Pilot Digital Humanities Training Program Unveils New Web Tool, Embarks on Second Year

May 10, 2012 — The Praxis Program, a first-of-its-kind graduate training program in digital humanities run by the University of Virginia's Scholars' Lab, recently completed a successful inaugural year by rolling out a promising new digital humanities tool designed and built by students.

Over the course of one academic year, the students in the program – five from the English Department and one from the Graduate Program of History of Arts and Architecture – went from having little to no experience with digital humanities work to coding and implementing a complex piece of software, said Bethany Nowviskie, the director of digital scholarship in the U.Va. Library.

The program's participants created "Prism," a Web-based tool that allows for group interpretation – or "crowd-sourced" interpretation – of literary text.

"I think it was a huge success," Nowviskie said. "This was explicitly team-based and collaborative, and the students not only picked up technical skills, they also learned how to go from conceiving of a project and trying to answer a humanities research question to being able to build the tools that they needed."

The Praxis Program recently secured funding for a second year from the Mellon Foundation, and will soon welcome a new interdisciplinary group of six students from five programs – philosophy, music, sociology, English and history – within the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Twenty-seven applied, a significant increase from the first year, Nowviskie said.

The program was conceived to provide formal training for aspiring scholars interested in digital humanities projects. Though interest in digital humanities is growing, training programs are few, and many scholars are forced by necessity to learn on the fly, she said.

Brooke Lockwood, who is completing a master's degree in 20th-century British literature, said her experience in the Praxis Program was an inspiring one that changed her career interests. After graduation, she now plans to move to the Chicago area to pursue digital humanities work.

"This was an intervention at a really good time for me," said Lockwood, who added that students in the group naturally gravitated toward different aspects of the project. Some were more interested in writing the source code; others were inclined toward graphic design or project management.

Prism, the tool the students created, is a Web program that allows visitors to go through a piece of text and highlight different passages or words based on their interpretations. In one of the examples online, users can highlight Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," and highlight the sections that deal with sound in one color – think the "tapping on my chamber door" parts – and the sections that deal with sense in another color. Users can also view the combined responses of all the people who have color-coded the poem through a data visualization the students built.

Brad Pasanek, an assistant English professor, said he used a simpler paper-and-pencil version of this technique when he first began teaching how to do close readings of text. He'd pass out photocopied poems and ask students to color-code them.

"Prism is a promising advance on this paper-based pedagogy," he said. "When the colored-pencil exercise is translated to the Web, there is an opportunity to build up thousands of color codings and visualize layers of crowd-sourced interpretation. These markings might be displayed to struggling readers as examples of normative or baseline response, they might be studied as evidence of interpretive communities, or they might become prompts to new and divergent interpretations."

Unlike many crowd-sourcing projects, Prism requires users to use critical thinking skills instead of simply performing rote tasks, Nowviskie said.

"Our project is saying you could think of the crowd in a different way; you could think of it as the merger of lots of interpretative agents," she said.

So far, the response has been positive. Brandon Walsh, a doctoral student in English who is not part of the Praxis Program but has experience teaching undergraduate students, said Prism could help encourage students to deal with difficult concepts like modernism and realism.

"We often say an entire work like 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' is modernist, but how can you categorize a phrase like 'once upon a time'?" Walsh said. "It is easy to sell students on the relatively painless act of highlighting a text, and Prism shows how this simple sweep of the hand has far-reaching implications. The tool forces students to make interpretive choices and justify them. Prism is a revelation for rethinking how we relate to texts, and its low-cost, collaborative nature will be great for opening up and enlivening conversation in the classroom."

In July, the first Praxis Program class will present at a digital humanities conference in Hamburg, Germany. They also blogged about the experience as they went through the project, which Lockwood said was nerve-wracking at first for students used to spending days or longer refining a piece of writing.

"I agonized over these blog posts," she said with a smile. "You have a hard time getting past that, but you realize that you have to move on because there's other work to do. And that's a valuable skill to have."

The next group of Praxis participants might continue to work with Prism or start on a new project – it'll be largely up to them, Nowviskie said.

Lockwood said she'd definitely recommend Praxis as a meaningful experience for students interested in digital humanities work. It exposes students to all the different work, technological and scholarly, that goes into such projects, and it allows students to draw on the considerable experience of the staff in the Scholars' Lab, she said.

"You get the tasting menu of the digital humanities," she said. "And this is U.Va., which is like a digital humanities mecca. You are working with people that are experts and are well-known in this field. You can't put a price on that."

– by Rob Seal

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