Price Lab shows Penn’s increased focus on digital humanities

Four years ago, Penn launched a pilot initiative called the Digital Humanities Forum to generate interest in and buzz about new computational methods of humanities research on campus. The initiative has been a success, resulting in a $7 million gift from Michael and Vikki Price to endow and launch the Price Lab for Digital Humanities.

“With the founding of the Price Lab, digital humanities at Penn is now a much expanded enterprise,” says James English, the John Welsh Centennial Professor of English in the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) and founding director of the Price Lab. “Because the humanities are already entangled with various digital media and tools—everybody uses Google, for example—it can be difficult to extract the ‘digital humanities’ from the ‘humanities.’ But that is less a problem than an opportunity; we want the limits of digital humanities to be as fluid as possible.”

In addition to the gift from the Prices, a $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to SAS is helping Penn create its official Digital Humanities program. It is enabling the University to hire technical specialists, fund several graduate students, and run a weekly seminar series, with activities now underway.

That funding also supports faculty research. The Price Lab just announced its 2016 fellows, a group of 10 that includes, among others, urban design and regional planning faculty, an anthropologist, and several researchers from the Penn Museum. Rolf Noyer, an associate professor of linguistics, received funding in 2015 for three years.

Noyer studies historical linguistics, or how languages change over time. As he prepared for a freshman seminar he was teaching about Indo-European languages, he says he realized that to study such topics requires massive amounts of data typically inaccessible to undergraduates. From that seed blossomed PLEDS, the Penn Linguistics/Price Lab Etymological Database System.

“There is a lot of material online, but it’s not really organized in a way that’s useful for linguists. It’s in a lot of different places,” Noyer says. “I wanted to create a kind of clearinghouse.” So far the database has 160,000 searchable entries; it’s not yet live, but once it is ready, it will offer users the roots of words, similar words in other languages, and links to more information.

“It won’t be like looking at one dictionary,” Noyer says. “It will be like looking at 100 dictionaries at once and having them all immediately at your fingertips.”

English says such projects get to the heart of the University’s heightened focus on digital humanities. He says the Price Lab is also working to provide “digital makeovers” of several current Penn courses, and to design an introductory programming course for non-STEM majors co-taught by a computer scientist and a humanities professor.

In the summer of 2017, the Price Lab, now housed in the Penn Museum, will also physically move into a wing of Williams Hall.

Price Lab Digital Humanities