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   from the issue of April 24, 2008

  Digital Research in the Humanities | Second in a four part series

MONK Project expands text analysis online literature archives


Stephen Ramsay's office shelves are lined with enough books on computing and coding to terrify the mightiest technophile, but he's first and foremost a literary scholar.

As opposed to many of his peers at UNL, who build creative, thematic research archives, Ramsay, an assistant professor of English, is a different breed of digital humanist - a specialist in text analysis. He spends his time writing software and using computers to analyze and visualize texts. Ramsay is focused on the MONK (Metadata Offer New Knowledge) Project, which endeavors to extend text analysis and visualization capabilities to all existing Web archives of literature.

"Over the last 20 years, universities and libraries have invested millions into putting texts online," Ramsay said. "The result of that is unprecedented; huge swaths of the human cultural record are now digitized. But fundamentally these are only repositories - you can search them, browse them and read them. The MONK Project asks, 'How do we analyze these texts? If every novel published in the 19th century is available online, what more can we do than just read them? How can we make use of this digitized format to analyze these texts? What kinds of analysis can we do not just with single texts but with collections of texts?'"

Ramsay and his MONK Project colleagues are from eight institutions and have received more than $1 million in funding. Software they are creating enables text mining, a method of studying patterns in literature and literary texts. Using computers in this manner will open countless doors for scholars, Ramsay said.

He offered the example of an English professor studying sentimentality. She might have a sense that sentimentality in the English novel is distinguished by certain kinds of moments. The scholar can go into text archives and report that a certain passage - such as a deathbed scene - appears sentimental. MONK Project software can then search the rest of the canon and find similar moments, using mathematical formulas.

"This does a couple useful things," Ramsay said. "It locates passages you maybe hadn't noticed before, and it also comes back and tells you what words and patterns are distinctive of sentimentality. We did this with eroticism in (Emily) Dickinson's poems. Scholars flagged some of her letters as being erotic, and when the MONK results came back, it had located keywords like, hands, breasts, and bumblebees. Bumblebees! That's a fantastic, lovely result. It causes the scholar to go, 'Are bumblebees an erotic marker?' It leads us into completely new readings and interpretations of texts."

Computer programs such as these don't just build themselves. The first generation of digital humanities work was about getting text online and was, ultimately, a data entry project, Ramsay said. Endeavors like the MONK Project demand computer programming skills in addition to knowledge of literature and the humanities. This new generation of research also utilizes high performance computing.

"This project requires serious horsepower," Ramsay said. "I think we're the only English professors in the world that have accounts on the TeraGrid (the national supercomputer infrastructure used mostly by scientists.) This is another kind of revolution - these machines have been the province of physicists, chemists, and engineers. Now I'm an English professor, approaching the supercomputer guys and saying, 'I know you're busy conducting weather pattern analysis, but can you step aside for a moment? We're looking for dirty words in Dickinson.'"

Ramsay speaks highly of the role of students in digital humanities research, and he feels strongly that they deserve access to hands-on experience in the field.

"I want to give them the same sense of power I was able to gain by learning to program, but I also want them to be discerning users and creators of these technologies," he said, "What is important to me about the Center (for Digital Research in the Humanities) is that it be a community, a place where students and professors really work together."

Digital humanities research is, by its very nature, collaborative.

"The humanities fetishize the concept of the lone scholar in the attic," Ramsay said. "But when you drop a computer in the room, how could you possibly know everything there is to know about what it takes to create the Whitman Archive, for example. We all need each other, so there is real mentoring going on, real collaboration. As professors, we would like to draw our students into our research, but historically it hasn't always been possible. There has always been something slightly strained about that relationship; tracking down journal articles is not collaborative. But now, with computing, it's different."

Ramsay believes the future for UNL's Center for Digital Humanities Research is promising. As the field expands, so do opportunities for scholarship.

"I believe it is completely uncontroversial to say that, over the course of the next century, we're going to digitize the entire human record," Ramsay said. "The question that humanist scholars have to ask is, 'Do we really want to be left out of that process, we who have devoted our entire lives to these materials? Shouldn't some of us be involved in that process?' Otherwise the whole revolution is going to happen without us having a voice in it."

"The elements are all in place. The climate here for digital humanities is better than any other place in North America. We're on track to become the hottest place in the world."

A recent recruit from the University of Georgia, Ramsay believes the innovative faculty and supportive administrators at UNL have the university poised for greatness.

"When I raised this with the dean and my department chair, they responded by incorporating the Modern Language Association's Guidelines for Evaluating Work with Digital Media in the Modern Languages into my appointment letter," Ramsay said. "As far as I know, UNL is the first university to ever take this step. The administrators looked me in the eye and said, 'We want to become the best in the world'."



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