August 14, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 20

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    Project Bamboo members work toward understanding technology’s role in scholarship of humanists

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    Computers are crucial to the work of scientists, engineers and economists, but it’s not so obvious what their role should be in the humanities.

    How would computer technologies help a cinema historian analyze camera angles? Should scholars be rewarded as much for a digital publication as a print monograph? And who should support the technology needs of humanities scholars—IT experts, the library or a special team dedicated to the specific needs of humanists?

    A sweeping inquiry is under way to examine a range of questions about how humanists, from literary scholars to art historians to musicologists, are influenced by new technologies. The University is co-leading Project Bamboo, an 18-month, $1.3 million investigation funded by the Mellon Foundation. The scope and size of the project is unprecedented, with the University and University of California, Berkeley, leading more than 100 participating institutions—from research universities and national libraries, to community colleges, museums, consortia and small liberal arts colleges.

    Participants also are uniquely diverse—from scholars and technologists, to librarians and representatives of the academic press.

    “From what we’ve learned thus far, no one has ever brought together such a diverse range of players in this conversation,” said Chad Kainz, Senior Director of NSIT’s Academic Technologies unit, and one of the project’s program directors. Kainz attributes the interest in Bamboo, from such a wide range of sources, to the fact that collaborative, Web-based technologies has become mainstream. “All of these groups,” Kainz said, “are more comfortable using shared technology resources, whether it’s blogs, wikis, Google maps or Twitter. Bamboo aims to explore similar ideas and approaches to better support research and scholarship.”

    Greg Jackson, Vice President and Chief Information Officer, and Janet Broughton, dean of arts and humanities and professor of philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, are co-principal investigators of the project.

    Ten members of the University staff are actively participating in Project Bamboo, said Kainz, including Arno Bosse, Senior Director for Technology in the Humanities Division; James Chandler, the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Professor of English Language & Literature and the College; Ian Foster, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in Computer Science; Judith Nadler, Director of the Library; and Martha Roth, Dean of the Division of the Humanities.

    Project Bamboo will go through four distinct stages during its 18 months. The first is a series of four workshops titled, “Understanding Arts and Humanities Scholarship,” and is aimed at discovering the community’s needs and developing a road map for technology service. During workshops held in Berkeley, Chicago, Princeton and Paris, organizers asked broad, pie-in-the-sky questions about the potential role of technology in the arts, humanities and interpretive social sciences.

    Subsequent stages of the program will move toward identifying specifics. The second workshop will focus on “Exploring Scholarly Practices,” while the third will narrow the focus to “Selecting Services and Defining Partnership.” Project Bamboo will conclude after a final workshop in the spring of 2009 with a detailed blueprint for the implementation of the project.

    Over the course of Project Bamboo, Kainz said, prototypes of models and demonstrator software will be created, based on ideas discussed during the workshops. The aim is to better illustrate concepts before finalizing plans for their implementation after the completion of the planning stage.

    The first series of workshops already has yielded some important findings.

    Kainz said it became clear that the community wanted to expand the conversation beyond technology. “Many of the participants had more fundamental questions about social networking, building communities and the way digital scholarship would be valued. For instance, they wondered how digital scholarship should fit into the tenure process. Should scholars be rewarded as much for a significant digital contribution as a monograph? There was interest in discussing very fundamental questions. This is a planning grant, so we wanted to listen to the community and go where they wanted to go.”

    Bosse said the first round of workshops proved valuable, in part, because of the discovery of unexpected, common methodologies among researchers in different disciplines.

    At one of the workshops, Bosse talked with a computer science professor, who pointed out that the statistical methods underlying pattern recognition algorithms used in astronomy could be applied to image analysis in cinema studies or art history. “That’s the benefit of bringing together groups that institutionally often don’t talk to each other. You learn that art history and astronomy have a lot to learn from each other.”

    Another collateral benefit of the first workshops, Bosse and Kainz said, is that it gave participants a chance to learn about different institutional models for supporting humanities scholarship.

    Some institutions have specific institutes that scholars seek out for technological support or software development. At other institutions, the central IT unit is the source for technology support for humanities scholars. At the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, humanities scholarship support is an extension of its library special collection services.

    “There’s no right or no wrong way,” said Kainz. “It’s just different approaches. All are valid. It’s part of our learning process.”

    The Humanities Division’s approach to supporting its faculty was of great interest to participants from other institutions, Bosse said.

    “A close engagement with the research methodologies and teaching practices employed by our faculty is woven deeply into what we do in Humanities computing and informs our decisions on the types of services we provide,” Bosse said. “It’s something we take for granted here. But it’s pretty unique, and it’s rewarding to share our model with others.”

    “I’m really excited,” Kainz said of Project Bamboo. “Our goal is to try to maintain the enthusiasm without diluting our original goals.”