Taking a walk (or a stroll?) through digital humanities

This may be an odd question, but how would you describe the way that you walk or move around in the world? Do you hold a certain posture? Does it depend on the people, places, and things surrounding you?

According to Joanna Guldi, the way a person’s style of walking is described can carry a lot of contextual and cultural information, especially in London during the 19th century. Guldi used databases and keyword variants to research the cultural change through walking habits in her article “The History of Walking and the Digital Turn.” Making use of Google Book Search, The Making of the Modern World (MMW) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) databases, she explored the shifting terminology to reveal the changing discourse of walking in 19th century London. Guldi noticed expressions such as “lurching,” “dodging,” and “waddling” grew in popularity over time. She also observed a contrast between the use of the words “lounge” and “stride” that reflected “the struggle between aristocratic and middle-class views of city, strangers, and the body.” On the other hand, the word “slodge” appeared in 1829 to describe “a drunken, foot-dragging walk, with all the poverty and dissolution such a posture could imply.” After examining the change of language over time through digital tools, Guldi asks other historians to establish new methodologies to glean additional information from digital database resources. Did Guldi’s methods change the way that you view historical texts? Continuing the conversation of “big data” that we started last week, have you come across historians incorporating similar methods in their research?

Ben Schmidt, who is currently the Director of Digital Humanities at New York University, also enjoyed experimenting with digital analysis tools. For one of his projects, he used Google Ngram to investigate the extent of anachronistic language in the popular British historical drama Downton Abbey. In his blog post “Making Downton more traditional,” shared his process of checking every single line of the show’s script for historical accuracy by running every two-word phrase through the Google Ngram database. (For a great overview of Google Ngram, check out Rosie’s blog post!) Schmidt gave a list of 34 anachronistic phrases that appeared in season 3 of the show. I have never seen Downton Abbey, and I was surprised to see the phrase “unicorn if” on the list.

Schmidt also found that every episode included dozens of phrases following speech patterns that were more consistent with teenagers’ language during the 1990s than the characters in the show. The characters’ phrasing was not the only anachronistic aspect of the show. Schmidt acknowledged that “the sensibilities are obviously modern, easy for us to understand, and false to the reality of the past.” A couple of the commenters also discussed the show’s use of contemporary phrases to create a historical drama that appealed to modern audiences. (This may be an aside from the main analysis of the readings, but do you agree with the commenters? What is the balance between historical accuracy and appealing to contemporary audiences?)

Guldi’s and Schmidt’s use of text databases and digital analysis tools demonstrate a facet of digital humanities’ many capabilities.  In the article “Digital visualization as a scholarly activity,” Martyn Jessop shares a variety of methods for visualizing information through images, diagrams, and animations to communicate messages. Visualization is not only a method for viewing information, but also a method for studying information. This includes examining spatial relationships, quantitative analysis, temporal relationships, and 3D visualizations of built environments. Are there some forms of data visualization that work better than others? Additionally, Jessop claims that digital visualization’s greatest value is “not for analysis, but for synthesis and modelling.” Do you agree with Jessop’s assertion?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

5 Replies to “Taking a walk (or a stroll?) through digital humanities”

  1. Mia, I think it can be appropriate to mix contemporary language in historical shows to make it more relatable. It helps viewers connect, but it has to be done well and the emphasis still has to be on presenting the information. As far as data visualization it is an important tool that again can help viewers connect to the information. For me, it is much easier to see a space drawn out than see numbers listed. I do agree that it is great for synthesis and modeling but it can be useful for analysis as well. Some people are visual learners and understand better through visualization rather than numbers or words.

    1. Hi Amanda! I think I usually feel the same way about connecting with visualizations that show space drawn out over those that show numbers listed. I feel like the context of the visualizations also informs the forms types of visualization for the project. With Schmidt’s blog post, I kind of found the charts a little difficult to understand at first with the “over representation” versus “overall frequency” axes. I am also curious if there were other ways that he tried visualizing the data before he settled on the charts he put in the blog.

      Were there any of the visualizations from the readings that you felt like you connected with better than others?

  2. Mia, I really liked your question about historical accuracy vs. contemporary appeal–I think it is a good thing to think about! As someone who watched all of Downton Abbey (at the request of my mother but also, who am I kidding, I loved it) I can say that the historical appeal of the show wasn’t in their language, but rather in the visual depictions of a lost world and the relationships between the characters. While I think that historical accuracy is absolutely necessary in most places, TV shows that do their best and still make larger points about socioeconomic designations, war, and historical experience don’t need to live up to an academic standard. I would wager that very few individuals watch Downton Abbey to have an immersive historical experience. Most watch Downton Abbey to feel like they are part of a wealthy British world where kind servants bring you tea in the middle of the day. Ultimately, historians can (and should) contribute to conversations about historical accuracy in TV shows, but the struggle lies in creating something relatable to modern audiences. My mother had to look words and events up while watching Downton Abbey (and The Crown as well)–she learned about historical trends and vocabulary and lifestyle, and I think that is a pretty good accomplishment from a TV series.

    1. Hi Shae! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Downton Abbey. Maybe I’ll give it a watch in the future! It’s awesome to hear about the ways that you and your mom connected with the show and learned more about historical lifestyles. It feels like most audiences take the history portrayed in historical dramas with a grain of salt anyways, and it could prompt people do some more research into the history after enjoying the show.

      Were there any moments where you felt uneasy with the show’s portrayal of the past or found the anachronisms that Schmidt mentioned jarring?

    2. Yes I felt the same way about Downton Abbey when reading this. As an avid watcher of period pieces I don’t watch them for historical accuracy but instead for the simple entertainment of becoming invested in the lives of fictional characters and experiencing their adventures on screen. I love history but I do agree with Mia that it seems, for the most part, that period pieces take historical accuracy with a grain of salt to leave enough room for their creative take that will most definitely appeal to their modern audience. But for the sake of this class, it is fascinating that Schmidt could breakdown the language and cross reference it.

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