Play and Code in Humanist Research

  1. 1. Vika Zafrin

    Brown University

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1. VHL: An Introduction
The Virtual Humanities Lab is a new humanities computing
project at Brown University. We focus on two areas of
research. First, we are designing and building a web-based
engine for the presentation of semantically encoded primary
texts, and for further annotation of these texts by invited
scholars. Together with this engine we will be publishing
several annotated texts. This engine is complemented by a
weblog and by a discussion forum; both of these invite input
from anyone interested.
We are in the process of semantically encoding, annotating,
and publishing online three early modern Italian texts. The first
and largest, Giovanni Boccaccio's Esposizioni sulla Comedia
di Dante is the vernacular, originally oral text of Boccaccio’s
unfinished lecture series on Dante’s Commedia. Giovanni
Villani's Nuova Cronica (of which we are publishing a part) is
an extensive account of Florentine history up to 1348. It is
written in lively Italian, valuable not only for its record of events
but also for its historiographical methods and political
commentary. Finally, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's
Conclusiones Nongentae is an aphoristic Humanist text
currently being developed as part of the Pico Project ( <http
://> ). All three of these will be
presented electronically for the first time.
The sheer amount of information present in these texts — as
well as their size, relative obscurity and general importance for
the humanities -- lend themselves to semantic encoding,
collaborative annotation and electronic dissemination.
The number and variety of electronic tools being built for
humanities research is ever-increasing. So is the learning curve
for taking full advantage of these tools. Since semantic markup
plays an increasingly important role in electronic humanities
scholarship, having an idea of what it looks like and — broadly
— how it functions seems to be an advantage for academics in
the humanities.
Scholars who have never practiced semantic encoding of texts
as a research tool, or performed complicated searches on
semantically encoded texts, may find themselves reluctant to spend time learning an unfamiliar way of working, even if the
result of such learning may prove useful to them. Such
researchers are a large part of our intended audience, and we
are putting significant effort into writing clear, concise
documentation and hands-on tutorials. The documentation is
aimed at academics relatively new to humanities computing
and, as such, will include a brief overview of the principles of
semantic encoding as well as a guided tour of the VHL toolset.
Our goal is to make these supplementary materials enjoyable
and concise: we want scholars to receive just enough technical
information to enable them to play with their texts.
2. Playing and Modeling
Michael Mahoney says that a sufficiently complex idea
for a piece of machinery cannot be described; the thing
must be made or modeled. In order to be understood, complex
texts should also be modeled.
A usable model of a text need not be comprehensive, but may
rather address one or more specific issues. VHL researchers
read the texts and use semantic encoding to arrange their parts
(linguistic entities, recurrent themes and imagery, rhetorical
devices etc.) in sets of metadata. These sets may overlap and
intersect, and function as scholarly arguments. Encoding once
does not preclude a division of the same text into a different
set of parts, with another purpose or from another angle, or in
response to an argument made through previous encoding. Each
variant model contributes to a deeper understanding of the text
at hand.
2.1 Collaboration
At last year's joint conference, Siemens et al. reported: "In terms
of mark-up, respondents appear to be a bipolar group with half
expecting to acquire text with no mark-up and half with rich
XML." This no-middle-ground report seems to imply that once
a user of electronic humanities resources is at all familiar with
semantic encoding, rich markup becomes preferable to weak
markup. Marking up large texts and corpora, common units of
literary study, is a challenge both in terms of resources and
required expertise. Such work calls for collaboration. VHL's
toolset for presenting and working with primary texts (in
development) provides several ways to contribute. A complex
annotation engine and an opportunity to view the encoding
behind any given segment of text are in place. In development
is a tool for suggesting corrections to our encoding (intended
to replace it), or submitting variations on it (intended to be
viewed as alternate encodings of the same text).
While providing increased potential for new forms of
communication, this toolset does not force scholars to change
their preference for working mostly in solitude: Siemens et al.
do warn us that most of the humanists they surveyed "do not
[currently] see the need for collaborating with other scholars."
2.2 Atomic Approach to Research
Freehand semantic encoding allows us to construct our own
set of elements, based on prior knowledge of sources both
primary and secondary, modifiable at will. Eventually this set
must be regularized, perhaps later transcribed into a
standardized form. But in the beginning stages such constraint
would be detrimental, limiting the scope of analysis at the
So we have begun to model without these constraints, permitting
ourselves the spontaneity of a ludic approach. In doing this, we
adapt Edward Hall's 1976 objective in examining culture —
"look at the way things are actually put together" (13) — to
text analysis. The encoding structure emerges bit by bit out of
the primary source itself, which frees the researcher's critical
eye to note interesting aspects of the text that might have eluded
a pre-existing DTD.
Combining such an atomic approach to gathering research
results with a web-based presentation implies a lot of flexibility
for participating scholars: work may be done in smaller
segments by individuals who live far apart. Here lies a strong
driving force behind our work: similarly to already-successful
electronic means of communication (email, weblogs, discussion
lists), VHL allows small information packets to be published
and discussed. Being unsuitable for the essay format because
of their seemingly incomplete, fragmentary nature, these bits
of information might not otherwise be expressed at all.
Reducing the minimum size of a contribution to the knowledge
base from an article to a paragraph or sentence, provided a
review process is still employed, increases the net amount of
useful knowledge available for discussion. We hope that it will
actively encourage researchers to branch out and participate in
more conversations, perhaps creating a distributed version of
the editing process.
Stripping critical expression down to the essentials as expressed
through semantic tagging will either highlight or address (or
perhaps both) the difficulty Willard McCarty sees humanists
having "with any intellectual culture whose cognitive activity
is expressed in things rather than in words" (168). Thinking
about a text by encoding criticism directly into it bridges the
gap between the two, allowing multi-media corpora (literature,
sculpture, films, drawings) to be encoded within the same
electronic framework. Emphasis is shifted from the prose that
delivers ideas (which consumes time and energy and often
dilutes the argument) to precision in presenting the argument
itself. 2.3 Humanists and Code
The encoding process requires considerable resources; writing
up separate documentation is a significant enough amount of
additional work that it isn't often done well. For humanist
academics, it is absolutely necessary to be able to look at
semantic encoding and more or less understand it.
Mahoney, and Henry Ford before him, are right: the masses
are not mechanics. Yet, these days a certain amount of common
knowledge about how machines work is necessary. Since
semantically encoded electronic texts will only multiply as time
goes on, humanists must know what code is and understand
how it works. Knowledge of the underlying principles of
encoding is not yet widespread, and VHL has taken it as a goal
to present these principles in such a way that they become tacit
knowledge for the humanist. We are making all of our XML
code transparent -- any unit of text is viewable with all its code,
and the XML itself is easily human-readable and well
documented. Thus code remains an argument meant to be
discussed and challenged as necessary, not an implicit,
uncontestable premise.
Learning to read code may require non-trivial effort, but carries
with it an important additional benefit: it opens the door to a
format of academic expression markedly different from the
essay. Both have their uses, but mastering the basics of semantic
encoding is a learnable and improvable skill that is likely to
become tacit knowledge more readily than the much more
difficult natural-language rhetorical approach of essay writing.
Sentence structure, flow and finding the right word are essential
to the humanist; but encoding makes it easier to learn and
practice critical, in-depth analysis of texts.
3. Summary
Putting small bits of information together and hoping that a
larger picture will emerge is arguably risky. There is no
guarantee that the results will be interesting or useful. That
said, this risk is inherent in all academic discussion, and recent
experience indicates a movement (back?) toward tinkering with
primary sources directly. Stephen Ramsay's call to go in "with
a hunch borne of our collective musings" (171) encourages
play, frightening though it may be to dedicate extremely scarce
resources to the endeavor. This is where a playground like VHL
shines. It is a tool for collaborating, community building and
education that does not require a significant commitment of
finances or time from its participants. In fact, for it to function,
there need only be interest in the subject matter, and the
willingness to record a single thought.
Decameron Web: A Growing Multimedia Archive of Materials
Dedicated to Boccaccio's Masterpiece. Accessed 2005-03-04.
Hall, Edward. Beyond Culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press,
Mahoney, Michael. "Keeping In Touch With the World."
Commencement Address delivered at Brevard College. 16 May
1998. Accessed 2005-03-04. <http://www.princeton
McCarty, Willard. "As It Almost Was: Historiography of Recent
Things." Literary and Linguistic Computing 19.2 (2004):
Pico Project. Accessed 2005-03-04. <http://www.brow>
Ramsay, Stephen. "Toward an Algorithmic Criticism." Literary
and Linguistic Computing 18.2 (2003): 167-174.
Siemens, Ray, Elaine Toms, Stéfan Sinclair, Geoffrey Rockwell,
and Lynne Siemens. "The Humanities Scholar in the
Twenty-First Century: How Research is Done and What Support
is Needed." Paper presented at ALLC/ACH 2004, Gothenburg.
Virtual Humanities Lab. Accessed 2005-03-04. <http://

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Victoria

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

June 15, 2005 - June 18, 2005

139 works by 236 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double checked.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (25), ALLC/EADH (32), ACH/ALLC (17)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

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  • Language: English
  • Topics: None