NEH Digital Humanities Startup Grants: Funding the Future

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Adapting the “‘high risk/’high reward’” model often employed in funding the sciences, NEH Digital Humanities Startup Grants reward originality. To be considered, the proposal must entail an “innovative approach, method, tool, or idea that has not been used before in the humanities” (Digital Humanities Startup Grants Guidelines, p. 2). These Startup Grants fund two levels of projects. As expected, the Level I award supports projects at the embryonic stage of development, while the Level II award funds projects that are more advanced and nearing the implantation stage. The Grant Guidelines provide full details.

In late March the NEH Office of Digital Humanities announced the most recent projects to be awarded a NEH DH Startup Grant. As in the past the projects receiving funding were diverse and promising: a workshop to assist university presses in publishing digitally-born, scholarly monographs; tools to convert text to braille for the visually impaired; improvements to OCR correction technology; software adapted to enable better identification and cataloguing of various features within illustrations in the English Broadside Ballad Archive, a prototype application to promote analysis of visual features such as typeface, margins, indentations of printed books, to name a few.

While these grant-winning projects all carry brief descriptions, they are still in their gestation or early implementation phase. A better sense of what this funding yields can be gleaned from the NEH “Videos of 2011 Digital Humanities Start-Up Grantees” as well as the other online material that has emerged in connection with these projects. The following showcases a few of the 2011 DH Startup grantees most likely to interest EMOB readers.

As the project’s title “New Methods of Documenting the Past: Recreating Public Preaching at Paul’s Cross, London, in the Post-Reformation Period” suggests, this project seeks to reproduce the seventeenth-century experience of hearing a sermon in Paul’s Cross. To do so, it employs architectural modeling software and acoustic simulation software to re-create conditions that will mimic those of a time in which unamplified public speaking competed with the sounds of urban life. One of the questions this simulation aims to answer is whether the printing of many Paul’s Cross sermon points to their popularity among those who gathered to hear them or, instead, to the need to distribute printed versions because their original oral delivery was inaudible save for a few. English professor and Project Director John Wall’s The Virtual Paul’s Cross website details the project’s objectives and its progress. The site also contains a blog that offers occasional updates . Here, for example, it offers various views of the draft model created by Josh Stephens using Sketch-Up such as this perspective of the Churchyard with the east side of the Cathedral:


From John Wall’s The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project blog, May 15, 2012

Preliminary results from the acoustic simulation will be available this month.

Another project, the University of South Carolina Research Foundation’s “History Simulation for Teaching Early Modern British History” integrates gaming with the humanities. The interactive “Desperate Fishwives” game, first conceived by Ruth McClelland-Nugent, (History, Augusta State University) who serves as a consultant to the project, enables student to experience life in a seventeenth-century by assuming the persona of a villager who must adhere to the conventions and social rules of early modern England or face the consequences. Play is designed to take place in hour segments, so the game can be played over several class periods or assigned for homework. After the completion of play, students write a narrative of their experiences, an assignment aimed at teaching historiography. An article appearing in the Columbia, SC Free Times, “Desperate Fishwives Players Navigate 17th Century English Village Life,” offers an enthusiastic account of this teaching tool. In addition to producing this specific game, the project also hopes to provide tools and documentation that would help humanities scholars create educational simulation games suitable for their particular discipline.

In comments to an earlier EMOB post, we referenced a project out of the University of Washington, “The Svoboda Diaries Project: From Digital Text to ‘New Book’”. Yet its innovativeness warrants mentioning it again here. The project features a 19th-century travel diary written by a European but in Arabic. The following description, taken from the project’s successful 2011 NEH grant abstract, offers a succinct overview of this rich project:

Based on its work with a large corpus of personal diaries from 19th century Iraq, the project will develop and test a process for the simultaneous web and print-on-demand publication of texts and transcriptions of original manuscripts with annotation, indexing, translation, images, etc. in complex scripts [l-r and r-l, English and Arabic, in our case]. This process, involves a re-thinking of “the book” that will use digital and new-media resources to combine the functions of traditional print publication, including editing, book design, printing, advertising, and distribution with web-based publication and produce, in house, a low-cost printed book supported by a wide array of web-based materials. Moreover, the “book” (both web and print) will flow directly from a richly tagged TEI-compatible XML text prepared for scholarly investigation, and be capable of continuous regeneration from up-dated and enriched versions. Funded Projects Query Form

For EMOB readers, the project’s interest may well stem from its work in creating a “publishable book on its website that anyone can produce using a machine like the Espresso Book Machine (see an earlier EMOB post. An equally fascinating feature of this project is its dual display of English and Arabic text as this sample page illustrates.

Designed especially for literary analysis, University of California Berkeley’s WordSeer: A Text Analysis Tool for Examining Stylistic Similarities in Narrative Collections uses grammatical structure and national language patterns; its functions include visualization tools. In addition to the NEH lightening round video, other videos and blogs detail ways that this tool has been used to ask questions of Shakespeare’s works as well as African American slave narratives.
In WordSeer demos: Men and Women in Shakespeare, the tool is employed to compare analytically the ways in which men and women are depicted in various circurmstances. The video “How Natural Language Processing is Changing Research” provides a more extended look at WordSeer’s usefulness for analyzing slave narratives, but its purpose is also to underscore how such a tool can benefit humanities scholars. In this video the discussion veers toward presenting reading as a chore from which humanities scholars seek relief. On that note, a student in Dr. Michael Ullyot’s undergraduate ENG 203 course, “Hamlet in the Humanities Lab” at the University of Calgary offers some pertinent comments. In her penultimate blog post for the course, Stephanie Vandework devotes a section to “The Pros and Cons of Exploratory Analysis” and examines more closely the claims in the WordSeer Shakespeare demo, finding some to suffer from overgeneralization. (For a view of the course from the instructor’s perspective, see Dr. Ullyot’s presentation, Teaching Hamlet in the Humanities Lab, for the Renaissance Society of America conference this past March 2012.)

These four projects represent just a glimpse of the many fascinating undertakings featured in the NEH 2011 Lightening Round Videos. That some projects such as WordSeer are already being incorporated into courses speaks to the rapidity with which research and pedagogical practices are changing.

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4 Responses to “NEH Digital Humanities Startup Grants: Funding the Future”

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Eleanor, for this list of impressive NEH digital humanities grants. John Wall’s New Methods of Recreating the Past suggests ways that new technology helps us enter imaginatively into an experience such as hearing a sermon at Paul’s Cross. I look forward to hearing more about that.

    NEH Chair Jim Leach has a discussion of why such projects should be funded here.

    I’d love to hear more about two things:
    1. the technical skills required to create such projects
    2. strategies for putting these promising projects to use in the classroom

  2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Yes, this sampling of grantees reminds us how far technology is enabling the pursuit of projects just not possible before. Wall’s Paul’s Cross project, for example, goes beyond merely imagining how a 17th-century Londoner might have heard these outdoor public sermons preached often to crowds numbering in the thousands. Instead it aims to re-create the actual aural experience of hearing (or not hearing!) these public performances–that is, to enable a twenty-first century person to experience an aspect of the oral past through a simulated rendering of it.

    As for technical expertise, these projects are a clear testament to collaboration. Most have computer scientists or graduate students in the field on their teams. In the case of Wall’s project, his production team consists of an acoustic engineer, an archaeologist, a professor of architecture, a linguist, and graduate research assistant. While there’s no computer scientist on his team, the group nonetheless collectively possesses the advanced expertise needed for what the project seeks to accomplish. The 3D modeling is being handled by a graduate research assistant who is using Google’s (well, now no longer Google but instead Trimble) SketchUp. Google, in fact, has been hosting an official SketchUp channel that provides tutorials and other ideas for using this free 3D-modeling software. In other words, it’s a tool that potentially anyone could learn to use.

    As for the teaching applications, the Desperate Fishwives game is specifically designed for the classroom. Prof. McClelland-Nugent was slated to use the game in one of her spring 2012 courses at Augusta State, and perhaps her results will be forthcoming soon. Moreover, John Hodgson wrote his thesis for a MS in Computer Science and Engineering on his work in designing this game. His thesis, Desperate Fishwives: A Study in Applied Game Design is available on the web and has extended discussion of the game as a pedagogical tool–including feedback from students who play-tested the game. As Michael Ullyot’s use of WordSeer in his DH course on Hamlet demonstrates, this tool clearly has pedagogical applications. His blog and the course blog postings by his students indicate the strategies that worked, student perceptions of this tool’s utility, and the types of learning that resulted from its use

  3. Virtual Paul’s Cross Project website is now available for exploration! | Early Modern Online Bibliography Says:

    [...] a year ago, EMOB devoted a post to several NEH-funded digital projects. John N. Wall, Project Director and Professor of English [...]

  4. 2013 ODH Project Directors Meeting | Early Modern Online Bibliography Says:

    […] this year. EMOB will be reporting on these presentations in a subsequent Fall post. See an earlier post for reporting on past NEH […]

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