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Scholar peers inside technology’s ‘black box’

Through the emerging field of digital humanities, researchers are uncovering more and more fascinating information about old texts and materials using advanced computing tools such as data visualization and text mining. For example, it’s not uncommon for a scholar to investigate the comparison between the use of a particular word in prose and poetry, and how its meaning has changed over time.

But that’s just the half of it, according to renowned digital humanist Julia Flanders, who joined Northeastern this summer as a professor of the practice and whose interdisciplinary scholarship includes an appointment in the Department of English and leadership of the University Libraries’ Digital Scholarship Group. For Flanders, this research also lends insight into how these computing tools shape the way we think. “There is a really interesting interplay between how digital representations and digital media shape information and how we as readers and thinkers shape information,” she explained.

“One of the really valuable things digital humanities does is open the lid on that black box,” she added. “This is especially important in education, because that’s the moment at which we become inquisitive about things.”

Flanders leads two dynamic digital humanities endeavors that explore these topics. She directs the Women Writers Project, a long-term research initiative devoted to early modern women’s writing and electronic text coding with a particular focus on making texts by pre-Victorian women broadly accessible for teaching and research. She is also the editor-in-chief of Digital Humanities Quarterly, an open-access, peer-reviewed, digital journal that publishes articles, editorials, experiments in interactive media, and reviews of books, sites, and new media tools and systems.

Flanders has transferred both projects to Northeastern. The Women Writers Project is supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to run workshops on scholarly text encoding and study the reception and readership of early modern women’s writing. Recent DHQ issues, meanwhile, have covered subjects such as the future of digital studies and the beginnings of computing in the humanities; the forthcoming issue, among other topics, will tackle the complexity of comics and comic books.

Flanders is excited to continue this work at Northeastern and hopes it will lead to new faculty collaborations and experiential-learning opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate students.

Digital humanities, she said, dovetails with the university’s emphasis on combining classroom learning and real-world experience. “The intersection of theory and practice is an important aspect of the digital humanities,” Flanders said, “and the best way to learn is through thoughtful practice.”