April 9, 2015
In a world where science and technology advance at record-breaking paces, so too must we ensure that studies in the humanities progress and obtain firm grounding. While science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines can answer the “what” and “how” of our society, the humanities offer insights to answering the “why” as well as communicating it well to others. The humanities and sciences must therefore work together in order to offer solutions to the pressing problems of our time to create meaningful change.
To answer this need, the Institute for Humanities Research at Arizona State University (IHR) established the Nexus Lab. The Nexus Lab integrates the common interest of computation and data analysis as a means to connect the humanities with STEM disciplines.
Created in November 2013, the Nexus Lab leads digital humanities research projects at ASU by fostering transdisciplinary partnerships between departments, schools, and colleges to explore complex research questions in which the humanities can play a critical role. LightWorks has worked closely with the Nexus Lab to help cultivate skills and interest on the link between humanities and energy research and development. Jacqueline Hettel, assistant director of the Nexus Lab, gave us further insight about the mission and future goals of the lab in an interview which begins below.
Interview with Jacqueline Hettel:
How would you define the digital humanities? How does it differ from traditional humanities?
There is no one definition for it. At the heart of digital humanities, it’s about taking the best parts of the humanities, such as the ability to ask big “why?” type questions, and finding ways to apply it to different disciplines. The digital humanities can be thought of as “humanities applied” that is, a community of practice centered on a circuit exchange between disciplines by combining the use of computational methods to investigate problems and create opportunities for answering large cultural questions. It is not to say that the digital humanities turns the human perspective into numbers, but rather it leverages numerical approaches to make complex humanistic issues a bit more concreate and contractible to modeling. We make these complex questions a bit easier to understand.
How can the digital humanities help us think through and address complex problems like energy development, policy, efficiency, etc.?
It gives us a bigger tool box to work with. In my own work, I use methods of quantitative and qualitative research to help answer questions about culture within energy organizations to get back to that human element. I am interested in the stories that people tell or discuss within organizations to go about making energy, changing energy policy, or acting on behalf of their community to advocate for what they think regarding to energy issues. The Nexus Lab plans to work closely with LightWorks to continue building this research capacity.
How does your work in the digital humanities connect with energy research and development?
By using publically available documents from the regulated nuclear power industry, I created a corpus of over 9 million words for my dissertation at The University of Georgia. I was interested in what were the most salient and significant things that the nuclear power industry was communicating. I used frequency analysis with statistical analysis to find 20 key terms that were being used. I found that there was an interesting dynamic between how the public, regulation, and corporations communicated these key terms about the nuclear power industry. Even though there was a shared meaning with regard to the key terms, the communication and use of these terms varied greatly between group membership and geography. By investigating energy and digital humanities research together in corpus and social linguistics, I was able to see how language functions when communicating the trends that concern the nuclear power sector.
Currently, I am Assistant Editor of the Linguistic Atlas Projects which holds a linguistic archive of audio recordings since the 1950s. This archive is filled with narratives of people and their interaction with the environment. I am researching recordings that share personal stories relating to energy in terms of policy influence, conservation, and other ideas. For example, I am looking at people from rural areas of the United States and analyzing their narratives of personal experience with energy—like experimenting with biofuel—from a historical perspective. It’s data that you wouldn’t expect from the energy arena because it’s getting at how people construct their notions, meanings, and interactions with energy. Using digital and computational tools is a way to extend qualitative data found by listening through these archives. In all, intersecting the digital humanities with energy research is a way to critically think about energy and human interaction with the environment.
How can these projects tell us more about the research ASU strives to produce?
Our goal is to extend the research capacity of the humanities and help to make it more impactful than it already is. The Nexus Lab tries to create impactful projects by applying it in situations where they haven’t been applied before. By sticking to our principle of being a thought leader and shared aspirations of the New American University, we are trying to show how the digital humanities can be used to inspire research that has application in a real world setting so we can have a positive impact in our own community.
What is next for the Nexus Lab? What are you looking forward to?
We have had a lot of growth and successes in the last seven months and we plan to continue with that. We are really looking forward to furthering collaboration and opportunities for connecting energy and the humanities research and discovery. We are also going to be more focused on building external partnerships to find opportunities on how we can help answer difficult problems that exist within organizations. We also aim to create more opportunities to get ASU faculty, staff, and students more involved with the digital humanities and the Nexus Lab.
Are there any opportunities for ASU students, staff, or faculty to get involved with the Nexus Lab in the upcoming future?
We will have upcoming workshops which are always open to anyone interested in participating. We want to hear ideas on how the digital humanities and energy can intersect and we want to get more people interested and involved. If ASU students, staff, or faculty want to work on a project integrating the digital humanities or simply hear more about we do, all they have to do is drop by or contact us.
Conclusion of interview.
In the past year, Sydney Lines, LightWorks’ communication program coordinator, has worked with the Nexus Lab on the Developing Wassaja project which aims to empower faculty, staff, and students to develop sustainable web applications for impactful ASU research. LightWorks firmly believes that engaging the full range of social and humanistic sciences is integral to our goal towards an energy system change. By leveraging the tools and expertise available at the Nexus Lab, LightWorks is able to collaborate with researchers who are also interested in “grand challenge” topics by integrating humanities engagement with computation as a common ground. For more information or to schedule a meeting to the Nexus Lab, please visit their website here.
Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks
Photos retrieved from the Nexus Lab website