Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Digital Medievalist Rock Stars

by J J Cohen

Martin Foys and Asa Mittman in the New York Times, an article on digital humanities featuring a photo of a looming Martin at his dapper best:

Figuring out how to collect, house and connect more than 350 years of scholarship motivated Martin K. Foys, a medievalist at Drew University in Madison, N.J., to create a digital map of the Bayeux Tapestry, a gargantuan 11th-century embroidery displayed in a museum in Bayeux, France, that depicts the Battle of Hastings, when the Normans conquered England. At 224 feet long, about two-thirds the length of a football field, this tapestry is both a work of art and a historical document that mingles text and image. 

“It is almost impossible to study traditionally,” Mr. Foys said. No one person could digest the work’s enormous amount of material, and no single printing could render it accurately, so Mr. Foys created a prize-winning digital version with commentary that scholars could scroll through. Such digital mapping has the potential to transform medieval studies, Mr. Foys said. 

His latest project, which he directs with Shannon Bradshaw, a computer scientist at Drew, and Asa Simon Mittman, an art historian from California State University, Chico, is an online network of medieval maps and texts that scholars can work on simultaneously. Once specific areas of maps are identified and tagged with information, it becomes possible to analyze and compare quantifiable data about images and sources, he explained, adding, “We have a whole new set of tools not dominated by the written word.” 

The online network of maps is distinct from most scholarly endeavors in another respect: It is communal. The traditional model of the solitary humanities professor, toiling away in an archive or spending years composing a philosophical treatise or historical opus is replaced in this project with contributions from a global community of experts. 

“The ease with which a community can collaborate on the production of scholarship is something that is fundamentally changing the way we do our work,” said Mr. Foys, whose 2007 book, “Virtually Anglo-Saxon,” discusses the influence of technology on scholarship. 

Read the whole story here.


Janice said...

My survey class spent part of last week dealing with the mappa mundi tradition and what that says about medieval culture. It's a great part of medieval history that was tough to tackle when I was an undergraduate due to the limited visual options in the classroom.

Thanks for the link to this project and the story: I'll ask for access and see if I can get some more ideas for the next time we tackle these subjects. It's great to live in such a creative age of scholarship.

M.K. Foys said...

Jeffrey -

Many thanks for the notice, though I'm not so sure about the rock star thing - where are my trashed hotel rooms and extravagant rider demands? Where!? I don't believe the hype!

The Times article is a nice attempt to talk about some of the work being done, though it inevitably flattens much of the work that is actually really exciting here, at least to me. Talking about data and visualization end up as unintentional catalysts for cries of reductionism and de-human(ities)zation of our work, as a quick perusal of the comments to the article reveals.

And, for those interested in access to the Digital Mappaemundi, please hang tight - we are still at the end of our developmental grant cycle run, finishing up work. Where the article quotes me as saying “We have a whole new set of tools not dominated by the written word," it should more likely replace "have" with "are in the process of developing." We are compiling a list of people interested in using DM to further development (adding and editing maps for scholarly and teaching use), starting early next year - if you are interested, you can just follow the link to the DM site to join.

~ Martin

ASM said...

Hi Jeffrey,

Many thanks for posting the article! And Martin, speak for yourself. When I travel, I always make extravagant demands and try my best to trash hotel rooms.

Agreed that this does flatten some of the work, but on the other hand, it treats it in a very positive light, gives good publicity, and hopefully opens up additional avenues for funding and collaboration, so I am all happy!