Faculty Q&A: Dennis Tenen on the Digital Humanities Revolution

February 11, 2014

Dennis Tenen, an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, has an unusual background for a humanities scholar. An émigré from the former Soviet state of Moldova, he has a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard as well as a software design prize from his former employer, Microsoft. Now he is using the tools of his old trade—code, data and algorithms—to help his students come to grips with the proliferation of new forms of information online.

In intriguingly titled courses such as “Media Archaeology” and “Illicit Knowledge,” Tenen explores such questions as: What makes media digital? What is the difference between data and metadata? What does it mean to share or to steal information? And he teaches students project management and coding skills that he hopes can be applied in other professional pursuits.

“This is part of the digital humanities revolution: I believe that a literary scholar can contribute very meaningfully at, say, Facebook or Google,” he says. “The students should leave here with an innovative research portfolio.” Since he was hired two years ago, Tenen helped found the Studio@Butler. He is also involved in Columbia’s academic research collective exploring the impact of online book piracy, and the Digital Storytelling Lab, which aims to tell stories using a range of creative and research practices.

“We hired Dennis in a search for a young scholar who was interested in either new media or computational approaches to literature,” said Nicholas Dames, the Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities and chair of the English Department. “He was the easy choice—no one else combined his practical understanding of digital technologies, and how they can be used as a tool for literary study, with his wide theoretical and even philosophical grasp of these technologies.”

Q: What are digital humanities?

A: The digital humanities combine computational methods, cultural preservation and professional reform. The field started as computational humanities, but it is about more than just computers now. Today’s DH-ers (as they are called) build on the tradition of the liberal arts. They tend to be a pragmatic bunch: favoring cooperation and project-based models of scholarship. They augment theory with a robust practice of empirical experimentation, borrowing tools and methods from the social sciences, statistics, graphic design, and even robotics.

Q: How does the digital revolution affect a literary scholar?

A: Technology gives us new tools for knowledge and understanding. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is perfectly made for human comprehension. It is unlikely that a computer will do any better. Computational approaches to the study of literature begin to get interesting when you start reading thousands, if not millions of texts. That does not mean that we should abandon traditional tools of close reading. But we now have the ability to analyze texts on both micro and macro levels and to perceive long-term historical patterns invisible to the naked eye. There’s also more to read. The Internet is an intensely textual environment. Our task then becomes to examine textuality in all its forms—in novels and poetry, but also in code, online forums, wikis, databases and search engines. I’m interested in the stories of patients, and how their free-form natural language narrative is transformed into billable codes. I like to think about restaurant menus and about terabytes of documents in the discovery stage of a legal trial. Reading literature has a lot to teach us about such things.

Q: How do literary scholars participate in this digital culture?

A: Few of my colleagues call themselves digital humanists. But many of them are model DH-ers. For instance, look at Public Books, an online multimedia site that supports an international community of intellectuals and artists debating everything from Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel to the HBO series “Girls.” Or A.S.A.P., the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, which holds a biennial conference in North America that brings together scholars and artists from around the globe to research and discuss contemporary arts. Or the Convolution journal, which publishes short, experimental work that challenges divisions between creative writing and criticism, poetry and prose, image and text. All these things represent a deep engagement with contemporary literary culture, which has a vibrant presence here on campus. At Columbia, we have the chance to affect the future of publishing, the future of reading and writing, the future of learning and libraries.

Q: What is distinctive about your work on the role of digital tools in the humanities?

A: Usually I say that I do research at the intersection of texts, community and technology. My recent projects involve collecting millions of syllabi to mine them for insight about the evolution of knowledge and about our own institutional history. I just finished a paper which studies the Internet infrastructure behind one of the largest “pirate” book sharing communities. Rivaling Google Books in scope, their annual operating budget is $1,900. How is that possible? I think our publishers and our librarians will be interested to hear about the results of that study. I have a paper in the works with Ed Finn, who is now the director of the Center for Science and Imagination at Arizona State, about online book clubs, which give us a rare insight into the way people actually talk about books: what they read, how often, and how they recommend books to one another.

Q: What is the focus of the digital humanities course you’re teaching this semester titled “Illicit Knowledge"?

A: In addition to traditional reading, discussion and writing components of the class, my students are expected to work on a semester-long data-driven lab-based research project. This year’s theme is “illicit knowledge.” In working with several large datasets related to information piracy, we will explore the ethics of stealing and sharing, the history and the future of censorship, the infrastructure and the social dynamics of underground library archives, laws protecting and punishing whistleblowers, the differences between remix culture and plagiarism, and learn about copyright, open access, and free culture movements. My trick is to get the engineering students interested in the cultural impact of their programming practice, and to get the liberal arts folk excited about programming. The two groups enrich each other.

Q: What does it mean to run a laboratory in the humanities?

A: The metaphor of the lab means thinking and doing. Half of the course looks like a normal English classroom: we read and reflect and we write. The lab part of the class usually starts with a huddle, where each group reports their progress. Those who want to work with data code on a virtual cloud server. Others design a website. And those interested in traditional research write position papers, memorandums of understanding, ethics charters and annotated bibliographies. The lab has an open door policy. At one moment we may be engaged in an intense discussion and at another we will be working quietly and listening to music. It is unlike any classroom that I’ve ever been in. The chaos and the creativity of Columbia make it happen.

Q: You also teach in the Core Curriculum. How are these classes different?

A: The Core is intense. We read hundreds of dense pages per week. Plato, Augustine, Hume, Arendt—these writers don’t need help from multimedia, YouTube, or from computational analysis. Last week, we talked about a paragraph from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government for two hours straight. I encourage my students to actively use their laptops and a student found language from the New York Penal Code, which quotes Locke almost verbatim. Another student brought up the distinction between physical property and intellectual property. Having the chance to read classic texts with such freakishly bright students is an honor.

Q: Can you talk about how you’re trying to bring computational tools to bear on the Core curriculum?

A: My work often concerns online conversations about literature, and I think the Core would benefit from a course-wide discussion forum. Over a thousand students take the Core at any given time. But our classes are purposefully small —20 people or so—and the online discussion is in fragmented sections. Imagine the whole class of 2018 discussing The Iliad together. It would be amazing! An online forum is not a fancy Internet tool. But it responds to the ideals of the Core.

Q: Can you apply computational tools to traditional questions of literary scholarship?

A: It might not make sense to use computers to read Locke’s Second Treatise, but we could write a program that maps the spread of Locke’s ideas in the 17th and 18th centuries. Computational tools are changing the meaning of reading, writing, book, story, narrative, style, voice, genre and period. Take the example from my Core class. Ten years ago, reading Locke meant scanning words on a page (with your eyes only). Today, it involves the ability to instantly access a whole world of related texts and ideas. How will I find a familiar quote within a 500-page book without the ability to search digitally? Search is a type of computation, after all.

Q: What books or articles are you working on at the moment?

A: I am working on a book about algorithmic creativity. Think about a Shakespearean sonnet, for example: fourteen lines, written in iambic pentameter. To some extent, those fourteen lines are a product of an individual human genius. But viewed in another way, the sonnet is created by certain strict rules and not by a person. Similarly, there is a particular anxiety today about the impact of technology on human imagination. Is Google making us stupid? Will literature be reduced to data? I don’t think humans are under metaphysical threat—no more than the rules of a sonnet threaten a poet. But we do struggle to understand autonomous forces that, once launched, continue to operate without human intervention.

Q: Why switch from being a software engineer, a career many people want, to getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature?

A: My undergraduate degree was in political science and comparative literature. But I worked my way through college first as a web designer and then as a software engineer. Comparative literature in the late 1990s was a radical field. I always thought of it as a space to experiment in theory and in practice. In retrospect, I never did change my careers. I am still trying to understand culture through a computational lens and to understand computation as a cultural experience.

— Interviewed by Eve Glasberg