Topics in Digital Humanities

Course Details

REL 3986 / DIV 3986 (Spring 2014)


  • Clifford Anderson is Director for Scholarly Communications in the Vanderbilt University Library. He holds a M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a Th.M. and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the project director of the NEH funded XQuery Summer Institute.

  • David Michelson is Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity and an affiliate Assistant Professor of Classics. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University and is currently the director of an NEH funded digital humanities project for the study of Syriac:

Time & Location

Credit Hours

  • Three


The course provides an introduction to the theory and methods of the digital humanities with particular attention to the disciplinary perspectives of history and religious studies. This course is designed for graduate students of history, religion, literature, historical theology or classics who would like to acquire research skills in the techniques of digital text editing and analysis. Students will learn the fundamentals of digital text editing and the computational analysis of digital corpora. Students will engage with theoretical questions concerning the nature of texts and the challenges of representing the past through new media. By the conclusion of the course, students will have crafted a future research plan specific to their for digital editing and/or analysis needs.


The application of new media and information technology to interpretive questions in the humanities holds significant promise for future research in the historical study of religion. Although the field of “digital humanities” is perhaps not well known within the discipline of religious studies, historians of religion can boast of a prominent role in its development. For example, Fr. Roberto Busa (1913-2011) is widely considered to be a founder of “humanities computing” in the United States through his pioneering work to encode the Index Thomisticus using IBM punch cards over a period of two decades (from the 1940-60s). Since Busa’s time, a large variety of digital corpora have been created which are of interest for the historical study of religion. These collections range from vast electronic corpus of ancient literature and comparative editions of medieval and early modern manuscripts to the collected works of twentieth-century authors.

The creation of these digital collections of texts bring with them a variety of accompanying questions worthy of scholarly reflection. How does access to such digital corpora alter existing patterns of scholarly research? What impact will “distant reading” (Franco Moretti) of electronic corpora have on the study of history and religion? What assumptions are implicit in the encoding of texts? How can scholars effectively pursue lines of interest computationally across hundred, thousands or potentially millions of documents?

This course offers students an opportunity to directly reflect on these questions as they explore potential applications of digital technology to their research in history, religion, theology or classics. Specifically, this course will cover three broad themes. First, we will seek to introduce “digital humanities” and investigate the theoretical and methodological issues in applying technology to humanistic research, including identifying the limits and epistemological constraints of technology. Second, we will survey current digital humanities research with an aim to identifying emerging trends, successful models, design values, and potential pitfalls. Lastly, over the course, students will develop a specific plan for implementing a digital element into their own research. In preparation, students will have the opportunity to learn new technical skills and tools.

Student Learning Outcomes

  1. All students will acquire an introductory knowledge of the interdisciplinary field of digital humanities sufficient to engage current methodological questions, such as: What is the relationship between a "text" and "data"? What is the relation between close reading and “distant reading”? How is digital text editing transforming the practice of scholarly editing? How do statistical analysis and computational techniques supplement established modes of humanistic inquiry?
  2. All students will acquire a basic knowledge of Extensible Markup Language (XML) sufficient to interpret and analyze humanistic texts encoded in XML formats.
  3. As applicable, all students will become familiar with existing documentary XML datasets relevant to their specific research interests.
  4. All students will acquire a basic knowledge of the XQuery programming language sufficient for a theoretical understanding of how to analyze, transform, and query XML documents.
  5. Advanced students will acquire a working knowledge of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines or other scholarly XML schemata sufficient to author or encode documents in XML.
  6. Advanced students will acquire a working knowledge of the XQuery programming language sufficient to write their own expressions for manipulating data.

Program Objectives

The above Student Learning Outcomes are in support of one or more of the following program goals relevant to multiple degrees at Vanderbilt University:


No previous technical literacy is required; this course is open to all PhD students and to other advanced graduate students by permission of the instructors.

Required Materials

Students are required to bring a copy (digital or otherwise) of the readings listed in the "Readings" section of the relevant class sessions.

If they are able, students are encouraged to purchase individual copies of the following core texts:

All students will be also be required to have access to oXygen XML Editor, cross-platform software which can be purchased with an academic license. Students should NOT purchase this software until after a consultation with the instructors.


Students will be assisted in assessing their learning through completion of the following assignments:


The Vanderbilt Honor Code applies to all work in this course.

Final grades will be calculated along the following percentage scale:

Assignments will be graded using letter designations (described below) and then converted to the top range of the scale above (A=100 B+=89, etc.).

For the evaluation of your work, we will use our own remix of standards originally formulated by Princeton University:

Attendance & Participation

Attendance and active participation are essential parts of the course. Students who miss more than 4 class sessions without the instructors' permission will automatically fail the course.


All students are encouraged to meet with the instructors to discuss any needs related to the course! Students needing accommodation through the Disability Services Program (DSP) are encouraged to register with the EAD office (615-322-4705) first and then meet with the professors to arrange for accommodations.

Diversity, Humility, Respect

We hope that you will join us in finding one of the joys of this course to be the fact that we will consider a diverse array of approaches to understanding human culture. Both students and instructors will be encouraged to adopt a stance of intellectual humility and mutual respect as we engage with each other and the voices of those we study.