Digital tools connect humanities to humanity

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ASU’s Nexus Lab is plugging in major processing power to help humanities researchers connect with communities in a more immediate and effective way.

By Erin Barton

Aug. 12, 2016

“Indians, what are we, anyway? Are we freaks? Have we no souls? Are we possessed with venomous fang? Is there no living with us until the Indian Office makes us fit subjects? Must we live muzzled and dominated by the hellishness of human government? Are we so low that we cannot thrive within human justice? ….

WASSAJA contends that in order to place the Indian on a just basis as a man, the country must first make him a free man, and then give him his citizenship. But to give him citizenship with conditions attached to it, is not citizenship that is enjoyed by true American citizens. That is a false freedom!”
-- Carlos Montezuma (Wassaja, Vol. 2, No. 12, March 1918)

Carlos Montezuma was an intellectual, activist, medical doctor and member of the Yavapai, a Native American tribe in what is now Arizona. Between 1916 and 1922 Montezuma self-published a newsletter called Wassaja—his Yavapai name—that was a vital source of news about Indian affairs in an era that had few outlets for such information. 

“This monthly signal rays is to be published only so long as the Indian Bureau exists. Its sole purpose is Freedom for the Indians through the abolisment (sic) of the Indian Bureau….Its object is not to form a society, but to free the Indians by exposing the actual conditions of their imprisonment,” wrote Montezuma in Wassaja’s inaugural issue in April 1916.

Despite Montezuma’s cultural significance, many Yavapai had never seen the material of his legacy. That changed when Arizona State University researchers digitized the Carlos Montezuma archive collection and created a web application that allows users to view and interact with it online. Then they hosted a public presentation to introduce the site.

“Some of the Yavapai tribal members were so overcome with what the team had done in the web application that they were responding in their native language. That was the only mode in which they could do that kind of expression of how much that had impacted them,” says Jaqueline Hettel, a linguist who helped create the web application.

Hettel is the deputy director of ASU’s Nexus Lab, part of the Institute for Humanities Research. The lab advances digital humanities, using computation and data analysis to connect humanities research with other disciplines and with the community.

“It’s a place where the banner of digital humanities can feature the humanities alongside collaborators from fields as diverse as engineering, biology, decision science, sustainability, computer science, design and complexity science,” says Michael Simeone, director of the Nexus Lab.

Crafting connections

Importantly, the digital humanities are still humanities at their core, Simeone notes. Hettel explains that they are a “toolbox” of methods that can make the humanities more relevant to wider audiences and aid humanities researchers in their work. Processing power, big data and interdisciplinary collaborators are meant to add depth, relevance and connections to these essential ideas, not eclipse them. 

“It helps connect the humanities to other problems, and I think that it helps to be able to speak to different audiences,“ Simeone says. 

“Digital Humanities, as we do it at ASU, is particularly innovative because we’re constantly seeking new ways to leverage humanities concepts in transformational ways where they have significant impact to communities outside of the university,” adds Hettel. 
The Wassaja project illustrates how ASU leverages digital tools to make the humanities relevant to non-academics.

“It takes important, largely one-of-a-kind archival material, which comprises the Carlos Montezuma Collection, and makes it part of the online culture in which we all live,” says David Martinez, an associate professor of American Indian Studies. 

Martinez worked on the project with Joyce Martin, an associate librarian and curator with the Labriola National American Indian Data Center at ASU Libraries, and Jodi Flores, a postdoctoral research associate with ASU Libraries and the Center for Digital Antiquity

After the collection had been digitized, Hettel invited the team to work with the Nexus Lab’s workshop series, Developing—a project-based professional-development program for students, faculty, and staff—in order to create a web application to go with the newly digital database. They agreed and Developing Wassaja came into being.

The resulting web application is more than just a digitized database. It’s now a user-friendly learning environment and a curated online exhibit, according to Martinez.  

In the future, the Developing and Wassaja Project teams plan to develop more partnerships, increase the available digitized content in the exhibit and expand the web application.

“I think that the Developing Wassaja workshop and the resulting web application is a really good example of the New American University’s goals and a really good demonstration of that legacy we want to leave,” Hettel notes. “It was a great way for us to instill digital humanities skills into the people that needed and wanted them, but most importantly we were able to use digital humanities as a conduit for doing something truly important and great for that community.”

The flip side

Nexus Lab researchers not only explore how digital tools can benefit humanities research, but also how humanities can contribute to other types of research projects. 

“One of the things that we like to encourage here is that if you've got a multidisciplinary team working on a problem, we think it would be important to have someone in the humanities included,” says Simeone. “So if you're going to be doing some modeling or analysis of how people interact in an urban environment, then you would want some people from public health, you would want some people from urban planning, you would want a sociologist, but you also might want someone who does, say, history of energy. That might be a very important person.”

Simeone and Hettel are principle investigators on a new Energy Leadership Informatics project, part of a $1.5 million grant from the Office of Naval Research. The project will train U.S. veterans to use digital humanities methods to better understand safety trends by examining the language of nuclear industry incident reviews. Their insights can then be used by the energy industry, which has an enormous impact on all sectors of life in the U.S. and beyond. 

“Many places try to take digital and computational tools and apply them to literary and historical work,” Simeone notes. “Here at ASU, we want to add to that conversation by flipping things. I want take the deep knowledge of humanities—the kind developed from the study of literature, language and history—and connect it to experts conducting informatics and engineering research.”

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