We are excited to welcome Jeri Wieringa to the Center for Digital Humanities!
Jeri joined the CDH as assistant director in June. She comes to Princeton from The University of Alabama, where she was assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies and founding director of the REL Digital Lab. She received her PhD in History from George Mason University, where she served as the digital publishing production lead with the George Mason University Libraries and as a research assistant at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM).
We asked Jeri about her favorite DH projects, her research (including her “digital dissertation”), and more.
How did you first get interested in DH?
I became interested in DH through an interest in public history or historical scholarship that intentionally engages audiences outside of higher education. This led me to George Mason University and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, where courses on project building and coding opened up the theoretical and methodological concerns of the digital humanities. From there I learned web development and programming in order to pursue the types of research and digital content creation I was interested in. I started my academic career in a philosophy department and that need to understand the systems and logics behind things has never left. As a result, my initial interest in creating more publicly accessible humanities scholarship has led me to questions of meaning making with data and computational systems. My current work focuses on methods for interweaving historical thinking with computational and data-driven methods and connects to underlying questions of knowledge construction as we move into a data-oriented society.
I know you completed a “digital dissertation.” What exactly does that mean, and how did you decide a digital dissertation worked best for your research?
My dissertation, A Gospel of Health and Salvation, pursued two inter-related research questions: the relationship between millennial (end times) expectation and cultural development as seen in the early years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a methodological study on the uses of computational methods in historical research. Working from a collection of over 13,000 digitized periodicals produced by denomination members from roughly 1850–1920, I focused on both how to work with this sort of collection as data as well as using that data to trace changes in the language of the denomination over time. Because this work involved documenting methods for preparing and modeling the textual data, a large visualization of the resulting model, and interactive visualizations of subsets of the data, I decided to present the final project digitally. So the project is a digital dissertation both in terms of requiring a digital interface (a web browser) to read and in terms of using computational methods to undertake the research.
What did your time as assistant professor at the University of Alabama teach you about DH?
As an interdisciplinary endeavor, digital humanities work can take multiple forms—applied work within the context of a discipline, as a pedagogical method for bringing students into humanities research, and a field of study in its own right focused on the critical creation of computational approaches. All of these forms require significant institutional investment in terms of technical infrastructure and development support in order to thrive, as well as cross-disciplinary collaboration in articulating and advocating for those needs.
For my own work, I found that a disciplinary home was better suited for scholars interested in applied work, on bringing DH to the concerns of a particular discipline. From tenure requirements to issues of departmental identity, the disciplinary structure means that the work needs to connect to the questions and concerns of the department and discipline. That is absolutely a key way that digital humanities work develops, for in the application we identify and negotiate the ways disciplinary concerns and digital approaches do and do not work together.
But to answer again a question from my own field exam many years ago, I am interested in DH as a field in itself, rather than as a method. Currently, in the US academic environment, the places for that work are in research centers, such as the CDH or RRCHNM, or in interdisciplinary spaces such as information science and the emerging space of interdisciplinary data science. The field of digital humanities requires both applied disciplinary work and critical methodological work to thrive and I am glad to have had the opportunity to work from both sides of the community.
Why should students consider taking DH-related coursework?
DH-related courses provide students rich opportunities to approach topics from new perspectives, whether for research or for personal curiosity and development. DH courses tend to organize around data and methods, which enables students across disciplines to learn from each other, whether that is traditional humanities students gaining broader technical knowledge or students from the sciences or computer science learning how to develop contextualized and interpretive questions with humanities data. DH courses also provide opportunities to develop interpretive arguments in formats other than the research paper, such as through interactive data visualizations, through digital storytelling, or through other creative work. In sum, digital humanities courses let you explore something you might know in a new way, learn new skills and ways of problem solving, and create something unique to share with others.
Do you have a favorite DH project to share (either yours or others’). Why does it stand out to you?
There are so many rich projects that have been completed over the last few decades, but I like to send people to the Virtual St Paul’s Cathedral Project as a way to broaden the picture of DH research. So often when people are first approaching DH they think in terms of either large databases of digital material or more public facing websites. Virtual St Paul’s Cathedral is a project that is organized around a series of research questions related to space, sound, and the relationship between embodied experience and religious culture. It showcases both close reading of the primary sources for data about the past and interdisciplinary collaboration in modeling physical spaces and their acoustics.
I also send people to DH Awards, something of a digital project in its own right, as a record of the notable projects in DH over time. The website provides a list of all of the nominees in a current year, which is a useful snapshot of the work in the field over time, and also has awards by different categories of work.
Tell us a little more about your current research.
My own research is focused on methodological questions around the use of digital materials and methods for historical research, particularly around how to foreground the historical context of the original source documents along with metadata describing the digital objects that one is using. To this end, I am working on a project that presents Seventh-day Adventist periodicals as a digital scholarly edition. The digital scholarly edition integrates data related to the textual data, the periodical issues, the titles, and denominational history, along with computational models built from the textual data. There are a lot of components to this project to be completed along the way, each with its own potential outputs, and I am excited to begin building out from the dissertation research to prototype this project.
What are you looking forward to working on in your new role at the CDH?
Working at the CDH and at Princeton University provides a unique opportunity to focus on DH as a research field in its own right and on the infrastructure that is needed for a robust DH community. The CDH is uniquely positioned as leaders in project management, software development, and education related to DH. I am so excited to learn from the community here and to work together to build a model of robust digital scholarship in the humanities.