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Research: Digital Humanities

News Story

Through Babble Lab, Professors Tom Liam Lynch and Kelley Kreitz are harnessing the changing world to help reshape education in the 21st century.

From media, to technology, to entertainment, the traditional boundaries between industries have rapidly blurred in the 21st century. Earlier this year, a company that started life as a bookseller became one of the biggest players in the grocery business with a $13 billion dollar acquisition. Another company, which began as a DVD shipping service, is now behind some of the biggest entertainment and cultural phenomena of the decade.

SOE Assistant Professor Tom Liam Lynch, EdD, and Dyson Assistant Professor Kelley Kreitz, PhD, understand this trend well. Through Babble Lab, the duo have created an enterprise that blurs traditional academic lines by teaching the humanities through a computational lens, aiming to equip students with a toolkit to tackle today’s increasingly interdisciplinary world.

“Babble Lab got started when Kelley and I connected through doing our own individual work related to digital humanities research. We were both interested in what it means to teach digital humanities,” said Lynch.

Digital humanities, a field whose origins actually date back to the 1940s, has rapidly risen to prominence over recent years. It refers to the intersection of computing and the humanities, and how fields like English literature can be understood by leveraging computational methods to ask humanistic questions. An example of digital humanities at work includes using digitally-generated data visualizations like word clouds to analyze an essay or book chapter.

Whereas Lynch and Kreitz note that there has been considerable digital humanities research at the higher education level, they noticed there wasn’t as much work being done in digital humanities pedagogy—or the ways in which digital humanities could be taught. As such, the duo created Babble Lab as a center of digital humanities pedagogy and research, with the mission to reimagine the humanities through creative computing methods, and enable students of all ages to use the digital humanities to better understand the world around them.

In other words: Babble Lab isn’t trying to cultivate your typical English class.

"New models of teaching and learning too often separate technological and computational training from humanistic inquiry," said Kreitz. "We see the digital humanities as a means of bringing together traditional humanities methodssuch as close reading and contextual analysiswith skills more typically associated with the STEM fields, in order to enable students to become the best possible innovators, creative thinkers, and problem solvers."

“The primary reason for the public to understand computational thinking and computer science is because computational systems are increasingly mediating all aspects of our society—the way we receive the news, the voting systems and infrastructure, the way in which insurance companies operate, the way banks give loans,” says Lynch. “In that spirit, we try to explore these creative on-ramps into computer science.”

What might a Babble Lab-endorsed exercise look like? Consider BardBots, a project in which students are introduced to major ideas in computational thinking through the combination of robots and Shakespeare. In classic group project style, this project requires students to read a passage from a Shakespeare play, plot stage direction, program robots to “perform” the scene, and conclude by completing a Babble Log, reflecting critically upon how human and computational languages worked in concert.

Another recent Babble Lab project centers around the origins of Latinx writing and intellectual culture in the United States, specifically in New York City. Through drawing upon mapping, visualization, and other digital computing methods, students have retraced the history of New York City's nineteenth-century Latina/o press, which was largely centered around the neighborhood that Pace’s New York City Campus resides in today.

“In these workshops, the idea is to create critical engaging experiences for teachers and students so they can start to get a sense of what software is, what the world of computer science is in a way that isn’t intimidating, or isn’t enchanting,” says Lynch. 

"In our work on mapping New York City's nineteenth-century Lantinx press, an additional goal is to involve students in recovering lost or overlooked voices in history, and engage them in reflecting on the making of history itself," said Kreitz. 

As for the future of Babble Lab? Lynch notes that the key is to put the pedagogy into practice, and to build a group of enthusiastic teachers across all grade levels who are interested in drawing upon digital humanities to better engage their students, and introduce them to skills that they’ll be able to continuously improve upon and use critically.

“I would love to have a strong, enthusiastic cohort of colleagues from across areas who are just piloting assignments in classes that intentionally blur the lines between computer science and humanities,” said Lynch.

"I think we've only scratched the surface of what digital humanities pedagogy can accomplish," said Kreitz. "As this work advances, I hope to see us develop new collaborations not only between teachers and students, but also between students and communities outside the University."

Overall, the mission of Babble Lab is a simple one: to give students an invaluable tool that will help shape the next generation of leaders, and harness technology for the greater good.

Said Lynch, “the more that we blur these lines and look for creative and critical ways to engage with digital humanities, the more we are going to be able to expose folks to these computational worlds, and the better off we will all be.”