Author Archives: Gabriella Papper '18

Origin of Digital and Computational Studies at Bowdoin

Assembled by Crystal Hall, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities, Co-Director of DCS 2015- and Gabriella Papper ’18, DCS Teaching Assistant, Research Assistant, and course alumna

Digital and Computational Studies began in Fall 2012 after a meeting of the Bowdoin College Board of Trustees. Several faculty members from multiple disciplines joined a steering committee charged with this curricular initiative. Through a series of satellite meetings with colleagues from the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences, they discussed the place of computation and digital disruption in a liberal arts environment. With the steering committee’s guidance, 2012-2013 marked the inaugural year of the “Computation and the Liberal Arts Colloquium,” which included events representing the fields of art history, biology, classics, computer science, mathematics and visual arts. In Spring 2013 co-directors Eric Chown and Pamela Fletcher announced the first DCS course: “Gateway to the Digital Humanities.” A student assistant for the course developed the first version of the DCS logo, which has undergone at least three iterations in the intervening years.

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By Fall 2014 there were five courses on the books, including three that were part of the Digital Humanities Course Cluster, a Mellon Humanities Initiative. Thanks to tremendous faculty and student support, in 2014-2015 DCS was able to move beyond just the humanities to connect students across disciplines through computational thinking, data analysis, critical interrogation and design of digital resources, and the understanding of the ways that technological changes are impacting everyday life. Former Bowdoin College President Barry Mills ’72 summarized this change in one of his departing reflections on the College: “So, what’s different about Bowdoin’s approach? Unlike other colleges and universities, at Bowdoin we are incorporating this mode of inquiry throughout the disciplines.”

President Mills concluded that piece by saying: “This isn’t about being  “relevant”; it is about educating our students to be informed, thoughtful citizens who can lead their communities—the age-old purpose of the liberal arts.” Incoming President Clayton Rose, asked many questions on this theme in his Opening of the College remarks at Convocation in Fall 2015: “What should a Bowdoin liberal arts curriculum be in five years, for the next 10-15? In particular, what will it mean to be “liberally educated” at Bowdoin in the future? What is great teaching? What is profound learning? What makes both possible? What roles should athletic, cultural, service, and other experiences play in complementing the intellectual engagement here? What role should technology play in both what we teach and how we teach?”

The faculty members and steering committee for DCS had been investigating these questions throughout the 2014-2015 academic year while developing a more expansive introductory course for this new field of study. DCS 1100 marked a new beginning for the program: an articulation of a core suite of tools and topics. Students worked with computation in Python, spatial analysis with ArcGIS, network analysis with Gephi, and structured markup of data with XML. Topics for readings and projects primarily addressed the theme of what it means to study an individual using digital resources. The course is oversubscribed for Fall 2016.

We invite you to explore the other courses and events that have been offered as part of DCS!


Tool: XML

XML stands for EXtensible Markup Language. It is a language like HTML that allows you to markup your data. You can use XML to markup a letter, documents or other forms of data. One of the most prominent XML editors is called oXygen, which has XML development tools for people with all different skill levels. XML, however, does not have predefined tags. This means that the user decides what the tags are and how the document is going to be structured.

One benefit of XML is that it conveys less tangible information that accompanies data. For example, with a letter, XML enables you to tag areas of the letter that were damaged or areas that had notes in the margins. By using XML, you preserve the information found in physical documents. You can tag your text based on content and/or structure. If you did not use XML and simply accepted the text as data from a machine, you would lose the context of the document.

Data is stored in plain text format in XML. This makes it easier to share data, preserve data, and understand data. The standard markup format in XML is <tag> TEXT </tag>.

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Original Joshua Chamberlain letter (left) that was then decoded and transcribed in an oXygen file (right). Credit: Ana Timoney-Gomez (created for Introduction to Digital and Computational Studies, Fall 2015).


DCS Courses Fall 2016

Three Digital and Computational Studies courses will be offered in Fall 2016. More information on these courses can be found under the Digital and Computational Studies subject category on Polaris. Each course is interdisciplinary and students will learn both technical and analytical skills.


DCS 1100: Introduction to Digital and Computational Studies

Professor Mohammad Irfan and Professor Crystal Hall

Distribution Requirement: MCSR

How are digital tools and computational methods being applied and studied in different fields? How are they catalyzing changes in daily life? Uses two case studies to introduce these new tools and methods, and to analyze and evaluate their scholarly and practical applications. The first case study is based on Bowdoin’s own history: how can the use of new methods recreate what Joshua Chamberlain could see at the Battle of Gettysburg, and thus better understand the battle and his decisions? Next, considers the contemporary, and asks what is identity in the era of social media and algorithms? Students learn the basics of the Python programming language, introductory spatial analysis with ArcGIS, elementary text and social network analysis, and basic environmental modeling. Assumes no prior knowledge of a programming language.

This course has a separate lab.

Fields represented include:

English, History, Environmental Studies, Biology, Government, Sociology, Mathematics

Scroll through the examples below to see the kinds of projects Introduction to Digital and Computational Studies students completed in Fall 2015:

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Original Joshua Chamberlain letter (left) that was then decoded and transcribed in an oXygen file (right). Credit: Ana Timoney-Gomez (created for Introduction to Digital and Computational Studies, Fall 2015).

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Joshua Chamberlain’s correspondence network, based on original letters, is visualized in Gephi.

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ArcGIS Map of Present Day Topo Map and Historical Map of Gettysburg layered on top. Credit: Ana Timoney-Gomez (created for Introduction to Digital and Computational Studies, Fall 2015).

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ArcGIS 3-D image model. The pink color shows what Joshua Chamberlain was able to see at Gettysburg. Credit: Ana Timoney-Gomez (created for Introduction to Digital and Computational Studies, Fall 2015).

DCS 2020: Forecasting and Predictions

Instructor: Michael Kowal

There are few human endeavors as important as making good predictions. Being able to make good predictions is central to effective decision making. Computers and the internet have enabled an explosion in the prediction market where everyone from political consultants to large corporations rely on an ever increasing amount of data to make the predictions that drive their decision making. This course looks at the topic of predictions through the lens of how it is currently impacting our world. By understanding how predictions are made we can better understand how the actors shaping our world are making their decisions. In the Fall of 2016, for example, the focus of the course will be on the Presidential election and will examine questions such as how data analysts forecast the election and how those forecasts in turn are used to alter the behavior of the candidates. Students will learn the techniques used to make predictions and how to asses the quality of those predictions.

Fields represented include:

Government, Computer Science, Mathematics

Tool: GIS

ArcGIS is a software program that scholars and researchers in many disciplines use to produce and analyze geospatial data. GIS stands for geographic information system. Spatial analysis is a way to gather information on the locations and features of spatial data. Digital humanists can use spatial analysis to help answer questions about location and visualization.

ArcGIS offers many tools in order to examine spatial data.

Georeferencing puts data into a spatial context. This means that an image can be assigned real-world coordinates. For example, one project georeferenced old maps. Before georeferencing, these maps existed without spatial context or a coordinate system. These old maps were then referenced to modern maps using control points that were found on both maps. Referencing using control points enabled the old maps to become digital representations of a physical space. Georeferencing can also indicate the accuracy of older images.

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ArcGIS Map of Present Day Topo Map and Historical Map of Gettysburg layered on top. Credit: Ana Timoney-Gomez (created for Introduction to Digital and Computational Studies, Fall 2015).

The georeferenced version of the map was adjusted according to control points from a modern topo map. The distortion of the georeferenced map shows that the original map did not have the same spatial context or coordinate system as the modern map. Georeferencing encourages us to look at the details and distinct features found on maps.

Geoprocessing is a tool that enables you to manipulate spatial data, which means that your input data will look different from your output data. Geoprocessing focuses on the features of the input image, such as visibility and terrain.

ArcGIS (and ArcScene) can now also perform 3-D image modelling.

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ArcGIS 3-D image model. The pink color shows what Joshua Chamberlain was able to see at Gettysburg. Credit: Ana Timoney-Gomez (created for Introduction to Digital and Computational Studies, Fall 2015).


Although GIS is an helpful tool if you are working with environmental data, it is also extremely useful in many other areas (mapping, census data, business, health, migration, etc.). ArcGIS now also offers a collaborative web version that allows you to share content and project layers.

Further Reading: The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship edited by David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, Trevor M. Harris.


DCSI Event on Campus: “Big Data Insights for Political Campaigns and Elections”

Next week, James Gimpel, professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park, will discuss his research into big data, political campaigns, and voter attitudes.

“Big Data Insights for Political Campaigns and Elections”

Monday, February 15th | 7 p.m.
Location: Beam Classroom, VAC
Open to the public
Sponsored by the Bowdoin Departments of Government and Digital and Computational Studies

Political campaigns are now using big data to get information on voters’ attitudes and behaviors. Big data can be used to microtarget voters before elections and help campaign fundraising as well as influence other areas of elections. Professor Gimpel’s research focuses on political behavior, campaigns and elections, public opinion and immigration politics and policy. Interested students can also have dinner with Professor Gimpel at 5:30 in Thorne before the lecture.

Undergraduate Network for Research in the Humanities

The Undergraduate Network for Research in the Humanities is a student-created and student-run conference. A group of undergraduates had attended other Digital Humanities conferences in the past, but felt as though those conferences did not give students enough time to discuss research projects, methods, and tools directly with one another. As a result, the Undergraduate Network for Research in the Humanities was created to give students the space to present research projects to one another and to encourage future collaboration between the participants. Participants have the chance to bring what they discussed at the conference back to their respective colleges in order to contribute to the growth of digital humanities.

This past November, I was selected to attend the inaugural conference along with one other Bowdoin student at Davidson College in North Carolina. The first session was titled “Speed Dating” and all the attendees had two minutes to share key findings from their research and explain the digital and computational tools used in their project. I was excited but also surprised to learn about the breadth of research possibilities across many different institutions (each college’s digital humanities program seems to be run somewhat differently, although there are certainly discernible overlaps). The range of projects included digitizing an ancient tomb, studying ethnography through digital sound, and creating an interactive timeline of the Earl of Essex. Since the field is still so new and is only going to continue to grow, attendees were able to build on the knowledge of other students by sharing diverse research projects that employed a wide range of digital and computational tools.

I was able to present the research that I had worked on with Professor Hall this summer as one of the six longer presentations. The project is titled, “What Could Joshua Chamberlain See at Gettysburg?” and explores the relationship between present and historical narratives using computational tools such as Gephi and arcGIS.

Later in the conference, Keynote Whitney Trettien gave a talk titled Off the Books: Digital Futures. She discussed her own path through the field of digital humanities, and it was extremely informative to see where our work in this field could lead after graduation. She also emphasized her desire to balance physical books and digital ones throughout her work.

The conference served as an ideal starting point to collaborate with other students and learn more about digital humanities that I could then apply at Bowdoin. At the end, there was a design thinking session titled “How might we re imagine the undergraduate humanities research model in the digital age?”, which encouraged everyone to think about what research could look like going forward. The attendees are still in communication with one another and I think there is a great possibility for future undergraduate collaborations in the digital humanities.

DCSI Event on Campus

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This week, there will be a Digital and Computational Studies Workshop.

Digital and Computational Studies Workshop

Tuesday, November 10th | 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Location: Room 304 (North), VAC
Open to the Bowdoin Community
Sponsored by the Digital and Computational Studies Initiative

This Digital and Computational Studies Workshop is open to both students and faculty. Discover how social network analysis can answer questions in the social sciences, humanities, and sciences. The workshop will focus on the 2016 Election. Participants will learn about campaign finance networks and basic network analysis concepts. People can also work on their own network data.


Digital and Computational Toolbox: Gephi

Gephi is an interactive visualization platform. It forms network connections based on the relationship of data inputs. Gephi is open-source, which means that anyone can access it and users can also help improve the Gephi’s design and functionality. Gephi can generate data visualizations for different kinds of networks, graphs, and complex systems. Gephi enables you to create visual representations of data that could uncover hidden network connections. Users can then understand the intricacies and underlying trends in graphs. The two basic elements of Gephi visualizations are nodes (essentially a data point) and edges (connection between two or more nodes).

Gephi is already being used in DCS classes and projects at Bowdoin. This fall, students in Introduction to Digital and Computational Studies (INTD 1100) used Gephi to visualize Joshua Chamberlain’s correspondence network. The visualizations below represent Chamberlain’s overall correspondence during the Civil War. Students visited Bowdoin’s Special Collections and Archives to see the original Chamberlain letters and then created data visualizations in Gephi.

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Further Reading: Visualizations and Historical Arguments by John Theibault.