English Ph.D. Student Explores Digital Potential in Humanities Research

Author: Aaron Smith

Douglas Duhaime

Douglas Duhaime, Ph.D. student in Notre Dame’s Department of English, is busy expanding the possibilities of humanities research in the digital realm. Very busy.

While embarking upon a dissertation project that will use computational models to improve our understanding of early modern book culture, Duhaime has also taken a position with ProQuest, a global information content and technology company, to develop a text and data mining service for researchers.

“My interest in the digital humanities springs from my interest in innovative and efficient research,” Duhaime said. “For many years, humanists advanced arguments based on the available evidence base, which was limited by the amount of data a given researcher could assemble and study within a given period of time.

“The proliferation of digitized corpora, powerful computing systems, and pioneering methods in natural language processing make it possible to ask questions today that we could never have asked even 50 years ago. By automating aspects of this process, humanists can now study much more representative data sets and advance our understanding of past and present cultures.”

Duhaime’s dissertation—under the direction of Assistant Professor Matthew Wilkens—will use automated methods to explore how dramatic changes in the early modern period affected authors, printers, and readers.

“It was an exciting time, as it saw the proliferation of printing presses, tense battles over censorship, and the rise of copyright, all set against a backdrop of revolutionary wars and expanding capitalist markets,” Duhaime said.

Different chapters will study the role that copyright played in the early modern book market, patterns and trends in early novels and period poems, and the proliferation of plagiarism that arose alongside the cult of the individual.

At ProQuest, Duhaime will serve as product manager for the Text and Data Mining Platform, which will allow humanities researchers to run sophisticated algorithms against large historical corpora in a fast and user-friendly environment.

“In some ways, ProQuest has made it easier to complete my dissertation, as my position has allowed me to obtain data sets that would have been very difficult to collect,” Duhaime said. “That said, time has become my most scarce resource, and I must now allocate that resource judiciously.”

Calling his experiences at Notre Dame “fundamentally transformative,” Duhaime credits a number of faculty across the University for inspiring him to become a better researcher.

“[John and Barbara Glynn Family Professor of Literature] Margaret Doody enchanted me with early modern mysteries, and Matthew Wilkens showed me exciting new ways to study those mysteries,” he said. “[Mary Lee Duda Professor of Literature] John Sitter heightened my sensitivity to the power of language, and [Professor of English] Chris Fox showed me the joys of historical study.”

Duhaime said “a chance remark” by Laura Fuderer, subject librarian for English and French literatures, led him to realize that the programming language Perl could be used for literary research, and early conversations with Eric Lease Morgan in Hesburgh Library’s Center for Digital Scholarship showed him the power of text mining.

“Since then, David Chiang, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, has led me to pursue many of the finer points of natural language processing, and coursework in the History and Philosophy of Science Program has prompted me with fundamental questions on the relationship between facts and values,” he said.

“Without these experiences and these teachers, I would not have asked the questions that have brought me to where I am today.”

Originally published by Aaron Smith at al.nd.edu on April 17, 2015.