From her newly renovated office, Associate Professor in the Digital Humanities Crystal Hall has a vantage point over the entire campus. The Visual Arts Center’s former third floor studio has taken on an updated role as the home of Bowdoin’s newest academic program.

Hall is the co-director of Bowdoin’s Digital and Computational Studies (DCS) program. Now in its third academic year, this interdisciplinary initiative allows students to merge digital technology with the humanities. So far, this work has included studying space and social networks as they’re represented in literature and plays and merging these ideas with digital technology and computer science.

“These ideas have since blossomed into a series of courses that are asking those questions. So I’ve been involved with design and teaching and I’ve been consulting with faculty who are interested in doing the same thing,” said Hall. “Program development, activities and extracurricular—a little bit of everything.”

Originally from Oakland, Maine, Hall came to Bowdoin three years ago after studying at Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania and spending time teaching and researching in Italy.

“My field of research is Galileo. I honestly don’t want to spend the rest of my life reading all of the books that Galileo may or may not have read,” said Hall. “But I would like a better understanding of what those books can tell us about libraries as artifacts, about Galileo’s intellectual development, about the ways that provocative thinkers work with established culture.”

So far, students have worked on analyzing stump speeches, studying Twitter data as text, exploring representations of urban space in literature compared to actual maps and surveying the history of diabetes in medical literature.

Hall views DCS as an important branch of the liberal arts curriculum in the 21st century. In her introductory class, she gave students a reading that considers the intersection of the programming language XML with philosophy, which was well-received by the class.

“This is why I’m here—because XML is worthy of Derrida, and we should be deconstructing XML to see what results,” Hall said. “XML should be pushing back and seeing where it might resist Derrida, where it resists Kant. That’s what we’re doing. This is the liberal arts.”

Sabina Hartnett ’18 worked with Hall this summer, investigating how social media and technology change our conception of identity, both of ourselves and of mass groups. She used a technique called “Twitter scraping,” which allowed her to study social media information as literature.

“The Twitter scraping was really cool. That was probably my favorite work to do,” said Hartnett. “Basically, you can run a code on all public tweets, and it’ll bring back anything that you search for. Another student was studying Black Lives Matter, and you can see words that come up in conjunction with one another frequently in the tweets. Time frequencies, geotags. It’s really cool stuff.”

One of the strengths of the digital humanities program is its open-ended and interdisciplinary nature. Students from any academic field can find ways to explore seemingly unrelated intersections between traditional study and digital technology.

“Every discipline is using text, but the questions that they’re asking about it are different,” Hall said. “If we start taking those objects as our thing in common, we get all these different perspectives, and we all learn something.”

 Outside the digital world, Hall likes to engage in more tangible hobbies.

“I’m a car buff. I’m restoring a ’34 Dodge pickup truck with my dad as a hot rod,” said Hall. “It’s a great way to get out of the life of the mind and build something, craft something and see it come to life.”

Hartnett recalled an impromptu lesson Hall gave in tire replacement over the summer, after another summer researcher had an unfortunate incident on the highway.

“When I heard about this tire experience, I was like, ‘Come to the house!’ and I taught them how to change a tire. It’s something I never really thought I’d be teaching students how to do,” Hall said.

Over the next few years, Hall plans to expand the course offerings and resources of DCS and continue to explore new applications of digital technology in the humanities. Although she doesn’t know exactly where the program will be in five years, both Hall and the whole DCS faculty of contributing professors are excited about the opportunity to grow.

Hartnett is equally excited about Bowdoin’s new approach to the humanities under Professor Hall.

“Scholars have been interpreting humanities in the same ways for so long, and this is just such a new perspective on it. It’s really cool,” said Hartnett.

Although some may doubt the practical value of a liberal arts education in today’s society, Hall is confident that DCS prepares students for the outside world as critical and creative thinkers.
“If we were just teaching the skills, you might be able to get a job as soon as you graduate, but you wouldn’t be able to keep that job,” she said. “You need to be able to read what’s going on outside. See trends. See change. Be adaptive. Be critical. Be creative.”