Week 4: The Academy’s Trouble with (Digital) Images: Visualization as Scholarship (Katie Krumeich)

Week 4: Visualizations

It may be that in two hundred years, digital imagery will be as much a part of academia as peer-reviewed academic journals. This is the premise of this week’s readings, the exploration of the idea that scholarly arguments can be made with sustained, creative, appropriate use and debate around the methodology of digital imaging to generate knowledge.

One of the key thematic positions of the readings was the use and limitations of visualizations to humanities scholarship, and the difficulty of applying rigorous academic standards to visual digital mediums.

 Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity, Martyn Jessop

A historic map of Sicily. Jessop argues that humanity has always viewed visual aid as a powerful tool: take the function of maps in so many societies.

“Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity,” by Martyn Jessop, attempts to make the point that increased visual literacy is necessary to society and academia as a whole, and that digital imagery needs to be treated more seriously as a method of creating rigorous secondary sources. Jessop meditates not only on the current paucity of scholarship on this issue, but also on digital visualization’s predecessors: on the use of a museum exhibit, in theater and visual essays, in historical re-enactments, and on the rich possibilities of digital visualization for academics in general.

Jessop makes the point, I think persuasively, that new knowledge can be generated and arguments made with digital images used as texts. In scholarship, there has always been a tendency to focus in on images as an illustration only: a lone representation of some old drawing, painting or photograph, lost in a sea of words. Jessop uses this article to suggest that drawing more out of digital imagery is possible in the search for new knowledge. The use of digital visualization is in scholarly curation to create an argument and show relationships between primary sources previously impossible.

Jessop fit with the day’s themes neatly, bringing up not only the possibilities of digital visualization for academics, but the real dangers of digital visualization being abused or “allowed to seduce” (290) the viewer. These fears are echoed by Guldi, who asserts the need for careful consideration when using digital visualization to avoid pat responses and deceptively simplistic answers to complex subjects, what she calls ‘naivety.’

The point he makes about the low visual literacy not only in the common milieu but also in academia rings a lot of bells. After all, many academics eschew coding, computers, and still fall back on tried-and-true but archaic forms of knowledge-making that recall the limits of typewriters, as opposed to  engaging with the new media available. I see that as limiting and dangerous, just as much as Jessop.

The trouble scholars have with digital visualization often boils down to unfamiliarity, and the need for collaboration and thus higher overhead costs, which Blevins talks about later.

To see the possibilities those with low visual literacy are avoiding, Guldi and Blevins’ articles are particularly salient.

The History of Walking and the Digital Turn: Stride and Lounge in London, 1808–1851, Joanna Guldi

Woodward, George Moutard, 1818. The difference between loungers and striders is explicit in this graphic.

The consideration of this text, which meditates on the change in conceptions of walking in nineteenth century London, is far outweighed for our purposes by the usefulness for Guldi and others of the digital tools like Google’s n-gram coming into being to help historians research more effectively. This worked as kind of a case study for why digital visualization is so important to historians: new knowledge, and a previously unrecognized class conception between the virtues of lounging and striding (as well as an explosion of other words for walking with increased urbanization), was created with the invaluable aid of Google’s n-gram, a digital visualization tool. If Jessop’s article suggested a framework of the theory that digital visualization could help the humanities, Guldi’s showed this theory at work in aiding scholarship. Google’s n-gram is also a relatively simple digital visualization tool, which has already been of extreme help to scholars like Guldi. She also successfully pointed out how to avoid previously-discussed ‘naivety’ and do good scholarship with resources like the n-gram, thus pointing to the second theme, of the dangers of digital visualization, which is in part that they’re so simple to run it’s all too easy to draw false conclusions if one isn’t careful and thoughtful about search terms and date constraints, as well as the types of sources preferenced by academics. There is danger in taking an extremely complex topic and reducing it to graphs of key words. On the other hand, there’s danger in focusing in-depth on one text and missing the larger themes available when looking at thousands. This was argued most clearly by Blevins.

Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston and Mining and Mapping the Production of Space: A View of the World from Houston, Cameron Blevins

Cameron Blevins used data mining to locate the imagined geography shown to its readers in two historical Houston newspapers, using a combination of mapping and data sources. Encapsulating both a pragmatic usage of digital visualization to further historical knowledge and a passionate cry for the furthering and use of digital visualization in the study of history, Blevins’ two papers bring our theme to a conclusion. Simply put, Blevins both articulates the use of digital visualization tools like data mining and mapping—uniquely possible with computers but truly impossible without them—and shows that there are actions possible through this method that would take a human scholar three to four years of unreasonably intense study to even try to match. That same amount of study could be done in minutes or seconds with the right computer program. This paper brings into focus our big ideas and major themes of today’s reading: digital visualization is useful for history, and makes inferences possible that could not have been without it, and two, the not-insurmountable difficulty of applying academically rigorous debate and standards to such a newly-emerging field of study.

In short, as Jessop argued, the future of our world is digital and visual, but academic debate and standards hold the key to avoiding what Guldi cautioned against as naivety. Blevins also included a consideration common with Jessop, which is the necessity of interdisciplinary and collaborative work to pull off digital visualization. Blevins’ work would have been impossible without the work of archivists in creating digital versions of these newspapers and the help of computer scientists and programmers.

Things to Think About

  • What are the immediate uses and potential pitfalls of digital visualization, to your thinking?
  • Do you think digital visualization could reach the same level of academic rigor as traditional journal articles? Do you think they should be better incorporated into history?
  • In academia we often think of our papers as entering into the scholarly conversation, the debate that precedes us and will outlive us. How can we foster academic debate, as Jessop suggested, that will improve the usefulness of digital visualization to historians and humanities researchers?
  • Guldi calls use of Google’s n-gram for scholarship a part of the ‘digital turn.’ What are some digital tools that have revolutionized the study of history for you? Do you welcome the digital turn, or fear it?

4 Replies to “Week 4: The Academy’s Trouble with (Digital) Images: Visualization as Scholarship (Katie Krumeich)”

  1. We are currently living in a technological revolution. In our line of study, this technology has influenced the way historians at large store and interpret information. Like the Edson article from last week, there is so much untapped potential for the internet and database sources that at this point in time our brain’s cannot even begin to comprehend. So in that sense, I think we should not fear the digital turn and instead welcome the change with open arms as I believe Guldi does by utilizing programs such as Google NGram in her article to show her support. For this digital turn to be successful, accessibility is key. The conversations we enter into as historians should no longer be with just each other, rather anyone who wishes to engage in history. By widening our audiences, this will allow for collaboration across multiple fields to support this shift in academia as Blevins and Jessop contend. This collaboration will further improve the usefulness of digital visualization to historians and humanities researchers through feedback from designers, computer scientists, coders, literary critics, psychologists (I am sure the list can go on) to improve methods of organizations and technological understanding across the board. By adapting our communication of history through technology, we are preserving this field and information for generations to come.

  2. Taking each of this week’s readings into account, the main theme that can be taken away is the importance that digital visualization and the “digital turn” (Guldi) has on the study of history, and humanities as a whole. While there are academics and historians that may be frightened by the increased reliance on digital visualizations, if handled correctly, this turn can help create an environment for the act of doing “good history”. Issues brought up by this week’s readings, as mentioned in Jessop’s article, state that there is an inherent “mistrust” of images. In my opinion, this mistrust can be thwarted if those within the humanities insist on practicing “good” history in terms of digital visualization. This mistrust occurs when historians interpret digital visualizations just as they are. But in order to use digital visualization to its fullest, we have an obligation to the craft of humanities to make sure to place these new visualizations contextually, just as we are taught with texts. Whether it be scatterplots, graphs, maps, or pictures, if we as historians remember to contextualize these examples, we have a far less chance of misinterpreting them and therefore we are able to sidestep the problem that Jessop brings to our attention. As Jessop stated, every representation can become an effort to structure an argument. This mirrors textual representations, and with those in the humanities striving to do “good” history, the arguments structured can become that much stronger with digital visualizations.

  3. I feel like the Jessop piece in particular was very compelling. It seems as though it developed from the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words,” yet this is an important piece for the future of the field of history, as well as to the rest of academia and society. As someone who grew up in the digital age, the combination of visuals and writing has been something that I have become accustomed to, from seeing related images in a journal article to seeing pictures with text on sites like Facebook. That’s why this piece surprised me so much- why would modern scholarship have an issue with this? I have always been taught that if there is a picture with a piece of text, it should absolutely be connected in some way, even if the reader has to figure out that connection on their own. Then I realized an important aspect of this- not everyone is being taught about visual literacy. This is an important ability for everyone to have, regardless of their profession or social standing. I feel like it is our responsibility as the next generation of historians to teach as many people as possible the power of visuals in historical thought, as well as their power in everyday life. Perhaps if the level of visual literacy increases, then the limits on visuals within the field will be decreased until this is a common aspect of historical thought.

  4. What are the immediate uses and potential pitfalls of digital visualization, to your thinking?

    This is an interesting question, Katie, and I think Allson_Pesta brought up some interesting points with regards to “what is good history?” Remember from our reading that one of the pitfalls mentioned in our reading was an over reliance on numbers, as ended up happening in the 60’s and 70’s. While useful, numbers cannot tell a full story and they should not be used in this manner. That acknowledged, it can be a useful tool.

    Most patterns can’t be noticed, or are hard to notice, with the naked eye. One might be aware that women authors, for example, write more female characters, but wouldn’t be able to tell you how much more often without running the numbers. That’s what digital analysis allows a digital humanitarian to do. It can allow one to identify a topic or pattern (such as common themes in literature) but cannot interpret those findings. It is still up to a scholar to interpret their findings and ready those findings for presentation. That much responsibility remains on the academic and with that responsibility in mind, the risks of digital analysis (the risk of adhering to the numbers to the detriment of the research at large) is mitigated.

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