed a narrative-driven, art-rich interactive computer game, where players guide an avatar through a quest.
- History professor Carrie Beneš and research scientist Justin Saarinen led a team of students in developing a Geographic Information System (GIS) project mapping the streets and surroundings of medieval Genoa.
Augmentative Learning: Technology as a Tool
This groundswell of technology-powered projects comes as New College is emerging as a leader in data science, a hybrid of mathematics and computer science that is driving advancements in everything from medicine to marketing. The College received accreditation for a new master’s degree program in the field in December and the program formally launches in February.
The master’s degree program is also enhancing undergraduate offerings, adding courses in computer science and statistics, and builds on the College’s long track record of outstanding students in math and science; about one-quarter of all graduates last year had an AOC in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, many of them dual majors with fields in social sciences or humanities.
The ambitious Genoa project, led by professors Beneš and Saarinen, is one such multidisciplinary project. Technically, the project lands in the field of social sciences, but it draws on religion, art, and language as well as economics and politics. The project stems from multiple maps that Beneš found, depicting the city of Genoa from the 11th through 15th centuries. It will be part of an upcoming book on medieval Genoa that Beneš is co-writing.
It lays out the streets and buildings, the rivers and valleys, like most maps, but also the fiefdoms of the leading families, the D’Oria, Fieshci, Grimaldi, Malaspina and Spinelli, and the boundaries of the Catholic dioceses. Clicking on many features provides detailed information, and skilled users can compare features grouped by eras, fiefdoms, or other categories.
Beneš says that while a GIS map seems far removed from texts, it’s more accurate to think of it as an amalgamation.
“So often, I think people imagine technology as replacing traditional book-centered methods of learning. And I think – this is a politically fraught subject – I prefer to think about it as augmentative,” Beneš said.
“You can do things with technology, the kind of analysis that you cannot do with a piece of paper and a pen or even a copy of Microsoft Word. So from my perspective this doesn’t replace archival research or reading books or traditional methods of scholarship. On the other hand, it is a really useful way to visualize all of that stuff and store it.”
Professor David Gillman, who teaches computer science, has partnered with several students on their projects. He agrees that computers can bring more power to bear on humanities research. “People have been using some kind of technology forever. And computers are just a new kind of technology,” he said. “And what does technology do? It takes some of the load off of people and maybe it lets people do things they didn’t think they could do before.”
But technology is just the tool, he said. It is neither the origin of the research question nor the solution itself. “You always have to have the experience in any particular domain to understand a particular problem.”
Kirby (the thesis student that developed software to analyze Cicero) consulted with Gillman as they launched their project, and agrees that the computer-driven analysis has to start with and be true to the Classics tradition.
“The research has to have a respect for the philological methodologies and be interesting in a literary aspect as well,” he said. “I think a lot of the bad rap of digital humanities comes from these gimmicky research projects that use the technology as the end in itself, rather than as a tool or a supplement, and the final project is more of an infographic than a contribution to the field.”
Big Data: Precisely and Artfully Re-organized
But Saarinen, co-creator of the Genoa mapping project, says methods like GIS can improve students’ research and analytic skills. GIS projects typically compile information from many sources – a map of streets and buildings layered atop a map of political boundaries, and with those features linked to databases of owners, events, dates, and more, which also may be compiled from multiple sources.
“You have to a critical eye for understanding how to use other people’s work,” he said. “Every time you produce something and it’s going to be distributable, you have to put your confidence in the data. You have to be able to understand the precision, you have to have the ability to articulate the precision, articulate the accuracy, and articulate the process by which you created the data.”
In fact, Rohrbacher (classics) believes the humanities have as much to offer to data science, the emerging hybrid of computer science and statistics, as those fields do to humanities. Kirby’s project is an example.
“The future of data science to a large extent lies in text analysis, it lies in Twitter accounts and Facebook, not the big, ugly patterns of ones and zeroes, but the big chunks of language and how to analyze that,” he said. “These are things that can work in both directions, things that are done with computers in classics or in literary studies are things that can reverberate even in industry.”
Gillman, who is a singer and music aficionado, sees computers and technology knocking down barriers and offering new areas to explore.
“Some of the things we’re doing with computers in the humanities were anticipated,” he said. “Some of it will replace some expertise and some of it will make people see new things, new patterns that they hadn’t seen before. And some of it will – for more artistically-minded people, it will just make new things that people can play with. It’s a way of making a new kind of art.”
New Students, New Experiment
And Novo Collegians already are. For her 2014 ISP, Pope (digital drawing) began by learning the basic capabilities of Photoshop Elements, experimenting with layers, light, opacity, blurring. By the fourth week, she brought her new skill to bear in a self-portrait.
Barganier’s (Music and Russian AOC) study of electronic music culminated in the May 2014 “DIY Ensemble” performance in the New Music New College concert series. He used a program called Supercollider to code music that looped and intentionally overloaded the program.
“The electronic music I used at the spring concert was very wild, in that its main purpose was being designed to crash,” he said. “But in reality, it takes just as much discipline to program a piece of music as it takes to learn a new instrument.”
He would know. Barganier plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, upright bass and bazouki, and has taught and composed music since he was in high school. But at New College he took up electronic music, learning theory from Prof. Brett Aarden and then composition from Prof. Mark Danciger.
“For me, technology brought an entirely new spectrum of music techniques, ideas and opportunities,” he said. “When you are taught traditional music theory, you are taught strict guidelines which were established hundreds of years ago. Certain boundaries and mentalities appear as a result. There are general rules about harmony, what performers can and can’t perform, etc. and this tends to shape your view of how to write music.”
“When you begin working with computer music and electronic music, those limitations disappear. You don’t have to worry about what a performer can and can’t perform and you can explore concepts you might not have thought of in the past. Those boundaries evaporate and it is like you have a whole new dimension of music to explore.”
He credits New College’s unique learning environment for making his studies possible. “New College was an ideal environment to pursue electronic music for me because the experimental nature of computer music and New College’s philosophy of driving your own education pair well together,” he said. “If you wanted to take extra classes in advanced electronic music, you were encouraged to, which might not be accepted at more conservative universities or conservatories.”
Recently returned from his Fulbright year, he is working in the Tampa area for Creative Arts Unlimited as an in-house composer, creating music for clients such as museums and libraries. He still uses Supercollider, and sees his mix of classical and modern techniques as crucial to his success.
“You want to be ahead of the curve and embracing technology is the one of the only ways to do that. At the end of the day, that is the mark of a good musician or composer.”