MIT Program in Digital Humanities launches with 1.3M Mellon grant.

The "DH Lab" applies computation to humanistic research — and builds a community fluent in both languages. 
   


L to R: Ifeoluwapo Ademolu-Odeneye and Keith Murray; Photo by Jon Sachs / MIT SHASS Communications

"While traditional digital humanities programs attempt to provide humanities scholars with some computational skills, the situation at MIT is different: most MIT students already have or are learning basic programming skills, and all MIT undergraduates also take some humanities classes. Michael Cuthbert, the lab director, believes this difference will make MIT’s program a great success."



Before computers, no sane person would have set out to count gender pronouns in 4,000 novels, but the results can be revealing, as MIT’s new Program in Digital Humanities recently discovered.

Launched with a $1.3 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and based in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, the Program in Digital Humanities brings computation together with humanities research with the goal of building a community “fluent in both languages,” says Michael Scott Cuthbert, associate professor of music, Music21 inventor, and director of MIT Digital Humanities.

“In the past, it has been somewhat rare, and extremely rare beyond MIT, for humanists to be fully equipped to frame questions in ways that are easy to put in computer science terms, and equally rare for computer scientists to be deeply educated in humanities research. There has been a communications gap,” Cuthbert says. “That's the genesis of this new approach to computation in humanities.”

Educating bilinguals: students fluent in the humanities and computation

While traditional digital humanities programs attempt to provide humanities scholars with some computational skills, the situation at MIT is different: most MIT students already have or are learning basic programming skills, and all MIT undergraduates also take some humanities classes. Cuthbert believes this difference will make MIT’s program a great success.

“What we have that's an amazing opportunity is a large number of people who love building things with computers and want to connect those to their interests and make an impact,” he says. “Our students very much want to change the world.”

They can do that — even as first-year students — because humanities research has many open questions that can be solved with just six months or a year of programming skills, he says.

“The wonderful thing we can do is implement a lot from scratch because we have the programming skills to do that,” says Stephan Risi, one of two postdocs who works in what the students informally call the “Digital Humanities Lab,” or “DH Lab” for short. This gives the MIT researchers more latitude to explore new questions as they arise. “We’re not bound by software others have produced.”
 


PROJECTS



Gender/Novels For this initial project of the MIT Digital Humanities Lab, the project team analyzed the description of gender and gender roles across a large repertory of novels in the English language, primariy from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Project webpage
 

Story in Ms. Magazine
Decoding Sex in the Humanities: Five Key Findings from MIT’s Gender/Novels Project
"This line of questioning is especially pertinent to MIT in 2019, as the Institute prepares to launch the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, whose mission includes research on the ethical implications of computing and AI tools. The new college aims to educate “bilinguals” — the term MIT uses for students who have both technical expertise and a humanistic understanding of complex societal issues. As technology like facial-recognition software is shown to reproduce implicit biases of the programmer, data-driven tools to call out biases have their work cut out for them. The Gender/Novels project is one more tool in that toolbox: a high-powered, intricate program that can manage a massive sample size and call it like it is."
Story in Ms. Magazine by Alison Lanier / SHASS Communications
 



A novel research project

To illustrate the kind of work the lab can do, the program enlisted a team of 24 students (mostly first-years) through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) to study gender representation in 19th century English literature. The team assembled metadata, applied grammar-parsing tools, did web scraping, wrote analysis tools, and ultimately examined 4,217 books, a total of 326.9 million words.

One interesting finding from this experiment was that — regardless of the sex of the author and "no matter how we cut the data,” as Cuthbert says — roughly two-thirds of all male pronouns were in the subject position, whereas women were more often the object of the sentence. What this new data tells us — about men, women, and society — is up to human scholars to decide, but this project provides a window into the ways computational work can support humanities research.

Detecting research with high social value

This first project also illustrates the pedagogical benefits of working in the lab.

“One of the interesting things about the lab is it's hard to sift through which ideas have merit,” says lab UROP and first-year student Dina Atia, contrasting the humanities research to her work in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. “Most STEM research is very fact-based but can lack important social takeaways.”

Fellow UROP and first-year student Ifeoluwapo Ademolu-Odeneye says she enjoyed the opportunity to put her computer skills to work outside the classroom. “I have developed a lot as a computer scientist doing this,” she says, adding that she has also learned to apply critical thinking skills to make decisions about the humanities content. “At first, I asked Professor Cuthbert about everything. Later he threw questions back at us, which has been good for developing as a researcher myself.”

First-year student Mayowa Songonuga, who just started her UROP in the lab this spring and is working on a new project — The History of Computing at MIT — agreed that the hands-on work is very valuable. “There is more to it than just the technology,” she says. “I haven't had the chance to research something like this before.”

The productive swerve in research

While the UROP students were designing algorithms and building a website, they also read and analyzed 19th century English literature and tackled questions such as how to teach the computer the difference between a novel and a travel log. The lab intentionally fosters this dual-stream process, Cuthbert says, because it provides rich opportunities to change the direction of research to follow some newly discovered path.

This ability to make what Cuthbert calls “a productive swerve” is often critical to fruitful research but to date been hampered in the digital humanities because too often complex digital projects are done by computational experts at a remove from the humanities scholar.



Michael Cuthbert, Director, Programs in Digital Humanities, with Ifeoluwapo Ademolu-Odeneye and Keith Murray

“UROP and first-year student Ife Ademolu-Odeneye says she enjoyed the opportunity to put her computer skills to work. 'I have developed a lot as a computer scientist doing the Gender/Novels project,' she says, adding that she has also learned to apply critical thinking skills to make decisions about the humanities content."



Students collaborate with leading humanities scholars

To further entwine the disciplines, MIT Digital Humanities next plans to bring humanities faculty onboard for joint projects with the students. In 2019-’20, Associate Professor Sandy Alexandre of literature and Professor Evan Lieberman of political science will be devoting six hours a week to the lab, teaching students about their research while learning some computational methods themselves.

An added benefit of this collaboration is that it should make the programming work less demanding, Cuthbert says, because creating a simple user interface can be extremely time-consuming. “We’re hoping the faculty will learn enough about the technical operation of their projects that we can devote more staff time to digging deeper,” he says.

Master class lectures by experts who combine humanities and tech

Beginning in 2020, the program will reach out to the wider community — at MIT and in Cambridge and Boston. The plan, Cuthbert says, is to develop a lecture series based on the master class model. Outside experts who combine technology and the humanities in their profession will come to the lab to work with students and then give a public lecture.

The overall goal, Cuthbert says, is to meet a target set by Melissa Nobles, Kenan Sahin Dean School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences: “to connect the great things going on in computation with the amazing things happening in MIT’s humanities, arts, and social science fields.”

“We have an opportunity to create a love for humanities and an acknowledgement of the importance of humanistic research with the next generation of computer programmers,” Cuthbert says. “We are incredibly excited.”
 


"First-year student Mayowa Songonuga, who just started her UROP in the lab this spring and is working on a new project — The History of Computing at MIT — says the lab's hands-on work is very valuable. 'There is more to it than just the technology,' she says. 'I haven't had the chance to research something like this before.'"


 

Suggested links

Program in Digital Humanities at MIT
based in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Decoding Sex in the Humanities: Five Key Findings from MIT’s Gender/Novels Project
Story in Ms. Magazine by Alison Lanier / SHASS Communications

Project:  Gender/Novels

       Natural Language Processing

       Visualizations

       Meet the Team

Michael Scott Cuthbert
Associate Professor of Music; Director, MIT Programs in Digital Humanities

Music21
Leading computer-aided musicology program;
developed by Michael Cuthbert, Associate Professor of Music at MIT

Stephan Risi
Postdoctoral Scholar

Lisa Tagliaferri
Postdoctoral Scholar
https://twitter.com/lisaironcutter


DH Across MIT

HyperStudio — a DH research group in the Comparative Media Studies/Writing program, led by Dr. Kurt Fendt. Successes include many projects including the software package, Annotation Studio.

Gallery of Digital Humanities at MIT
published by the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

List of Collections of DH Projects at MIT and Beyond
published by the MIT Libraries
 


Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill
Writer for Ms. Magazine story: Alison Lanier
Photographs by Jon Sachs