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Digital Humanities Asia advancing Stanford's Asian Studies community

July 06, 2016
Quincy Stamper

Digital Humanities is an emerging methodology that applies computational tools and platforms to humanistic research. With advanced mapping technologies and visualization techniques, for instance, one can show how the U.S. Postal Service operated in the 19th century using an interactive map. Geocoding, metadata and network analysis are no longer technical jargon for historians who have been utilizing such emerging methods. With the richness and variety of technological resources in the heart of Silicon Valley, Humanities scholars at Stanford are embracing Digital Humanities to enrich their research and inspire new ideas.

The Office of International Affairs met with Professor Thomas Mullaney who has been leading DHAsia, a residency program that combines lectures and interactive workshops led by visiting scholars—the first of its kind in Asian Studies at Stanford.

Q. Tell us how you have become interested in Digital Humanities, particularly in Asia.

A. My pathway to Digital Humanities began as a collaboration with the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) on a project called Grave Reform in Modern China in 2009. Since the project included various elements of spatial history, text mining and text analysis, I worked closely with CESTA’s undergraduate research assistant program to begin building a database of grave relocations in the People’s Republic. Given the immense scale and scope of China’s grave relocation efforts—with between 10 and 15 million graves moved over the past 15 years alone—I needed new methods to help me comprehend a phenomenon of this scale and complexity. As my team and I began to map out these millions of grave relocations, and to analyze the texts of Chinese grave relocation notices, I became increasingly interested in Digital Humanities. 

I also began to take notice of a gap between the kinds of DH tools and digitized corpora more readily available for alphabetical versus non-alphabetical scripts. If scholars of the Western-language canon are in a position to “distant read” centuries’ worth of literary work, there is nothing comparable (yet) for Chinese, Korean, or Japanese contents. That prompted me to wonder: perhaps it might be possible to bring together faculty, librarians, and students here at Stanford interested in DH and Asian Studies, and at the same time invite visiting DH scholars to campus. With the support of CESTA (particularly the former Director Zephyr Frank) and other partners on campus, I launched Digital Humanities Asia (DHAsia) in 2016, a new DH initiative at Stanford focused on East, South, Southeast, and Inner/Central Asia. 

Q. Why is DHAsia unique and different from other “speakers series” in Asian Studies?

A. Our hands-on workshops are one of the main differences between the DHAsia program and other speaker series on campus. DHAsia involves a series of intellectually intensive three-day residencies in which invited speakers deliver public lectures along the lines of the well-known format: a 45-minute talk followed by Q&A. But in addition to the public lecture, each resident runs a three-hour clinic for members of the Stanford community interested in Digital Humanities and Asian studies. During these workshops, the resident teaches each participant how to use certain programs, methods, techniques, and platforms to build a research project on one’s own, from scratch. Importantly, these workshops are open to participants at every level of experience, from undergraduates all the way through senior faculty members, and from complete beginners to experienced Digital Humanities practitioners.

Q. It’s interesting to hear that the workshop participants build something from scratch. What exactly do they do to learn a tool or platform that they can use for their future research?

A. The DHAsia residency program is focused on helping the Stanford Asian Studies community learn cutting-edge methods in Digital Humanities. With that goal in mind, the “hands-on workshop” has been a central component of DHAsia from the start—one that accompanies and complements the visiting scholar’s public lecture, but which achieves very different objectives. If many other speaker series focus primarily on the delivery of a public lecture and the researcher’s “finished work,” my sense was that it would be more empowering and inspiring to the Stanford community to be able to see the messy, “behind the scenes” work that goes into DH scholarship. At least for me, when I am presented with clean, stunning data visualizations, but not with the process that went into making such visualizations, that contributes to me believing in the impossibility of achieving such work myself. By contrast, by being able to see both the formal outcomes of research and the technical, sometimes chaotic processes that go into producing these formal outcomes, then I feel empowered and encouraged.

The DHAsia residency program is focused on helping the Stanford Asian Studies community learn cutting-edge methods in Digital Humanities.

Each resident typically has a specific goal for a workshop, for instance, how we can visualize the relationship between different texts in one or another Asian language; or how we can visualize the social relationships between different communities. Workshops typically begin by reflecting on the basic properties of the texts under consideration, but then quickly move to pragmatic, hands-on steps: installing relevant software on our machines, preparing the text files, and then building the visualization. Throughout the workshop, participants raise their hands, ask the workshop leader for further guidance, get her or his help on debugging certain issues that come up along the way, and so forth. So the feel of the workshops is both intense and mellow—the entire feel of the workshop is one of deep, patient learning. We don’t expect (or even hope for) anyone to leave the room as experts, but rather to understand in a firsthand way what the work of DH actually looks and feels like. With many of our workshop participants being “repeat visitors,” they steadily see the value of this hands-on approach. In many ways, in fact, this process parallels how I myself became involved in Digital Humanities. It took me a number of years and many “return visits” to get deeply involved in CESTA, and with each subsequent visit I became ever more convinced of the power and value of DH approaches and methods.

Q. Digital Humanities is a relatively new realm scholarly area, particularly in Asian Studies. What are some of the challenges you have faced?

A. At Stanford and elsewhere, there is a healthy degree of skepticism about Digital Humanities—particularly, I would say, within Asian Studies. I, for one, am very happy about this skepticism, because I consider it intellectually productive. No one should dive into DH uncritically. This skeptical and critical spirit comes out most noticeably in the Q&A sessions following DHAsia public lectures. Attendees ask thoughtful and probing questions that delve into the epistemology and methodology of DH—in fact, I would go far as to say that the questions raised at DH talks are sometimes more penetrating and theoretically sophisticated than those raised in other Humanities contexts: In your analyses, you have chosen Characteristic X as a proxy by which to examine Phenomenon Y—how do you justify that? You have “distant read” a corpus of X thousand works, but Y hundreds number of authors, but what how representative is this corpus? There is something about DH—particularly the skepticism that surrounds DH—which inspires audiences to “go after” the speaker’s theoretical and argumentative frameworks in ways not always true in non-DH presentations. In this sense, DH is doubly exciting for me, not because it replaces or “disrupts” existing methods (a buzzword I despise), but in fact because it provides models for rigorous modes of scholarly engagement that can help fan the critical flame in “non-DH” scholarly circles.

Going back to the origins of DHAsia, there was a great degree of uncertainty for me about how it would be received by the Stanford Asian Studies community. My concern quickly subsided, however. For each of the public lectures and workshops, the conference room at CESTA has been full of faculty, library staff, and students, as well as visitors coming in from UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and elsewhere. I quickly came to realize that, regionally, there’s not only a hunger for exploring Asian Digital Humanities at Stanford, but also in the Bay Area and California more broadly. Moving forward, my hope is to find ways to encourage and formalize these connections, perhaps by exploring a broader DHAsia consortium.

Q.What’s coming in the new academic year at DHAsia? What’s your long-term vision for the initiative?

A. Some months ago a call for proposalwent out for our 2017 DHAsia program, the deadline for which just passed. This Summer, once the review process is complete, we will be excited to issue invitations to our next DHAsia cohort, who will begin coming to campus in January 2017. We are also in the process of raising funds for new initiatives within DHAsia, to complement and build upon the already successful residency program. In particular, I am thrilled and grateful to share that CESTA under the new leadership of Elaine Treharne has augmented its support for DHAsia, and that we have also received new support from theCenter for Interdisciplinary Digital Research (CIDR), the Stanford Confucius Institute, and the Center for East Asian Studies, among others. So watch this space!

Read more about Professor Thomas Mullaney’s work

Professor Thomas Mullaney receives Mellon support to advance digital humanites at and beyond Stanford (October 17, 2016)