Two Yale faculty members were each awarded $20,000 grants Wednesday to support their projects in the digital humanities.
Professor of African American Studies, history and American Studies Matthew Jacobson and music professor Anna Zayaruznaya received the funds through Yale’s Digital Humanities Lab, which finances four major projects each calendar year. The lab — which was created in 2015 and is housed in Sterling Memorial Library — offers a variety of resources to students and faculty interested in applying digital technology to humanities fields. While Yale’s efforts to bridge digital methods into the humanities date back to research in the 1950s, the establishment of a digital humanities laboratory has ushered in a new era in Yale’s humanities endeavors.
“Digital humanities describes a constellation of research methods and presentation formats that aim to enhance traditional humanistic modes of research, publishing and teaching,” said Dean of Humanities Amy Hungerford. “This includes using tools like text mining to understand features of large corpora of texts … or using digital tools such as gaming or interactive online communities to engage users with humanistic study.”
Zayaruznaya’s newly funded project involves creating an interactive digital version of the medieval Roman de Fauvel manuscript, an influential allegorical verse romance. Zayaruznaya described her project as “versatile,” adding that it will be relevant to scholars, students, performers and the general public, just as the original document appealed to a wide variety of readers when it was first published centuries ago.
Zayaruznaya said she hopes to use digital tools to increase accessibility to the 600-year-old manuscript. She added that her project draws parallels between current media and past media.
“The Roman de Fauvel is a multimedia object, and was technically innovative for its time,” Zayaruznaya said. “It makes sense to use the advanced tools of our time to study and engage with it.”
Jacobson, the other grant recipient this cycle, is working on two digital humanities projects: a documentary called “The Historian’s Eye” containing photographs and oral histories, and a digital game about life in the Jim Crow South. In the game, which is in the process of being created, students play African-American visitors to a southern town in the 1940s and encounter various social situations. Depending on a player’s reaction to these situations, the game unlocks archival materials and historical interviews to deepen the player’s understanding of the region and period.
Jacobson said his first experience with the Digital Humanities Lab was working with its design and data management team for his documentary, where he was struck by the “pedagogical possibility” of digital projects. Jacobson said the encounter was his “conversion experience,” and his technological ambitions have grown since.
“Big data projects allow you to accomplish in one afternoon what it would have taken a whole career to accomplish in analog form,” Jacobson said. “But my experience has been that even in smaller-scale projects like ‘Historian’s Eye,’ digital forms enable new modes of interpretive thinking.”
But these projects are only a portion of the work done at the Digital Humanities Lab.
Peter Leonard, director of the Digital Humanities Lab, said the lab also supports students and faculty looking for advice or for resources.
“We’re a resource for Yale scholars who are curious about the digital humanities or who would like some advice or to exchange ideas,” Leonard said. “We’re a resource on campus for folks interested in experimenting with STEM techniques in regards to arts and humanities.”
The Digital Humanities Lab currently occupies a temporary room on the third floor of Sterling, but will move to the first-floor Franke Family Reading Room in 2018, Leonard said. He added that the lab’s mission would not change during the relocation — its purpose is not to define digital humanities but to serve the Yale community’s digital humanities needs.
Current projects in the lab include a professor working with the poetry and literature of Russian immigrants and graduate students in the French department digitizing French texts from the 1940s, Leonard said. He added that using big data and learning coding are not necessary for humanists using the lab, but are increasingly accessible options.
“There’s no getting around the fact that in 2016, getting your hands dirty and coding or using a tool you haven’t used before is definitely a part of most peoples’ experiences in the digital humanities,” Leonard said. “The tools are getting easier to use, compared to 10 years ago, and I think the tools will continue to get better because of the democratization of access to technology.”
The lab provides large project grants like the ones awarded to Zayaruznaya and Jacobson, as well as smaller seed grants for other projects such as hosting workshops or guests, or paying undergraduates for data acquisition work, Leonard said.
Leonard said that although the University follows an academic year schedule, Digital Humanities Lab grants are awarded each calendar year. This means two more project grants will be awarded before the end of 2017, applications for which are due next month.