What is the future of CatholicDH?

The following comments were offered by Kyle Roberts, Director of the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project, and faculty member at Loyola University Chicago on the Presidential Roundtable, “The Future of Catholic History: What Do Graduate Students Want to Know?” at the American Catholic Historical Association Annual Meeting on Saturday, January 7th, at 10:30 am in Denver.  

The Future of Catholic Digital Humanities

I’ve been asked to speak today for a few minutes about the future of Catholic Digital Humanities (#CatholicDH), a topic that I’ve had the chance to watch develop over the last few years from my position as a digital humanist and historian of religion at Loyola University Chicago. As the Director of Loyola’s Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities (CTSDH) for the past six months, I’ve become even more acutely aware of the opportunities – and challenges – that come with doing CatholicDH.

What do I mean by “Catholic Digital Humanities”?

At the CTSDH we tend to think of the digital humanities in terms of the way popularized by Kathleen Fitzpatrick: that the digital humanities represent the application of computational methods to longstanding questions of humanistic interest, as well as the application of humanistic approaches to thinking about how the digital is changing society. Put simply: digital approaches/methodologies for understanding the humanities / humanistic approaches to understanding the digital age.

Catholic historians can lay claim to one of, if not the, first important humanities computing projects: Father Roberto Busa’s Index Thomisticus. Busa was an Italian Jesuit priest who convinced Thomas Watson at IBM to partner with him in the creation of a massive computerized concordance of the works of Aquinas. My former colleague at Loyola, Steve Jones, came out with a new book on Busa just last year: Roberto Busa, S.J., and the Emergence of Humanities Computing: The Priest and the Punched Cards (Routledge). It is well worth a read, not only for the vision of Busa but also his acknowledgement of the work of dozens of women who punched the cards for his analysis. (The invisible labor of DH is nothing new!)

Fifty years later, the digital humanities have proliferated into many different approaches. Under the broad DH umbrella, we find digital archives, databases, digitization, fabrication (3-D printing), knowledge sites, electronic literature, gaming, mapping and GIS, mobile applications and augmented reality, network analysis, scholarly communication, social media, textual analysis, text encoding, and more. (There is a good new textbook by Crompton, Lane, and Siemens URL) if you need an introduction to many of these approaches.) This diversity reflects the reality that the digital humanities isn’t so much a field or a discipline but a set of methodologies that can be used by practitioners in a range of different fields and disciplines. DH nicely lends itself to multidisciplinary work.

What are scholars of Catholicism doing in the digital humanities?

Not surprisingly, their work is broad. The greatest amount of CatholicDH work has taken place in the archives in Catholic colleges, universities, dioceses, religious orders, and institutions. There was a great panel at ACHA on Friday afternoon, January 6, entitled “Digitization of Archives and Its Impact on Scholarly Research” which nicely revealed not only the extent of this work, but also many of the issues facing different types of Catholic organizations in digitizing their materials. A list of different sites prepared by Fernanda Perrone of Rutgers for that panel is at the end of this post.

There are a smaller number of CatholicDH projects that use different applications, methodologies, and platforms to tackle research questions in American and European Catholic history. Some interesting projects (by no means exhaustive) include:

Catholic material is also incorporated into sites that focus on the larger American religious experience. Interesting projects here include (again, not a comprehensive list):

What is important with this second list is that it encourages us to think about Catholics in comparative historical perspective. As we know, few Catholics in North America had the privilege of living in isolation from folks of other faiths – Native American, Protestant, folk. Studying them in isolation misses the reality of their experience.

Some have made the argument that scholars of religious history in general have lagged behind their colleagues in embracing the digital humanities (Reed, 2016). I don’t think this is an unfair assessment. I’d push it further and argue that within this group, scholars of Catholicism have lagged behind scholars of other religious groups. Looking at the extensive list of DH sites in religion in Chris Cantwell and Hussain Rashid’s 2015 report to the Social Science Research Council reveals that only 10 out of 160 (6%) are explicitly on Catholic topics. This is surprising given that 30/160 are on Jewish topics and 25/160 are on topics related to Islam. Why is this?

Those of us interested in #CatholicDH need to reflect on why it is that the work in our field has taken the shape it has. Is it a reflection of interest? expertise? infrastructure? resources? (or the lack thereof?) I don’t think the current lack of more interpretive projects in Catholic DH is necessarily a bad thing. It gives scholars interested in taking on DH projects the opportunity to learn valuable lessons from other types of projects that have come before. What might #CatholicDH potentially have to learn from #JewishDH or #MuslimDH? Furthermore, the applications and platforms for doing this kind of work are much more powerful and generally easier to use. Our students are becoming increasingly valuable collaborative partners in this work, themselves the products of a generation of makers and social media users.

So, should graduate students be involving themselves in the digital humanities?

Yes. There are many ways to be involved. If you have the chance, take a class on DH. Most people I know in DH taught themselves. We didn’t have the luxury of classes on the topic. More graduate students now do. Take one. Learn the basic principles. Play around with different applications. You don’t realize it now, but you have more time in graduate school than you will ever again to play around. Enjoy it.

Resign yourself to the fact that you will not be able to learn every DH application. Pick one or a few that are most interesting to you and relevant to your scholarship. Your curiosity will make you want to know about lots of different approaches, but you’ll eventually settle into one or a few to specialize in.

If you have a chance to participate in someone else’s project, do. We’re all collaborators now. Write a blog post, transcribe some documents, help build a database, try to break a beta version. DHers tend to always be looking for partners. I know I am. This is a great way to build skills, but also to become better familiar with the emerging standards for doing DH work.

Incorporate digital skills into your teaching. Start now. Your undergraduate students want these skills and you’ll be doing yourself a favor on the job market to be able to talk about how you can teach with DH. Remember that while online teaching is valuable, it isn’t the same as digital humanities (although many people who know nothing about DH conflate the two).

A question that comes up frequently: should I do a DH dissertation? Think about what you need to explore the question that you are researching. Does a certain form of computational analysis have the potential to open up your source material in new ways? Think more about how you can use the digital methodology to help you write the traditional dissertation – you get the best of both worlds. Digital mapping, database building, textual analysis can all be very helpful. The thing to remember is that creating a data set can take a really long time. Too often people spend all their energy on the data and run out of time to do the full analysis. Don’t be that person. You have the rest of your life to make the archive of all that you found – and it might take you that long to create it

The hardest part can be getting started. It’s time consuming. There aren’t always accessible people at our institutions willing to help us. The terminology alone can be daunting. What is the cloud? Why do I need to care about a server? To that end I’d like to end by sharing a new consortium that is just now coming into being. It is the brainchild of Sally O’Driscoll, professor of English at Fairfield University, and her colleagues. The consortium is called Jesuit Digital: Access, Scholarship and the Humanities (with the acronym J-DASH). In Sally’s words:

This project proposes to create a digital humanities consortium of faculty, library, and staff at small comprehensive universities and colleges in the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU). The project has two primary components: (1) a portal (a resource-sharing website) to advance digital humanities collaborations across our campuses; (2) a three-day workshop, bringing together AJCU stakeholders to jointly produce a vision statement and goals for the consortium, and a template for strategic planning on individual campuses. The consortium will foster a collaborative network of colleagues interested in exploring ways to promote and make visible digital humanities on and among campuses, and to spark innovation.

This is exactly what I hope the future of Catholic Digital Humanities will be: faculty, archivists, and students coming together to share their expertise and resources, to work collaboratively on exciting new projects, and to increase access to primary source material about Catholic History and scholarship about it.

Some helpful overview articles on religion and the Digital Humanities:

Cantwell, Christopher, and Hussain Rashid. “Religion, Media, and the Digital Turn.” Social Science Research Council, 2015.

Reed, Ashley. “Digital Humanities and the Study and Teaching of North American Religions.” Religion Compass 10, no. 12 (December 1, 2016): 307–16.

Roberts, Kyle. “Digital Future of Jesuit Studies.” Catholic Library World 85, no. 4 (June 2015).

Pasquier, Michael. “American Religion and Digital Humanities.” Religion in American History, (2010).

Getting started:

Crompton, Constance, Richard J Lane, and Raymond George Siemens. Doing Digital Humanities: Practice, Training, Research, 2016.

From the Friday afternoon panel, “Digitization of Archives and Its Impact on Scholarly Research”

Fernanda Perrone, Archivist at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey had three helpful handouts from her presentation on digitized materials on women religious from the . They are reproduced below:

Digital Collections on Women Religious

Women’s Religious Community-Based Digital Projects

Other Digital Projects


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