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TECHNOLOGY

The Humanities Hackathon leads the UW's entry into digital humanities
The new intertextuality


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If a paperback on your summer reading list was published anonymously, you'd probably notice. But if this article lacked a byline, or tonight's episode of Wilfred didn't credit a writer, you might not bat an eyelash.

Mark Vareschi, assistant professor of English at UW-Madison, wants to know why, and also how anonymous publication affects the way we interpret published or performed works. To help him get closer to the answers, he turned to computers.

So did Jillian Sayre, a lecturer from his department who teaches a class on Moby-Dick. She's using computers to map the social networks of vessels that encounter Captain Ahab's whaleship the Pequod, seeking additional insights into the novel.

Last week they joined fellow humanities researchers and computer scientists to "Look, Listen, Read & Play" with images, text, videogames and more during the second annual Humanities Hackathon.

A free short course sponsored by the university's Center for the Humanities and Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID), the Hackathon aims to bridge the gap between disciplines like visual art, theater, literature, music and philosophy, and the sciences.

Facilitating the Hackathon was the university's Advanced Computing Infrastructure, a WID partner that offers computing resources to researchers and hopes to engage more humanities scholars in computational techniques.

Using computers to quantitatively explore the arts isn't brand new, with roots dating back to the 1940s. Digital humanities (DH), as it's commonly referred to, can encompass a wide variety of techniques including data visualization, statistical analysis and text mining. The Music Genome Project, which powers Pandora Radio, is one well-known example. So is Google's book digitization project.

Several universities offer certificates and degree programs in DH, but not UW-Madison. The Humanities Hackathon leads the university's entry into the field. In addition to the summer course, some single-evening hacks are held monthly in the spring.

For Vareschi, the 2012 and 2013 summer Hackathons were opportunities to study data he and his team collected in spreadsheets from 1,500 British 18th-century theater playbills, most of them missing a playwright credit.

"I came to the Hackathon last year with some Excel spreadsheets that I assembled during an archival trip to the Houghton Library at Harvard to work on these playbills. I knew that I wanted to approach this material quantitatively, but I had no idea where to begin or what the end result might look like," Vareschi says.

The Hackathon introduced him to new ways of analyzing cultural objects. For example, he learned how to use the programming language R in his research to produce meta-analyses and explore context, themes and meanings.

More importantly to Vareschi, the event asked him to think in new ways about how he approaches scholarly work. It inspired him to work collaboratively, which he says is "relatively rare for a scholar of English literature."

Part of Sayre's Moby-Dick project involves studying the novel using DH lines of inquiry like network theory, and using DH tools "to provide visual and maybe even interactive evidence" to support her hypotheses. She's also interested in exploring "the very complex nature of narrative in general and the ways that our investigative tools shape the way we encounter our scholarly artifacts."

It's a goal Vareschi shares when considering the playbill as an artifact. As a tangible object, a playbill tells us the date, the play and the performers. But when studied on a grander scale, the playbill transcends its role as an artifact, as ephemera. We're able to see what bits of information from playbills were passed on over time, and what parts weren't. "By working at a larger scale," he explains, "we are beginning to understand how knowledge is disseminated, how it is transformed and how it endures within a culture over time."

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