Skip to main content

We Are Liberal Arts: Picture this

The College of Liberal Arts is celebrating Digital Learning Day with the latest video in the We Are Liberal Arts series. Watch to see how the Center of Digital Humanities Research preserves our past for future generations.

By Allen Junek ‘18
What are the digital humanities?
“I call the digital humanities the ‘modern-day printing press,’ because, among other capabilities, it converts art and text into a digital format, preserving it in databases that can be accessed from anywhere in the world,” College of Liberal Arts Dean Pamela Matthews said. “Not since the Gutenberg printing press has an innovation promised so much access to information. Digital humanities is literally the democratization of knowledge.”
That’s why the College of Liberal Arts devotes so much time and resources to the Center for Digital Humanities Research (CoDHR) at Texas A&M University.
“Electronic books imitate print books, and often very poorly,” said the director of CoDHR, Laura Mandell. “If we continue to digitize books in the way that we’re doing, none of it will be accessible, and having too much disorganized information is just the same as having none at all.”
This is what makes the digital humanists so important. The task of CoDHR is to bridge technology and the arts by fostering multidisciplinary research and publications that employ
computational methods in the study of literature, history, and culture. With the rise of new innovative technologies, a number of scholars are becoming increasingly worried about what has been called the “digital dark age”–a period characterized by a lack of information due to outdated software and file formats. Thanks to the generosity of donors like Sally ‘86 and Chris Gavras ‘86, the College of Liberal Arts is at the forefront of keeping the “digital dark age” at bay.

Imagine being able to detect every brushstroke in van Gogh’s Starry Night or analyze all of Shakespeare’s sonnets with the touch of a finger. Imagination has become reality thanks to the generous support of Sally and Chris Gavras, who established the Gavras Humanities Visualization Space fund. As part of the CoDHR, the Humanities Visualization Space (HVS) represents the future of humanities research by providing cutting-edge visualization technologies in an immersive physical space. Consisting of fifteen 46” LCD monitors, each having touchscreen capability, the HVS also has two Kinect 2.0 sensors and a 10.2 speaker system. And the Gavras fund ensures that the space is kept updated and ready for the college’s groundbreaking teaching and research.
“The first thing we recognized was Dr. Mandell’s enthusiasm,” Chris said. “She was not only enthusiastic, but she was able to explain how the Visualization Space would help not only students, but scholars as well.”
This enthusiasm wasn’t enough to gain the Gavras’ support however; they had to see it to believe it.
Recalling an afternoon spent with Mandell in the HVS, Chris said, “Dr. Mandell put the Mona Lisa up on the visualization wall and she magnified the brushstrokes around the Mona Lisa’s left eye to a level you could not imagine.”
“I love the idea of how that space can really bring education and scholarship alive, not just from a lecture perspective, but from a visual perspective as well,” Sally chimed in.
The HVS isn’t restricted to works of art however—its reach extends to the literary sciences as well, updating a technology that has affected civilization like none other: the printing press. Invented in 1439, the printing press enabled the Reformation in the 16th century, the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century, and the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Digitizing the printed word will take us into the next great phase of human history.
“In the print revolution, the culture had to let go of imitating the older forms,” Mandell said. “And the same thing is happening in the digital revolution.”
And that is perhaps the most important task of the digital humanist: to develop digital editions of printed material that is easily used by every audience. When the capabilities of technology were combined with the leadership and enthusiasm of Mandell and Matthews, the Gavrases said it was a no-brainer.
“We really invested in Dean Matthews and Dr. Mandell just as much as in the visualization space,” Chris said.
Through the HVS at Texas A&M, students are able to gain a better understanding of how the great artists, novelists, and playwrights of history executed their crafts without having to get on a plane and travel to the Louvre. Because of the Gavrases, this is no longer a starry-eyed dream, but a real possibility here in Aggieland.

This story originated from the 2018-19 issue of Pillars, which can be found here. Learn more about the CoDHR.