A Call to Arms for the Humanities: Dr. Gregory Crane Speaks to McGill Scholars and Students

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What is the future of humanities in the digital age? This and other questions formed the basis of a lecture given Dr. Gregory Crane, recently elected Humbolt Professor of Digital Humanities at Leipzig University and professor of Classics at Tufts University(Boston), to McGill faculty and students on 27 November, 2012. Dr. Crane began the evening with some thoughts on the relationship between humanities and the digital world, noting that “ideas flow through a digital space”. This understanding is, in Dr. Crane’s opinion, radically shifting the focus of the humanities and indeed intellectual life in general. We are being asked, he pointed out, questions that never would have come about without rapid digital growth, such as what to do with the 20 million books currently available through GoogleBooks. However, the ultimate question, according to Dr. Crane, is “so what?” What can or should we as humanists do to deal with this re-centering of our scholarly universe?

Dr. Crane noted that we should be asking 3 questions: How do we advance intellectual life? What are the guiding metaphors to do so? and finally, how can digital technologies aid us in doing so? The biggest challenge, said Dr. Crane, was how to make the massive flood of data currently available to us actually useful. While he could not explicitly answer these questions, Dr. Crane instead outlined the potential opportunities to re-examine traditional humanities views, using new digital tools, from text mining to network and system analysis.

His lecture moved on to the need to re-define university education as a more participatory model, one were students and faculty worked side-by-side to advance the cause of intellectual life. Drawing on  Wilhelm von Humbolt’s original 19th century concept of the university as a shared experience, Dr. Crane proposed what he called a “radically new, old idea”; one that encouraged the active inclusion of undergraduate students in faculty projects and used as its basis the “lab culture” of the hard sciences. Using the Classics programme at the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, Mass.) as an example, Dr. Crane noted how student participation in courses increased after they were included in a project to digitize the manuscript text of Homer Dr. Crane ended the evening with his hope that his Humbolt appointment would be used to create new scholarly connections across time, space and culture, some of which may take place as a result of the new inclusion of technology in the humanities.

Dr. Crane serves as the editor in chief of the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts and has done since its beginnings in 1987, in addition to his recent Humbolt appointment. The Perseus Digital Library is one of the longest operating digitization projects in North America.