The Dialectic of Digital Humanities: A Methodological Reflection

This post examines an ongoing methodological project in the form of two examples: a research article, “Digital Humanities as Translation: Visualizing Franz Rosenzweig’s Archive,” and the results of a semester-long, in-class digital project, “‘The Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets.’” As the focus of this post, however, “method” signifies not just the specific technological tools and processes involved in each instance, but also the general theoretical contention that “digital humanities” means as much the potential enhancement of our study and teaching of German history, culture, and literature through digital tools as it does bringing the conceptual tools of German Studies to bear on the very transformation to our discipline signified by the digital. Such sentiments seek to expand on David Kim’s call for “hybrid methods” in pedagogy that mix digital and tradition techniques and participate in the foundational methodological discussions proposed in articles and led at conferences by Wendy Chun and Lisa Maria Rhody. In presenting the following examples, I contend that the methodical contribution of DH to teaching, learning, and research and its potential inclusivity in classrooms and scholarly communities lies in the dialectical movements between new, digital techniques and those already central to German Studies in particular and the humanities in general. In other words, I want to purpose a methodological vision of DH in which methods such as data visualization, mapping, and algorithmic text analysis can and must draw on, return us to, and allow for iterative revision by their interaction with the methods of our field, such as philology, hermeneutics, and critical theory.

Digital Humanities as Translation” employs and describes for other scholars how to employ a set of digital tools (e.g. Tabula, OpenRefine, Palladio) to visualize the network of correspondences contained in the collection of Rosenzweig’s papers held in the University of Kassel archive (see the archive’s finding aid). Using DH tools to copy, cut, paste, and scrub the archival data (see the final dataset) and plot them (see diagrams), “DH as Translation” serves, on the one hand, as an initial step towards a more detailed and comprehensive understanding of Rosenzweig’s intellectual biography and network, published editions and historiographies of which have come under scrutiny (see Graf and Pollock).

Palladio generated timeline of document dates in Rosenzweig’s archive.
Full network visualization, with Rosenzweig in the middle.

On the other hand, Rosenzweig also theorizes in his theological and philosophical writings the practice of the transformation of texts from one form to another, which, so is my contention, allows us to reflect critically on the acts of “copying, cutting, and pasting,” “scrubbing” and “plotting” required to create the visualizations themselves. If translation means for Rosenzweig radical formal fidelity to literary and religious texts, then, so I take as one potential guide, we should “translate” the data of his archive in such a fashion to retain as much of the structure and nuance of the original as possible. Yet, in practice, my attempt at a faithful rendition does not simply posit a “direct” translation that preserves each and every data point, but rather, by virtue of translation, reveals marginal, non-Rosenzweig voices in his archive that call into question the ideological underpinnings of his theory of translation, as well as our own. What translation theory, recalled in the visualization process, reveals is how the choices we make in the process of visualization are not arbitrary, but carry significant historical and ideological weight.

Twelve undergraduate and graduate students researched, designed, and built the online collection, the “’Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets’” in the digital humanities seminar I led at Michigan State University last spring. Starting with introductory readings in DH, our semester-long goal was to create an Omeka ‘archive’ of the so-called “Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets” (Armsünderblätter) held in the Criminology Collection in MSU Libraries’ Special Collections – a loose genre, consisting primarily of broadsheets sold at public executions mostly in the German-speaking lands during the eighteenth and nineteenth century (see van Dülmen), “programs” of a sort that described for the public what it was witnessing and what spiritual lessons it should draw from it.

Description of the sentence and execution of Caspar Rhain, accompanied by a “moral poem” (1771)

The course (with help from the DH specialists at MSU) taught students how to use a wide range of DH tools: spreadsheets and OpenRefine to normalize the Library’s MARC data (see the data for the 100 documents in our archive or the data for the 1421 documents in MSU’s Criminology Collection), cameras and Photoshop to digitize and color correct the pamphlet images, Omeka to host the collection, and tools such as Palladio, Voyant, RAW, and CartoDB to analyze our data. With each new DH tool, however, a class period was dedicated to a theoretical reading (Burton, Foucault, Derrida, Drucker, etc.) which framed our work within less technical and more critical and humanistic frames of inquiry: the technological manipulation of the body (both physical and textual), epistemology and exhibition, and techniques (and pitfalls) of translation. As much as DH allowed us to broaden access to a very public, but often forgotten moment of cultural history in Germany, so too the use of these DH tools thus returned students (and, for some, introduced them to) to salient questions in the humanities in order to understand better the processes that the use of these tools presupposes but often renders invisible.

Both of these projects raised a number of pressing technological questions concerning German Studies and DH – such as how these digital tools, often designed by English speakers for other purposes, systematically breakdown when they encounter untidy data and formatting, something as simple as diacritical marks and special characters. At this point, I am unsure what direction this larger methodological project will take. For our discussion at the GSA, however, I hope to lay the groundwork for a conversation on how we can establish robust yet also theoretically savvy foundations for the use of DH in German Studies that takes advantage of what the digital offers us interpretively and analytically, without losing sight of the interpretive, critical, and historiographical bedrock that constitutes our discipline.

Holocaust Memory and Visuality in the Age of Social Media

Project Description
Currently, there are 11,701 images tagged with #holocaustmuseum, 6652 tagged with #yadvashem, and 16,735 tagged with #jewishmuseum on Instagram alone; all photos in these tags represent examples of individual visitor engagement with Holocaust museum and memorial sites, all of which provide me with a rich source base which requires interpretation and analysis. My PhD dissertation is an interdisciplinary analysis of embodied interaction with the presentation of the Holocaust in museum and memorial sites and the documentation of such experiences on the part of the visitor through social media. This project examines the evolving nature of visitor photography in Holocaust museum spaces and memorial sites, dissecting and questioning interactions between official Holocaust museum and memorial spaces and their publics as they support, contradict, and challenge one another using image-sharing platforms Flickr, Tumblr, and Instagram as spaces of expression and memory-making. I evaluate the shared images of visitors in the context of the development of social media policies of three of the largest Holocaust museums: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington DC), the Yad Vashem World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation, Education and Commemoration (Jerusalem, Israel), and aspects of Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

My theoretical framework draws from the disciplines of visual culture, performance theory, and public history. This project presupposes the following: that museum spaces, both physically and conceptually, rely heavily on relationships of power to communicate the past to the visitor; that the act of photography is the visitor’s attempt to exercise control and present-ness when engaged in emotional experiences; and, that the act of photography must be seen as a method of active engagement with one’s spatial environment. Photography in museum spaces – particularly self-photography (i.e. the “selfie”) remains controversial; my project calls for a deeper consideration of twenty-first century photographic trends in Holocaust museum spaces, rather than the condemnation of these practices. The power of visitor photography, beyond its easy transmission in the digital age, lies in its dual function as a mode of visual representation and framework for the interpretation of the spaces in which we find ourselves, as well as representations of the self.

Drawing from the existing literature on Holocaust museums and the visuality of the Holocaust, my research is guided by the following questions: How do museums, especially those dealing with painful histories, make use of image-sharing social media platforms? What is the significance of engaging with visual culture in this process, and how can visitor photography serve as a didactic tool within and beyond the walls of the museum? How can visitor photography complicate museum and memorial spaces? How does the act of sharing a photo allow an individual to contribute to a visual memory-making process? Most importantly, how can historians read visitor photographs as sources, and what can they contribute to our understanding of public engagement with the past, in the present? I situate my evaluation of imaged-based social media platforms as important sources for historians within broad and necessary conversations about the nature of contemporary commemorative practices, public engagement with the past, and the changing nature of Holocaust memory in the twenty-first century.

Current Methodology
At the moment, my working archive is composed of a hodge-podge of the sources which I have drawn together: photographic material from guestbooks and biennial reports from the Jewish Museum Berlin; interviews with social media managers and local artists; visitor feedback reports from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; and a rather unwieldy repository of images on Flickr, Instagram, and Tumblr.

One of the issues I struggle with from a methodological standpoint is the ever-growing (and ever vanishing) nature of my social media archive. Currently, I have been spending time scrolling through various hashtags on different platforms to manually screenshot and save new images. While this is a rather tedious method, it has allowed my to collect a wide variety of images.

Future Directions and Challenges
Currently, my approach to my methodology has been that of a social or cultural historian, and I believe one area of my research that I am struggling with is whether my methods reflect the nature of my project. While still in the research phase, I am hoping to expand my understanding of methods and tools through this seminar.

1. One of my objectives for this seminar is to engage in a discussion about the ways in which digital scholars frame their methodologies, and the shifting nature of this discussion as we engage more and more with digital source materials, or rely on digital methodologies to communicate shifts in historical practice.

2. I am interested in whether the group knows of any programs which can analyze a large corpus of images; as I am interested in tracking and analyzing shifting visualities, I believe this may be my first step in attempting to do so.

3. Similarly, I am interested in whether the group has had any experience using Gephi (or similar networking applications) to visualize connections between users of Instagram or Flickr.


Each participant will use these guiding questions to provide feedback for each project in their category: Research, Teaching, or Methods.

  1. How does this project contribute to teaching, learning, research?
  2. Does it create or reframe knowledge and/or help develop skills?
  3. Does is provide new ways of viewing/studying sources?
  4. How can the project contribute to inclusivity in our classrooms? (in terms of document/source diversity and/or accessibility?)
  5. How might this model/method be transferred or applied in other disciplines?
  6. Does the project allow for interdisciplinary/inter-institutional work/collaboration?
  7. Is it sufficiently rigorous in respect to the intellectual aims of the project and in what ways might the project be improved?

Presentation Questions: Methods

Each seminar participant will give a short, 10-minute presentation on his or her project at the GSA (schedule TBA). The conveners have divided projects into three categories: Research, Teaching, and Methods.  Each group will have a specific set of questions to address.

Questions for projects that focus primarily on methodology:

  1. What were your goals and how did the DH tools help you achieve them?
  2. How can others employ this method?
  3. What are two challenges of this method?
  4. What is the future of the method/project?
  5. One big question for the group that you want answered.