Location: Bowdoin / Digital and Computational Studies / Activity / 2013 / Crystal Hall, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities

Digital and Computational Studies

Crystal Hall, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities

Story posted October 10, 2013

Crystal Hall, B.A. (Cornell), M.A., Ph.D. (Pennsylvania)Crystal Hall, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities, is assisting with the "Gateway to the Digital Humanities" course in Fall 2013. She has a Ph.D. in Italian and teaching experience in the field of digital humanities. Professor Hall has received teaching grants for course-design that implements digital humanities tools and approaches. She has written extensively on the relationship between science and literature, particularly in the case of Galileo Galilei. She is author of the forthcoming monograph Galileo's Reading (Cambridge University Press, December 2013). In Spring 2014 she will be teaching a course on the rhetoric of big data in the early modern period with a specific focus on the Copernican controversy. She recently spoke with Jack Gieseking about her research and digital studies.

What is your research focus? What questions motivate your inquiry?

The simple answer is that I do research on Galileo, but this means that my field of study encompasses portions of literary studies, art history, the history of science, the history of the book, philosophy, astronomy, physics, medieval studies, and history. I am now using tools and methodologies from the digital humanities (DH) to complement my analysis of Galileo’s writing and his process of inquiry into the physical world. What this really means is that I am analyzing a larger body of sources and objects than I would be able to if I were working without a computer. Not only am I still asking many of the same questions of the texts and cultural contexts with which I work, but I can now ask new questions thanks to the tools of DH. Lately I have been inspired by the question of what role the book (or manuscript) plays in the development of Galileo’s new science, particularly since he claims that individuals should not rely on the words of others to understand the world, but should interact with it themselves and draw conclusions from experimentation.  I think this line of inquiry has the potential to connect with present-day discussions of the relationship between scientific and humanistic disciplines.

Could you tell me a little bit about what your current research project?

Right now I am focused on reconstructing and analyzing Galileo’s library, a challenging task since the sources that talk about his books are incomplete, some due to the nature of record keeping 400 years ago, some due to the intentional destruction of this information.  I am organizing my research about the titles and sources in a database; I am using optical character recognition (OCR) to convert images of books to text; I am marking text files with XML to categorize structures and attributes; I am preparing large-scale textual analysis on hundreds of books to examine patterns of word usage, structural similarities, thematic parallels, use of quotations, and more; I plan to examine the networks of information sharing through early modern books; and eventually I hope to write a computer program that will highlight areas within the library that are deserving of a closer reading and focused analysis.

Why, in your opinion, is the study of digital and computational studies compelling and relevant to students?

Digital and computational studies remind me very much of studying a foreign language because of the immediate contact that exists between the student and the world in which she is living (or hoping to live). For example, by learning how to write a program that identifies Van Gogh’s use of blue in his self-portrait, students are also learning how their favorite apps manipulate their photos. More importantly, at least for me, speaking as a humanities professor, understanding the cultural codes with which Van Gogh communicated his message through color can lead those same students to create their own product (commercial, artistic, etc.) with full awareness of the message they are sending to viewers.

Crystal Hall, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities