November 19, 2018
How digital humanities can further our understanding of human experiences
9 min read
by Kevin Dawson
As a cultural historian of the African diaspora who employees the paradigms of Atlantic history to trace the cultural traditions of enslaved Africans who were forcibly uprooted and transplanted in the Americas, I was both impressed and inspired by the possibilities digital research offers for adding depth and breadth to our understandings early American history. Scholars of Atlantic history have diligently worked to creatively consider, understand, and recreate the lived experiences of the peoples they study. Composite biographies are a recent intervention for adding sinew, muscle, and flesh to sources that routinely only provide fragmentary glimpses into people’s lives. The methodological approaches and questions posed by the presenters at the WMQ-UCI Digital Research in Early America Workshop exemplify how to creatively elaborating upon this, and other methods, to further nuance our understandings human experience.
Workshop presenters used digital humanities, especially different types of digital mapping, to give voice to voiceless, sometimes nameless people. Using nodal and spatial maps to trace webs of connectivity across time and space, presenters graphically illustrated the movements and social, cultural, economic, and political connections formed by historical actors. Through this process, they brought women and men of African, Amerindian, and European descent, and often of humble status, who have largely occupied the shadows and backdrops of historical narratives to the center of their analysis. By adding digital mapping to their analyses for considering women of middling sorts, fugitives from slavery, First People, migratory fishermen, and others the presenters constructed composite biographies of their subjects.
This posting does not seek to provide an overview of the workshop, though a discussion of the ideas, approaches, and scholarship will punctuate the usefulness of coupling digital humanities with more traditional approaches for considering human circumstances. To this end, presenters skillfully demonstrated the flexibility and potential of digital humanities. Most participants were historians, with archeology, Women’s and Gender Studies, and literature also represented, demonstrating how scholars across the humanities can talk to each other through a digital humanities lens.
Graphic by Maeve Kane
Archeologist Amanda Crompton collaborated with Marc Bolli who uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to conduct analytics for aerial earth observation and landscape analysis in the social sciences to study colonists’ environmental impacts. Crompton demonstrated how low-elevation aerial imagery captured with UAVs could track the long-term environmental impacts that seasonal, migratory French fishermen from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries left on Newfoundland when they created rich anthropogenic soil by processing and curing codfish ashore, which produced still visible vegetation shadows. Christy Hyman employed digital mapping to consider the ways enslaved Africans slipped into swamplands, transforming them into sanctuaries from oppression, while tracking the distances traveled by runaways, gauging their caloric expenditures, and measuring enslavers’ spheres of influence over the terrain and their human property. This approach allowed Hyman to recreate the lived experiences of subjugated, marginalized people as they furtively created a sense of meaning, purpose, and humanity in their exploited lives. Maeve Kane documented the social landscape of the multi-racial community in early eighteenth-century Fort Hunter, a frontier hamlet in New York comprised of Iroquois, enslaved Africans, and Protestant Europeans of various nationalities. Using baptismal records, Kane digitally mapped the centrality of European-descended and Iroquois women constructing and maintaining networks of connectivity. Jeremy Mikecz employed digital maps and other geovisualization tools to insert Indigenous peoples into historical narratives by mapping their activities in Conquest-Era Peru, to offer a corrective to colonial narratives that have long marginalized Indigenous people. S. Max Edelson considered how to integrate texts, timelines, and GIS data into his study of the St. Lawrence River from ca. 1500 to 1867 while balancing an interest in scholarly context, complexity, and nuance with on-screen legibility, while creating a spatial history in which visualization ins a central method for constructing arguments and disseminating knowledge.
Jordan Taylor and Edward Larkin digitally mapped knowledge as it flowed throughout the Atlantic world. Taylor examined how, after the American War for Independence, Canadian and American newspaper printers obtained overseas news from other newspapers and determined its reliability, in part, on where it was printed. Employing digital humanities, Taylor created nodal and animated maps to chart the complex networks of published information that flowed out of the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish empires and into North American newspapers. Larkin, a literary scholar, employed digital humanities to explore the articulation of new understandings of agency, mobility, and temporality in increasingly multiracial eighteenth and nineteenth century societies, when the novel became the most popular form of literary entertainment in the Anglo-American world. In considering how novels informed readers’ decision-making process, Larkin used spatial and temporal mapping to track characters’ ability to produce zones of agency and mobility.
Even as the presenters illustrated the multifaceted ways that scholars can expand their analytical frameworks Ashley Glassburn Falzetti’s, a Women’s and Gender Studies scholar, opened her examination of the Miami Nation by provocatively and insightfully stressing that she was both captivated by the possibilities digital archives could provide Indigenous communities and the intense suspicious of how they might be employed to further disenfranchise and alienate Indigenous people from the constructing of their histories. Among other things, Falzetti’s paper and presentation, demonstrated how digitization and 3D modeling can be used to preserve documents and recreate stolen artifacts that possessed cultural and spiritual meanings, which then raises issues of who owns these documents and recreated objects.
The WMQ-UCI Digital Research in Early America Workshop illuminates the range of opportunities that digital humanities can offer for nuancing and expanding understanding to human experiences, especially when it comes to members of social groups or societies whose story is not well documented in historical sources. In this vein, digital mapping is an ideal method for Atlanticist, and others, seeking to track human currents across time and space. I encourage scholars across the humanities to explore the websites supported by some of the workshop presenters and consider the possibilities of integrating digital humanities into your scholarship and teaching.