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Digital Humanities Speed Dating

The director of our Humanities Center instituted a First Fridays informal gathering at our local pub geared toward people who are interested in digital humanities. It’s only met three or four times so far, and I had to miss the first one, but it’s been really great to sit around and listen to people say what projects they’re working on.

At the December gathering one of the profs there said what I think a lot of people were thinking when she admitted that she wasn’t speaking up because she didn’t know enough about the digital side of things to envision what she might do for a digital humanities project. She’s well aware of great digitization projects in her area, and web archives, but beyond digitizing things, what kinds of questions would she want to ask that computers could help her with? On the other side, the CS types said that they knew that computers could be great thesauri, but they didn’t really know enough about what keeps humanists awake at night to really suggest projects.

This seemed like such a fundamental question that we hatched a plan. We set up a “digital humanities speed dating” session. Humanists would come with some description of their own research, and CS-types would listen with their CS-perspective and would also talk about what they were working on. And maybe the more we knew about each other the more we would be able to see collaboration potential.

So this evening we conducted our Speed Dating session, and whatdyaknow, some CS profs and students had highly humanistic interests, and some humanists got really helpful ideas from the CS profs and students. My favorite moment was when one of our classicists was telling us about a set of fragmentary Roman documents that she is really interested in. They’re documents that record the auction prices of quite a few people’s property (they’d been convicted of something or other, and the proceeds were to be in some way presented to whichever god they’d offended). And people were discussing what she might or might not be able to learn from the fragments she has, and one CS prof said it’d be interesting to see if they could infer something about the data that’s missing. You could use each sale as a kind of user rating of the item, he said, and the missing items would be something like the things in Amazon or Netflix that haven’t yet been rated, and you could infer something about their potential value based on what had been rated/priced already. Well, that blew our humanist minds.

So after the gathering the CS prof went to talk to the Classicist a bit more, and then I happened to be there in the hall when he debriefed another CS prof. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m just going to take her spreadsheet and run a ……” and here he and the other guy went into a dialog that I assume wasn’t actually in Greek, but it might have been.

I love it when I come face to face with expertise I can’t even parse. And also, I think that’s part of the point of this whole thing.