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#WhyWeLearn: Digital Humanities course provides tech edge for students

AUM Strategic Communications and Marketing | May 23, 2017

Editor’s note: The #WhyWeLearn series focuses on the lives that students build at AUM.

Auburn University at Montgomery students are learning about the Humanities while sharpening their technological and analytical skills. AUM World Languages and Cultures professors are providing cutting-edge instruction in Digital Humanities — a method for learning about literature, music, architecture or historical documents with the aid of digital tools — that is giving students an edge as they prepare for future careers or post-graduate studies.

To further enhance her students’ skills, Dr. Pamela H. Long, associate professor and coordinator of the Division of World Languages and Cultures, focused her INTL 4400 Digital Don Quixote students on Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de La Mancha, the world-famous novel that describes the journey of a chivalry-obsessed man across the plains of Spain.

With Long, students studying in Spring 2017 performed such new tasks as using text analysis software to determine major themes throughout the chapters, employed online collaboration sites to share research, and used internet-based mapping tools to help visualize Don Quixote’s route from Castile to Barcelona.

Long’s Digital Quixote students used collocation and concordancing software to analyze the text. Collocation is a method researchers use to identify terms that are found frequently found in close proximity in a text, like curly hair or rabid dog, while a concordance is a list of the most frequently used terms employed by an author in a text.

In Long’s course, one Digital Don Quixote student used a concordance to analyze how Cervantes talks about animals; another utilized a concordance to find terms related to the Muslim characters represented in the story, to discover Cervantes’ attitude toward non-Christians; and another student used mapping software to plot all the places named in the novel, and to trace Don Quixote’s route through the Spanish countryside.

Long’s students will find the tools particularly valuable as they continue their educations and as they enter careers as FBI agents, lawyers, curators and genealogists or as they become foreign correspondents and journalists.

“All of these careers can use these skills,” Long said. “And, if they think about doing graduate work, the tools they’ve used in Digital Don Quixote will definitely come in handy,” she said.

What they learned

The following AUM students (listed with their majors) responded to a request from Long to describe their experience with digital humanities during their Digital Don Quixote course:

Ta’Kyler Barley, Spanish

At the beginning of the course, I was not quite sure if I fully understood what digital humanities were. I was confused the majority of the semester on how I should conduct my research and use digital tools to help me find research for my project presentation, but it all worked out in the end. For example, I visited several links of concordance tools but many of them were not user friendly. Even once I discovered how to use the concordance tool, I still was not sure how to use the tool for the benefit of my research and project presentation.

However, after looking through the various concordance tools on a website by Voyant Tools, I figured out that I could use the tool to help me choose which chapter represented my themes of race and ethnicity the most. After that was determined, I used this same tool to find racial and ethnic related terms in the chapter, and this was the foundation for my project. Overall during this semester, I learned that digital humanities is a cool way to look at different sources on a deeper level than strictly through text.

Austin Elam, Spanish

I was able to take a lot away from this experience. Most importantly, I was able to learn how research has changed and will continue to change as the world becomes more and more digitized. Originally, I was very uncertain how I would find data through digital tools. By the end of the semester, I was able to use digital tools to come to conclusions about the historical time of events that took place in Don Quixote. I was able to come to the conclusion through that religious identity was one of the most common similarities amongst the most commonly used words in a specific chapter of Don Quixote related to the Virgin Mary.

This also led me to the conclusion that Cervantes was extremely biased when it came to his religious identity, which would explain why he constantly misrepresents people of other religions. I also found that the Virgin Mary’s connection to Muslims was just as strong as it was to Christians during the Middle Ages. 

Tara Fenn, World Languages and Cultures, concentration in Spanish

I learned a lot about digital humanities. First, before this semester, I really didn’t realize that you could call the type of research that we did “digital humanities.” I also didn’t have a true understanding of what humanities really means. I have been studying and participating in the humanities my entire life, but never called it that. Now I can say that I have participated in the digital humanities and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. In doing the research for my topic of courtly love in Don Quixote, I used several digital tools that were new to me.

I have done annotations before, but not in a forum that can be shared with other people. The collocation and concordancing tools were my favorite. I am a bit of a logophile, so being able to dissect a work of literature down to individual words was fascinating. It would have been nearly insurmountable to do that type of research on key words in one semester with a book as thick as Don Quixote.

I will approach all my research papers and topics with the same treatment as this project by searching for key words and collocating information within documents so that I can pinpoint the most important information. It was also fascinating to see that one half of DQ mentioned love and chivalry more than the other. I thought that was an invaluable piece of research.

I do regret not being able to finish articulating my research into a paper that could be referred to at a later date. Even though I didn’t complete that task, I still learned a lot and worked a lot in the digital world to properly understand Don Quixote. If I had read this book in high school, it would have been a very different experience, and I likely would have learned very little in comparison to now.

Imani Gable, World Languages and Cultures, concentration in Spanish

Before the semester, I did not know what digital humanities was, so first I got a sense of what it is. Although it is often defined differently, I believe digital humanities is using tools to enhance humanistic studies. I learned a lot about the geography of Don Quixote while using Google Scholar, Google Maps, and National Geographic maps. I learned the amount of distance Don Quixote traveled, the higher significance of certain areas and parts of the story, and how the characters in the story personalities correlated with their hometown. Overall I enjoyed learning while using these tools. It helps to expand your research to the furthest extent possible.

Kory LeMaster, World Languages and Cultures, concentration in Spanish

This semester has opened my eyes to the emerging field of digital humanities. I learned that I have been using digitals tools similar to the ones I used for my final project in everyday life. 

Research is made easier with digital tools such as Google Scholar, Google Books, JSTOR and other databases.  The organization of my sources was taken care of by Zotero. 

With digital tools, the presentation and representation of data is made much easier. In my project, I used PowerPoint to present and computer-generated WordClouds to represent my data, which allowed me to convey information visually that may not have been easy to present otherwise. 

I learned that digital humanities is a very broad field, and the possibilities of future projects seem unlimited with the progression of computers and digital tools.  

Camry Loman, World Languages and Cultures, concentration in Chinese

This class was unlike anything I have ever done in any other class. For the first three quarters of the semester, I was unsure of how I was going to go about using the digital tools (or how I was going to pick which to use), but it worked out for the best.

One thing that I really enjoyed is that there are more, even better, ways to do research. Within my project, I used the digital tools to find out what I needed to research. There was so much information that I missed while I was reading, and the tools were able to pick it up and help me further my research.

Another thing I learned was that you can use a plethora of tools to increase your information intake. For example, I didn’t need to use the National Geographic digital tool, but it definitely helped me in understanding the path Don Quixote and Sancho took, and also helped me to better understand the types of foods that they were eating.

The possibilities are literally limitless by using digital tools to research this novel. In the beginning of the class, I was not a believer. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just do a research paper the way that I would normally. However, seeing what my project turned out to be, I know that my research paper (without tools) would have been bland and awful. I really hope [our professor] continues teaching these classes using digital humanities so that other students can see the real difference in using them and not using them.

Rebecca May, World Languages and Cultures, concentration in Spanish

Before entering this semester, I knew nothing of digital humanities. The only digital tools to which I had ever been exposed were the commonplace tools of Google Scholar and Google Books; however, I had never heard them referred to as digital tools or used them within the context of digital humanities.

Upon first entering the class and exposing myself to a basic understanding of the terms and tools utilized in digital humanities, I found myself questioning the validity of the field and expecting not to learn much from the use of digital tools like Zotero or Hypothesis.

I am delighted to say after a semester of working in digital humanities that my initial judgment of the field has proven incorrect. 

While completing my final project, I made use of digital tools that quantitatively and qualitatively analyzed segments of text; created word clouds of the most commonly used words in a given chapter or episode and helpful flow charts to organize my own thoughts and ideas and those expressed by the author in DQ; created citations and organized my Works Cited page; and searched through extensive databases to allocate and to filter relevant articles and books to the topic at hand. Using these tools, I was able to discover other scholars’ ideas about Cervantes’ portrayal of sex and gender in DQ and that countless more scholars than I had ever imagined have spent their professional lives analyzing El Quijote.

Furthermore, I learned that digital humanities allows these scholars to directly contact and collaborate with one another using tools such as

Similarly, the use of digital tools taught me that quantitative analysis of text can inspire a deeper understanding of texts by allowing scholars to easily discover important words and concepts that would not have been identifiable otherwise due to the work that it would take a person to go through a text as long as DQ and analyze the number of times any given word was written.

Through the use of digital tools, I also learned that Cervantes included cross-dressing with much more frequency than I had noticed in my own reading and analysis of the novels, and that women characters were almost always associated with physical attractiveness or malevolent cunning first and foremost and that men characters were most often associated with either brute strength or with intellect.

Without the use of digital tools, I doubt that I would have been able to come to these conclusions on my own. The use of digital humanities in our exploration of one of the most influential novels in all of human history this semester inspired within me a deeper understanding of what it means to analyze texts and opened my eyes to collaboration possibilities with scholars in the future. I hope to utilize these tools and more like them as I continue my education in the years to come.

Rachel Pate, Spanish

This semester I learned the usefulness of digital humanities by learning its flexibility. Because the digital humanities are a growing, broad, complex field, it can be applied to a wide variety of topics and uses.

Before this semester, I would not have been able to give an answer as to what the digital humanities encompass. By researching for my final project and then actually doing it, I was able to explore the field to see its many uses. One thing that surprised me was the broad array of digital humanities tools that are used in research. From DFR in JStor to Zotero, I was astounded at the tools available for free online.

More so, I was surprised that they were considered digital humanities tools rather than just research tools. Understanding that they are in fact in the humanities helped to clarify my understanding of just what the humanities are — or rather to broaden it. In addition to clarifying the contents of the field, the tools gave me better ideas of how to interact with the field and put it to use.

The wide range of tools available allows presentation of data that is often hard to quantify. In my case, I was concerned with how I was going to be able to portray literary influences visually. I ended up using a timeline to show quantifiable relations between events, with proximity often not being the strongest factor.

For example, Don Quixote‘s strongest influence is also that which is farthest removed from the novel itself. Without a timeline, it would have been harder to show. However, the various tools offered me many ways to show the influences — from charts to graphs to mind maps and everything in between. Putting abstract ideas into a visual representation is always difficult, but I was surprised at how many options I had for the display of my information.

Overall, I am taking away a lot of tools that I will use time and again. I know better where to look for what I need and how to use it when I get there. This class has contributed to my success in other classes and will continue to do so.

Carly Smith, World Languages and Cultures, concentration in Spanish

I originally found the digital humanities aspect of this class to be confusing. The digital tools seemed complicated, and, in many ways, I assumed from the beginning that the digital side of this class was going to in some way impede on my ability to enjoy the literary side of the class. Fortunately, I was wrong about that. When I finally got past the more confusing aspects about the class, I realized that many of the tools I utilized or could utilize were actually things I had used before (like Google Scholar) or now have the option of using in the future (like Academia, Popplet, etc.), for any class, not just classes specifically in the digital humanities.

Every tool I used, I used during the pre-writing process. I started with Popplet, which is a mind-mapping application. I liked Popplet because it allowed me to connect my thoughts about my theme and also narrow down my thoughts to smaller topics. I’ve never liked outlines, so instead of creating an outline, I used this tool to help me form my thoughts and decide which scenes I would include in my paper. For research, I utilized both Google Scholar and Academia.

Google Scholar was a tool I was pretty familiar with. I’d used it probably a thousand times before, so it was easy to navigate. For some reason, before this class I had never considered it a “digital tool” per se, I had just thought of it as part of the research process. Academia was a similar tool, but it was one I was unfamiliar with prior to this class. I liked Academia because it was like a crowdsourced Google Scholar.

Oftentimes, what I couldn’t access on Google Scholar due to restrictions, I would be able to find on Academia. For annotating, I used Hypothesis. While this was a tool we were required to use for the class, it was honestly one of my favorite tools to use. Hypothesis made it easy to highlight, annotate, and collaborate, all within the digital text of Don Quixote. I liked it because it was a tool that could be useful for annotating any digital text, and it’s something I’d really like to use again for other things.

Ultimately, what I found out about the digital humanities is that, while the digital humanities may be its own academic field, the tools used within the field can, and I think should, be utilized by just about anyone in just about any academic field.

On the air

Long also recorded several students describing digital humanities during interviews. Click their names to view their videos.

Tara Fenn

Rebecca May

Austin Elam

Rachel Pate




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