Research Methods Session at THAT Camp

This weekend I’m at THAT Camp, which is bringing together programmers, librarians, funding officers, project managers, mathematicians, historians, philosophers, literary scholars, linguists, etc. to discuss the digital humanities. Sponsored by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, THAT CAMP is an un-conference, which means that ideas for sessions emerged organically out of blog posts preceding the gathering and out of a discussion held when the Camp began. As a result of all of the sharing of ideas via blogging and social networking via Twitter, the meeting seems much more intimate, open, and lively than your average conference. People who are passionate and curious about the digital humanities are coming together to talk about teaching, gaming, visualization, project sustainability, etc., and to learn how to hack Zotero and Omeka, build a simple history appliance, and more. As many folks have commented, the toughest part of THAT Camp is deciding which of the four sessions to attend–I want to go to them all. Kudos to CHNM for organizing and hosting the event–I bet some exciting initiatives and collaborations will come out of THAT Camp.

Yesterday afternoon I facilitated a session on research methods. At the request of some of the participants, I’m posting the rough notes I took during this rich discussion.

Touchstones/ pump priming quotations for the session:

  • “Research in the humanities, then, is and has been an activity characterized by the four Rs: reading, writing, reflection, and rustication. If these are the traditional research methods in the humanities, what will “new research methods” look like–and more importantly, why do we need them?”—John Unsworth, New Methods for Humanities Research
  • “The day will come, not that far off, when modifying humanities with ‘digital’ will make no more sense than modifying humanities with ‘print.’” –Steve Wheatley, ACLS
  • Unsworth, Scholarly Primitives: “some basic functions common to scholarly activity across disciplines, over time, and independent of theoretical orientation.” Unsworth lists the following scholarly primitives:
    • Annotating
    • Comparing
    • Discovering
    • Illustrating
    • Referring
    • Representing
    • Sampling
  • “What is a literary-critical ‘problem?’ How is it different from a scientific “problem?””—Steve Ramsay



  • Old method: Scholars would find things in the archive, bring them back, provide people w/ information.
  • New: scholars face a deluge of information.
  • Old assumption: info is hard to get to, need to expertise to find stuff.
  • New: expertise shifts from finding to filtering and sorting
  • The point of a research method is figuring out how to filter, sort. A bibliography is not a list of Google links; you need to be familiar w/ major sources in field.
  • Experts know how to discern bias; Filtering requires expertise.
  • Expertise=familiarity with conceptual/ theoretical approaches in field. Scholars get a sense of theoretical approach by looking at the bibliography—it’s metadata about the book
  • Scholars need to inform students about problems with resources they find. New problems arise with digital—important to know weaknesses of Google Books. Need to teach students to question how resource/ tool created—what it does and doesn’t do.
  • The student world is digital—they need to learn how to operate responsibly in it
  • Two webs: open access, proprietary/ walled off. Students need to be aware of it—not everything is in Google.
  • But it’s also important to meet students where they start—even faculty start with Google; make metadata open so it’s discoverable. Implications of stuff not being accessible—it’s ignored.
  • Old model: one expert—you had to read the one book on the subject. Now there’s a huge amounts of data, need multiple interfaces to all of it. Need to provide multiple pathways to data. RDF key.
  • If you’re used to do something a particular way, it’s hard to change that.
  • Origins of print: first people to adopt print were different groups using it for their own agenda. Later library science came along to collect and curate content. Print media enabled new ways of doing existing scholarship. New disciplines developed, such as finding and keeping print materials (librarianship) and the study of books as physical objects. Same thing in shift to digital: there are specialists who focus on the technical side, like building tools. There are scholars, who want to use this stuff and don’t need to know the technical details.


  • At the recent New Horizons conference, Geoffrey Rockwell spoke on mass digitization and the process of research. Search is not that simple—there are multiple places to look. The problem of selection→ how do you decide what makes sense. Then there’s serendipity. How do scholars negotiate mass of stuff? How do they make sense of it, select it? Tools like Zotero help you to share & select info; then you leave Zotero and write paper separately. With textual analysis tools, there’s no way to take textual data and link to publication → you need a relationship to textual analysis work. Can integrated tools be developed so that discovery, search, data collection, analysis, etc. can be carried right through publication in journal, Omeka, etc?


  • Sharing should be one of the scholarly primitives. We’re sharing in new ways. The speed & scale of what you share is changing.
  • How do you cut across disciplines? People from different fields have difft takes: literature vs history vs art; different methods, not much cross-fertilization
  • Pronetos: scholars throughout the world get a single place to go to network and engage with other scholars. Organic—if you’re an American historian, you can create an American history group if it doesn’t already exist. Takes on the problem of how to help people network.
  • Zotero Commons will facilitate sharing of expertise, as you can find an expert sharing a particular bibliography.
  • Opening up projects, creating communities around them helps with sustainability
  • Most transformative aspect of new research methods is establishing scholarly networks, collaborative aspect
  • How do you track your efforts in collaboration so that you can document what deserves to be rewarded?
  • Teach collaboration by modeling it for students
  • Sharing depends on discipline—people working on patents don’t necessarily share.
  • Humanists have trouble with sharing—for instance, some NINES users wanted to make tags private
  • Not sharing will become a problem in the long term, since it leads to duplication of effort and unnecessary competition. You can collaborate to come up with a better project.
  • Information gets out quickly, danger is in not sharing–that’s when you get scooped.
  • It’s not the technology that enables the sharing—it’s the people. There’s concern about retaining rights, getting credit, getting ripped off. People are building projects (e.g. institutional repositories) and users are not coming. How will people be encouraged to share?
  • People tend to share within discipline rather than institution.
  • What’s the relationship btwn repositories, blogs, Omeka installations, etc.? Importance of data aggregation, globalization.
  • Cyberinfrastructure is people
  • They’ve been pushing knowledge management practices in the business world for decades, and they still haven’t cracked it.
  • Mashups—pieces in place to make scholars see potential, but haven’t been realized yet.
  • With openly shared research, you facilitate interdisciplinarity and get research out to more people. Institutional repositories (IR) are key for this.
  • IRs are siloed—but w/ Zotero Commons, institution is everyone.
  • If you put your research out there, you’re staking it—not getting scoped.
  • If scholars blog their work at the early stage, they may wonder: are they putting it out too early?
  • What is it about sharing that’s changing over time?
  • Do humanities departments who want to do digital need a marketing department to help people discover their work?
  • Role of libraries as marketing depts., making resources accessible.
  • Professional societies need to step up b/c it’s not realistic for individual schools to do the marketing of digital scholarship.
  • Should professional societies launch their own version of Facebook?
  • We need to get away from the silos.
  • Peer review is a kind of social network.
  • Media Commons: social network for peer review of online texts using CommentPress, etc. Slashdot: reputation ranking, etc. (morphed into peer review)
  • Offer interfaces inflected given different disciplines: NINES, 18th C Connect
  • NINES an example of peer review for digital scholarship. 22 sites peer-reviewed by NINES—22 of first 105 to be put in MLA Bibliography.
  • Journal gives seal of approval—haven’t come up with that kind of stamp for digital world. Part of fear about blogging iis that it’s not peer reviewed
  • Blogrolls are a form of peer review–to find good stuff, you look at Matt Kirschenbaum’s blog to see who he reads.
  • Rotunda/ digital publisher as stamp of approval.
  • There are different standards for digital and print. A Nature study of online peer review found it doesn’t work. But there were something like 40 comments in 6 months—isn’t that success, when in normal peer review it would take 1-2 years to get 3 comments? Why is there such a high bar for digital scholarship?
  • Noah Wadrip-Fruin’s peer review processes, different feedback overall from both online/blog-based and traditional peer review.
  • Scholarship over time: digital projects, when do they end?


  • How are traditional research methods tied to the printed book?
  • Interpretation: job of historian is to make sense of what things mean. We’re in the land grab stage right now—dump stuff online, then begin to wall it off. It’s still early—at the ground floor of something that could be big.
  • Historians typically narrativize events. At Miami U. they developed a tool to transform a short story into different genre—for instance, from horror to epic. Students learned elements of genre, wrote XSLT stylesheets to do the transformations.
  • Researchers could try out different narratives on data sets—picking out certain aspects. Historical narrativizing tied to print; digital enables historical multi-narrative. With digital, you can see what breaks when you change parameters.
  • Print to digital: transition from narrative to simulation, counter-factuals
  • How do you read? How many books do you have open?
    o Former practices: contraptions to hold multiple books open. Some ways of laying out books made them a database.
    o How does that work now? Ray Siemens: exploring idea of reading. Tools for document triage


  • The problem of naming a new digital humanities research center: Faculty advisers focused on the word “humanities”—what about social sciences, arts, etc.
  • When does the digital label drop out—or is it useful in defining what you do?
  • NEH Digital Humanities Office: NEH has been doing digital humanities for a long time: it funded TEI 20 years ago. But establishing the office helps to validate digital scholarship.
  • Specialists focus on certain areas of theory–we have the deconstruction scholars who specialize in the field, but their ideas permeate throughout the humanities. Similarly, digital humanists will be the lead group of folks who do digital work, but it will filter down into common research practice.
  • Digital humanities researchers need to make the case for a new methodology.
  • Digital” useful b/c we are at an early stage—people still wonder what it means to be digital.
  • “Digital humanities” brings together technical skills and humanistic knowledge. Creating a DTD is a fascinating part of digital humanities; sounds like computer stuff, but it’s fundamentally humanities.
  • A tension: bibliography used to be core work, but that kind of work doesn’t necessarily get you tenure now. There’s real suspicion about whether this is truly humanities work.
  • Digital humanities includes tool developers, text encoders, people who use digital methods, as well as those who study digital culture, e.g. video games, underlying structures of social environment. Object they study is digital.
  • Divide between game/ film studies and textual digital humanities.
  • Jerry McGann: “humanists have always worked to preserve and interpret human record. Digital humanities is doing it in digital form.”
  • ADHO used to focus on the textual digital humanities, but is reaching out to digital theorists/ art, etc.
  • There’s a significant skill set to doing digital humanities work. Many scholars don’t really appreciate what it takes to produce digital resources—it’s not just scanning documents.
  • Theoreticians: need a little more dirt under their fingernails—they need to get experience doing these projects to inform their theorizing.

6 responses to “Research Methods Session at THAT Camp

  1. Pingback: THAT Camp Takeaways « Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

  2. Hey this is fantastic stuff – Thanks for the great posts. I’m working on a similar project focusing on anthropologists. I’ve got three months to “gather data” and you can bet I’ll be hanging out here. Wish I could have been at the camp too!

    Owen Wiltshire

  3. Pingback: Digital Scholarship in the Humanities - a great blog « another anthro blog

  4. Pingback: Doing Digital Scholarship: Presentation at Digital Humanities 2008 « Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

  5. Lisa,
    Some of my colleagues were thinking of putting up a blogging website (is that what it is called?) on the history of all we have learned about watches in our 30+ years of working on numerous high end vintage watches. It seems like you have an amazing grasp on the technology that can help you share and collaborate with your colleagues.

    We have much to learn from you. It also seems you are doing a solid job of bringing the older faculty on board with your program. I wish we had you around in our quarterly meetings to help us organize. Of course we tend to move slow….. like a manual watch that needs to be wound…

    Edward James Parker
    Watch Historian

  6. Pingback: Fall Course Proposal — So It’s Digitized: Now What? « Machine Readable

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