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Bridging tech + humanities: A closer look at CESTA and the Digital Humanities minor

Apr 19 2019

At CESTA’s core is paradigm-shifting research that applies technologies across the humanities and social sciences to enhance our understanding of the world. With the Digital Humanities minor’s recent feature in the Stanford Daily and the discontinuation of Stanford’s interdisciplinary CS+X program, we want to highlight one of the many opportunities students have on campus to bridge their interests in the humanities, science, and technology.

About the minor

Stanford’s Digital Humanities minor, introduced in the fall of 2015, applies digital and computational technologies to study of the books, texts, archives, source materials, and creative outputs in the humanities.

The program’s roots are firmly in Stanford and in CESTA: according to minor co-creator and CESTA director Dr. Elaine Treharne, after CESTA’s founding in 2012, “students working for [faculty] projects did not have a cogent route for their work in humanities and technology.”

At the same time, Treharne noted that the then-Dean of the School of Humanities Richard Saller “could see that digital humanities was making a well-established contribution to the variety of students’ experiences.” He reached out to Treharne and History professor Zephyr Frank to think about a DH minor.

In an effort to fill this need, Treharne, along with Literary Lab director, Mark Algee-Hewitt, and CESTA founding director, Zephyr Frank, proposed and developed the minor to Stanford’s Faculty Senate with the hope to “make digital humanities provisions coherent, providing a fruitful program for undergraduates.”

The minor and CESTA

The minor consists of a 20 unit minimum load, comprised of 1 core course from 3 disciplines within the field of digital humanities (geospatial humanities, quantitative textual analysis, and text technologies) and 5 elective courses of your choice from a wide array of departments, including courses such as CS 106A, STS 1, and ME 101.

Framed within the DH minor, the 3 topics themselves mirror that of CESTA’s breadth of interest, linking the minor to current work in the digital humanities.

Erik Steiner, Creative Director of the Spatial History Project,

provides guidane to research interns.

The Spatial History Project at CESTA, for example, is host to many geospatially-minded projects, including Global Urbanization and its Discontents. Led by Zephyr Frank, CESTA’s founding director and current director of the Spatial History Project, the project seeks to produce insights into the broad patterns in property ownership, access to housing, and processes of dislocation and eviction across a varied sample of cities around the world.

The Literary Lab, also housed at CESTA, focuses on applying computational and analytical methods to the study of literature and literary history. This focus manifests itself in the projects that the LitLab takes on, from fanfiction to diversity in American literature; in a recent article written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, LitLab’s associate director Dr. Laura McGrath worked with comp titles to explore the apparent lack of diversity in current publishing houses in-depth.

And Text Technologies, an initiative led by Treharne, looks to facilitate greater understanding of the conception, production, and consumption of text objects by looking at manuscript and print texts. Treharne’s own project, CyberText Technologies, seeks to predict the future of text technologies by analyzing the past. The research team is currently cataloguing the history and life cycles of dominant text-based human communication devices with the hope that their shared traits may uncover underlying patterns that can be used to predict where text technology will develop into the future.

Giovanna Ceserani, lead investigator of the Grand Tour

Project, observing her class' end-of-quarter symposium.

Coursework in digital humanities

In response to the increased interest in digital humanities, more CESTA-affiliated faculty have also taught classes directly affiliated with the DH minor in line with one or more of the three disciplines.

Among them is Giovanna Ceserani, Associate Professor of Classics and lead investigator of The Grand Tour Project, who in Winter 2019 taught a course entitled “Mapping the Grand Tour: Digital Methods for Historical Data.” The class used travel accounts, language processing tools, and historical data to enrich students’ and scholars’ understanding of the eighteenth-century cultural and travel phenomenon. At the end of the quarter, students contributed entries for this decade-long project.

This quarter, Digital Medieval Projects Manager Ben Albritton of Stanford University Libraries is leading a course called “Medieval Manuscripts, Digital Methodologies,” addressing the growing abundance of digitized medieval material in DH research. Students will examine and evaluate digital medieval resources and software, with the ultimate goal of designing a project of their own based on medieval primary sources held at Stanford.

The Digital Humanities minor encourages intentionality when crafting the individual’s curriculum, providing enough flexibility for you to explore your interdisciplinary interests in a formalized way. “I chose the DH minor because I've always been interested in how storytelling evolves to fit changing formats,” HB Klein ‘18 said. “I love being in a space where I can study how format and content interact, and learn how best to tell my stories for different distribution platforms.”

That’s exactly what English lecturer and the minor’s new director, Alice Staveley, hopes to hear in students’ experiences with the program. According to Staveley, the DH minor provides an “intensive advising structure to build up a culture of discussion around and excitement about the program.”

To learn more about CESTA’s current slate of projects, including those mentioned in this article, visit our Research Projects tab. And for more information about the DH minor and how to declare on its website, dhminor.stanford.edu.


From the writer's desk

Vincent Nicandro is a member of CESTA’s communications team, having previously worked as a research assistant for The Urban Legacy of Ancient Rome project. As a student majoring in Computer Science and minoring in Classics, Vincent is passionate in finding the intersection of technology and humanistic inquiry.