Time-Stamped Program for 2013 DH Conference

I’m very grateful to Maxim Romanov for putting together this very helpful program complete with timestamps for each presentation of our 2013 conference. Click the links below to watch each day of presentations in its entirety, and navigate to the talk or discussion section you’re interested in via the slider.

Thursday, October 24, 2013 – Day One

  • Introduction
    • | 0:00:00 | Beshara Doumani (Brown U): Opening Remarks
    • | 0:00:45 | Elias Muhanna (Brown U): Opening remarks
  • Digital Ethnography | chair: Beshara Doumani (Brown)
    • | 0:13:30 | Beshara Doumani (Brown U): Introduction
    • | 0:14:25 | Peter McMurray (Harvard), “Berlin Islam as Acoustic Ecology: An Ethnography in Sound”
    • | 0:41:00 | Nadia Yaqub (UNC), “Working with Indigenous Digital Humanities Projects: The Case of the Mukhayyam al-Sumud al-Usturi Tal al-Za‘tar Facebook Group”
    • | 1:09:20 | Discussion
  • Manuscript Visualization and Digitization | chair: Elias Muhanna (Brown)
    • 1:33:05 | Elias Muhanna (Brown): Introduction
    • 1:34:50 | Alex Brey (Bryn Mawr), “Quantifying the Qur’an”
    • 1:54:50 | David Hollenberg (Univ. of Oregon), “Preserving Islamic Manuscripts Under Erasure: The Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative”
    • 2:18:15 | Discussion
  • Text Mining | chair: Beatrice Gruendler (Yale)
    • | 2:45:00 | Beatrice Gruendler (Yale): Introduction
    • 2:47:40 | Maxim Romanov (Tufts), “[Toward] Abstract Models for Islamic History”
    • 3:14:50 | Guy Burak (NYU library), “Comparing Canons: Examining Two 17th-century Fatawa Collections from the Ottoman Lands”
    • 3:35:20 | Kirill Dmitriev (St. Andrews), “Arab Cultural Semantics in Transition”
    • 3:51:50 | Discussion
  • Databases | chair: Elli Mylonas (Brown)
    • | 4:37:30 | Elli Mylonas (Brown): Introduction
    • 4:37:55 | Sebastian Günther (Göttingen), “A Database & Handbook of Classical Islamic Pedagogy”
    • 5:09:45 | Will Hanley (FSU), “Prosop: A Social Networking Tool for the Past”
    • 5:31:00 | Discussion
  • Mapping | chair: Sheila Bonde (Brown)
    • 6:03:50 | Sheila Bonde (Brown): Introduction
    • 6:05:00 | Till Grallert (Freie Univ. Berlin), “Mapping the Urban Landscape through News Reports: Damascus and its Hinterlands in Late Ottoman Times”
    • 6:26:50 | Meredith Quinn (Harvard), “The Geography of Readership on Early Modern Istanbul”
    • -:–:– | Discussion (not available)

Friday, October 25, 2013 – Day Two

  • Digitization and E-Publication | chair: Ian Straughn (Brown)
    • 0:00:00 | Ian Straughn (Brown): Introduction
    • 0:02:00 | Dagmar Riedel (Columbia Univ.), “Manuscripts and Printed Books in Arabic Script in the Age of the E-Book: The Challenges of Digitization”
    • 0:31:50 | Chip Rossetti (Managing Editor, LAL), “Al-Kindi on the Kindle: The Library of Arabic Literature and the Challenges of Publishing Bilingual Arabic-English Books”
    • 0:54:50 | Discussion
  • Disciplinary and Theoretical Considerations | chair: Elias Muhanna (Brown)
    • 1:21:10 | Elias Muhanna (Brown): Introduction
    • 1:21:55 | Afsaneh Najmabadi (Harvard), “Making (Up) an Archive: What Could Writing History Look Like in a Digital Age?”
    • 1:55:25 | Travis Zadeh (Haverford), “Uncertainty and the Archive: Reflections on Medieval Arabic and Persian Book Culture in the Digital Age”
    • 2:22:10 | Discussion
  • Keynote address
    • 2:43:55 | Elias Muhanna (Brown): Introduction
    • 2:47:00 | Dr. Dwight Reynolds (UCSB): “From Basmati Rice to the Bani Hilal: Digital Archives and Public Humanities”
    • | 3:30:00 | Discussion

Watson Institute Write-Up About 2013 Islamic DH Conference

Detail of a page (c. 1580) from Minassian Collection, a database of Persian, Mughal, and Indian miniature paintings at Brown's Center for Digital Scholarship.

Detail of a page (c. 1580) from Minassian Collection, a database of Persian, Mughal, and Indian miniature paintings at Brown’s Center for Digital Scholarship.

Here’s a great Watson Institute write-up about our 2013 conference, by Samuel Adler-Bell. Thanks to Sarah Baldwin-Beneich. 

Digital Humanities and Middle East Studies

New Methodologies for Old Texts Raise Eyebrows

Last month “The Digital Humanities and Islamic and Middle East Studies” conference at the Watson Institute brought together scholars from a range of disciplines to examine the effect of new digital archiving and research technologies on the study of Islamic and Middle Eastern history and literature. And it might never have happened if it weren’t for renowned Islamic historian Michael Cook’s eyebrow.

In 2004, conference organizer Elias Muhanna was a graduate student in Professor Cook’s famously difficult history methodologies seminar at Princeton. Muhanna, who is now assistant professor of comparative literature and Middle East studies at Brown, was spending, as he put it, hours upon hours in the “depths of Princeton’s Firestone Library poring over 19th century editions of long forgotten compendia by minor authors in godforsaken locations of the medieval Islamic world” and often still failing to find the answers to Cook’s arcane historical puzzles. The course was, in Muhanna’s words, a “trial by fire,” a sink or swim tutorial in the esoteric methods of deep archival research.

But at a certain point in the middle of the semester, something changed. Muhanna and his colleagues began finding the answers to Cook’s questions, but in unexpected places, locating references to Cook’s citations in works that he had not consulted. It was at this point, Muhanna says, that Cook raised his eyebrow suspiciously. Cook’s students had discovered the utility of the enormous textual databases of classical Islamic sources that had, in 2004, just been made available online. “We had found the answer,” says Muhanna, “using a kind of search and capture method … and not in the very tortuous way he was hoping to make us get it.”

This experience, says, Muhanna, was one of the impetuses for last month’s conference, which is part of a larger research initiative hosted by the Middle East Studies program.  Michael Cook’s raised eyebrow represents an ambivalence at the core of the digital humanities, perhaps especially as they relate to the study of the Islamic world.  Digital archives, text-searchable databases, computational analyses, these innovations have reshaped the methodological landscape and opened a door to new and exciting research. But for scholars of Islamic history and literature who have come to see the long, tortuous work of archival research as commensurate with the discipline itself, the digital humanities have been met with more than a few raised eyebrows.

“I felt that there was something tremendous to be gained by this technology,” Muhanna said in his opening remarks, “but there was also something probably tremendous that was in danger of being lost.”

Although this ambivalence may have inaugurated the conference, the vast majority of work presented by attending scholars attested, unambiguously, to the rich new world of research questions provoked by combining digital innovations with Islamic and Middle East studies scholarship. For example, for her project on “The Geography of Readership in Early Modern Istanbul,” Harvard historian Meredith Quinn compiled a database of probate inventories from 17th century Istanbul, paying special attention to those that listed books among the possessions of the deceased. Using quantitative analysis, she worked to identify correlations among book ownership, gender, class, and occupation. She then integrated that data with a map of the city to identify the more “bookish” neighborhoods of 17th century Istanbul.

Projects like Quinn’s, which elegantly combine archival sources with digital mapping and quantitative analysis, are so natural, grounded in good research, and plainly productive of new scholarly knowledge and questions, that any resistance from the digital humanities skeptics seems misguided: purist methodological traditionalism. Or worse, the resentful Luddism of a generation of scholars who “had to do it the hard way, so why don’t you?” On the other hand, one can more easily understand humanists chafing a little at the title of Bryn Mawr graduate student Alex Brey’s algorithm-dependent presentation on “Quantifying the Qur’an,” despite the fact that it addressed core issues of humanist concern, such as book history and scribal practices.

Professor Muhanna notes that scholars in the digital humanities might occasionally have a romantic, emotional, or religious reticence about converting a sacred text into points of data to yield historical knowledge. “There’s an understandable resistance to construing the tremendously complex object of one’s research, whether that’s a literary or a religious text, as basically a corpus of data. It has the association that it becomes just ones and zeroes.” And even more resistance about “the idea that we can somehow perform complicated analytical operations that might replace the very careful, painstaking work of interpretation.”

A self-critical debate over the proper scope of the digital humanities popped up at various moments throughout the conference. “Is this a new paradigm?” Muhanna asked, “Does digital, data-driven scholarship tell us anything qualitatively new? Or does it just give us these tremendous tools to confirm what we already intuitively know, and that we had already arrived at through old-fashioned interpretative scholarship?”

At some point during one of these self-reflective flare-ups, one scholar remarked, somewhat pugnaciously, “So we’re historians with computers. That’s enough for me!”

Muhanna’s conclusion is somewhat more nuanced: “The best way to think about it is that we’re just dealing with different sets of questions. And that one set doesn’t invalidate the other set.”

– Sam Adler-Bell

British Library Write-Up On 2013 Islamic DH Conference

BLHere’s a write-up by the good folks at the British Library about our 2013 Conference on the Digital Humanities and Islamic + Middle East Studies. Check out the original post for lots of beautiful images accompanying the write-up. Thanks to Nur Sobers-Khan and Daniel Lowe. 

Two representatives from the British Library attended the recent conference, ‘The Digital Humanities + Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies’, hosted by the Middle Eastern Studies Department of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Organised by Dr Elias Muhanna and held on 24-25 October 2013, this conference sought to bring together for the first time researchers and librarians using digital technologies in innovative ways to create and disseminate knowledge in the fields of Islamic and Middle East Studies

Throughout the lively conference discussion, particular themes were pursued that are very relevant to our own work at the British Library. Professor Beshara Doumani, director of Middle East Studies at Brown University, opened the conference by posing a number of important ethical questions about digital scholarship. For example, what ‘acts of violence’ are done to texts in the process of digitisation, translation, transliteration and indexing? What effect does the political economy of funding for digital projects have on the production of knowledge?

These questions became a running theme throughout the conference and were picked up by Travis Zadeh (Haverford College) in his talk “Uncertainty and the Archive: Reflections on Medieval Arabic and Persian Book Culture in the Digital Age”. He demonstrated how important textual elements are lost in the modern proliferation of searchable digital forms of Arabic and Persian classical texts. Moreover, he showed how certain genres of literature, for example, manuscripts on the occult and magic, are often excluded from digitisation projects since they reflect a social history that is at odds with organisations that fund and produce these new digital archives.

Other highlights from the conference include the keynote speech of Dr Dwight Reynolds (Professor of Religious Studies, UCSB), who focused on the monumental Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive. This archive contains audio recordings of poets and musicians from Upper Egypt whose artistic legacy would otherwise be lost. This resource also constitutes a teaching tool, with English translations, written transcriptions from Arabic oral recitations of the thousand-year-old epic, and an explanation of the historical background of the text.

Dr Afsaneh Najmabadi (Harvard) presented her important project Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran in a talk entitled “Making (Up) an Archive: What Could Writing History Look Like in a Digital Age?”. She introduced ways in which technology can be used to document and disseminate objects central to social and cultural history that would not normally be accessible to researchers using administrative and national archives. These objects include women’s household items, dowry registries and marriage contracts, family letters and personal photographs, as well as oral history interviews.

The difficulties and possibilities of using text mining techniques for the querying of biographical dictionaries were presented in a talk by Dr Maxim Romanov (Tufts) entitled “Abstract Models for Islamic History”. Dr Romanov accessed 29,000 biographical records to search for names, toponyms, and dates that allow the researcher to trace cultural or religious developments over an extended period or large geographical expanse. You can download a full copy of his fascinating paper here.

Dr Kirill Dmitriev (St Andrews University) presented the Language, Philology, Culture: Arab Cultural Semantics in Transition project to develop The Analytical Database of Arabic Poetry which will include comprehensive data on the vocabulary of early Arabic poetry (6th-8th centuries AD) in the form of an electronic dictionary.

Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative’s partners, Princeton University Library and Free University, Berlin, to create the groundwork for the preservation of manuscripts in private libraries in the Yemen together with the Imam Zayd ibn Ali Cultural Foundation.

This conference was an excellent opportunity for us to share information about the British Library’s major digitisation projects related to the Middle East, for instance the Endangered Archives Programme and the British Library’s partnership with the Qatar Foundation to digitise material related to the Persian Gulf and Arabic scientific manuscripts. We also had the opportunity to showcase current digitisation projects in the Asian and African Studies section of the Library, in particular, the Hebrew Manuscripts ProjectMalay Manuscripts Digitisation Project and Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project, as well as the smaller Southeast Asian Manuscripts digitisation project funded by the Ginsburg Legacy, all of which are expected to come to fruition in the next few years. These projects will make thousands of the British Library’s manuscripts freely available to the public on our Digitised Manuscripts website and greatly open up access to our collections.

Daniel Lowe, Gulf History and Arabic Language Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership, @dan_a_lowe

Nur Sobers-Khan, IHF Curator for Persian Manuscripts