Summer Research Spotlight: Mapping the Literary Railway
Digital Humanities is a cutting-edge field that is reshaping the relationship between the learner and the text by bringing interactive and three-dimensional qualities to literature and the arts. “Essentially, it is the integration of digital technology with humanities studies. For intellectual discourse – as opposed to writing an essay or writing a book – you would create digital media,” explained Lenny Enkhbold ’17.
Enkhbold and fellow junior Lizzy Stanton spent their summer contributing to this growing discipline. Working with German Professor Paul Youngman, who has been one of the leaders of Digital Humanities studies on W&L campus, the students used web applications to map the railways portrayed in 19th-century German Realist literature.
Realist authors often included detailed information on characters’ rail travels, such as dates, and departure and arrival times. “The authors would attempt to recreate the rhythmic and orderly nature of everyday life, particularly by focusing on the development of science and technology — like the train,” Enkhbold said. “Realists concerned themselves with truth — not unlike Enlightenment authors,” he added. “But while Enlightenment authors focused on the aesthetic ideals of truth, the Realists were concerned with the everyday physical objects.”
To research the Realist movement, Enkhbold and Stanton read German literature (in German) and used web applications to track where in the novel the authors provided specific information about rail travel. “As characters embark on railway journeys, we mark every single time it is mentioned, and we put it on the digital map,” Enkhbold said. “In order to map this, we look at the description of the cities, and we read scholarly articles that argue that the details of a fictional city match the ones of an actual city.”
The mapping website allows the user to choose an interactive experience. With Neatline, Enkhbold and Stanton plotted the places the characters visited and linked those points to chronicle the character’s travels throughout the novel. At each point on the digital map, there are contemporary photos, arrival and departure times, tickets, as well as the German text with an English translation. With this application, the user is able to control the experience by accessing whatever content desired.
StoryMap JS, however, consists of plotted points. In this application, the experience is more narrative and linear in fashion. In this context, the user views the information in a pre-set order established by Stanton and Enkhbold.
“The over-reaching goal of this project is to map the literary railway of Europe in order to highlight cultural centers that we may not have otherwise realized,” said Stanton.
Both Enkhbold and Stanton are members of the Outing Club and involved in the German club, of which Enkhbold serves as co-president. Stanton is captain of the track and field team, and Enkhbold competes on the club rugby team and is treasurer for his fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta.
For Stanton, it was the opportunity to improve her German skills as well as to work with one her favorite teachers that drew her to this research. “Professor Youngman takes work very seriously and expects top-quality work from his students, but he also makes it enjoyable by promoting an informal work atmosphere,” she said. “He’s not afraid to ask questions when he doesn’t understand something, which makes it easy for his students to approach him when they have questions.”
Enkhbold is a computer science and German major, and so Digital Humanities was a perfect intersection of his two interests. “This project seemed tailored for me,” he said.
As part of their summer research experience, Stanton and Enkhbold joined Youngman at the Institute for Liberal Arts Digital Scholarship (ILiADS) workshop at Hamilton College. While there, they joined together with other undergraduates to form the Undergraduate Network for Research in the Humanities (UNRH). This November, Stanton and Enkhbold will co-host the network’s first undergraduate research symposium at Davidson College, putting them on the map as early developers in this new field.
“It’s interesting working in a new field, as there are not many institutions or organizations in place for the Digital Humanities,” said Stanton. “It’s also interesting being at the intersection of myth and technology. Typically, humanities scholars have shied away from using technology, but using the new tools available to us could help us gain new insights into works that have been studied for ages.”