The Need for Tool Appraisal

Methodological Intersections, the Digital Humanities Autumn School organised by Trier University and University of Luxembourg was held this year from 28 September to 3 October. With four days of theoretical reflection in Trier, and two days of hands-on courses in Belval, this autumn school provided a great introduction to the Digital Humanities for PhD students.

This blogpost is not intended to provide a complete overview of the autumn school, but rather to show the discussion from my perspective. The main theme I will follow is the discussion of tools, and that there is a need for tool appraisal.

Tool Appraisal

Understanding by trial

The week started with Manfred Thaller who gave an overview of DH, distinguishing between technology that scholars use simply because they live in the 21st century, and technology that changes the way one works and thinks. This was later acknowledged by Fabio Ciotti who stated that DH is not the artefacts, nor the computers or tablets, but a new theoretical perspective created with new tools for thought.

The message with which Thaller really set the tone for the rest of the week was: “Do not use a tool, which you do not understand. It might make you look like an idiot“. This was not to say scholars should build the tools themselves, but when using a tool one should understand the method of analysis and the underlying assumptions. Andreas Fickers later in the week agreed with this statement, but complemented it with “do not be afraid of playing around with new tools“. Pim Huijnen gave practical advice how to do so, by playing around with the settings of a tool to investigate how these settings influence the results. Especially when the results are visual, as visualisations, scholars should be careful using these results as evidence. Fredrik Palm emphasised this by demonstrating how much interpretation is done by the scholar before a visualisation is arrived at. Martin Grandjean showed that the workings of an algorithm can lead to specific aspects of the visualisation, warning not to interpret artefacts of the algorithm as conclusive evidence concerning the data.

The path to follow

poster trier autumn school small
The poster I presented at the autumn school. For high resolution, see

Janneke Adema discussed archives with the quote “the material conditions of working in the archive are not mere practicalities or technicalities; they are always interrelated with specific methodological decisions and theoretical paths that the researcher is led to follow” (Tamboukou, 2014). Andreas Fickers in his presentation considered how digitization affects these conditions of working with the archive (maybe in the archive is less apt for a digital archive). However, Tamboukou’s statement holds equally well for the conditions of working with tools. Andreas Fickers pointed to how the incorporation of tools and the collaboration with computer scientists constitutes a trading zone that may very well change the practices of scholars. This was also the point of the poster that I presented during this autumn school.

One of the biggest hurdles for the PhD students following the autumn school however was to know which tool to use in the first place. When having geospatial data, which tool can show this in an engaging way, without the need to study too much geography? When having network data, Gephi might be great, but which algorithm should be used to present the network in an understandable fashion? Choosing a tool to use is not something to do carelessly, for as stated at the beginning, this is a tool for work and thought.

Tool appraisal

The students were too diverse to consider individually which tool they would need and what factors they should consider.  Instead, what the autumn school offered was a theoretical and critical reflection on how tools shape the research of scholars, as well as a practical hands-on of some tools of interest. There are no ready-made answers for which tool to use, and how this will impact one’s research. Scholars should rather experiment with the available tools to understand which serve their needs and how results are produced. Tools cannot be ignored as research instruments, nor can they be used lightheartedly. Instead, what the humanities need are methods of tool appraisal.

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