Rice’s Humanities Research Center to take spatial humanities to the next level on campus

In recent years, American historians, literary theorists, archaeologists and other scholars have found a new way to re-examine such real and fictional places as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s view during the battle of Gettysburg or the villages around Salem, Mass., at the time of the witch trials using geographic information systems (GIS). Supported by a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Rice’s Humanities Research Center over the next 3 1/2 years will lead an initiative to expand this emerging field, called spatial humanities, on campus.

Melissa Bailar and Farès el-Dahdah

Spatial humanities is an interdisciplinary endeavor that relies upon powerful geospatial technologies and methods — think advanced versions of Google Earth, MapQuest and popular GPS systems — to explore novel questions about the relationship of space to human behavior and social, economic, political and cultural development by modeling and mapping historic sites and events.

“History, literature, etc., tends to be interested in time.,” said Farès el-Dahdah, center director and a professor of humanities. He is leading the Spatial Humanities Initiative together with Melissa Bailar, center associate director and a professor in the practice of humanities. “To introduce the factor of space only widens the field of research … criticism and theory. What this proposal means by space is actually quite specific. It is literally digital cartography … and procedural modeling at the service of the humanities.”

Rice Provost Marie Lynn Miranda, a leader in the evolving field of geospatial health informatics, assisted in securing the grant through a presentation she gave to the Mellon Foundation.

El-Dahdah and Bailar said their goal is to incubate a multidisciplinary and broadly humanistic collaboration among interested faculty and students. “We hope to support existing projects that are at various stages of development, but also serve as a resource and focal point for faculty who are interested in beginning new projects but don’t know quite where to start … and introduce them to the potential … by showing them some of the more advanced projects,” Bailar said.

To move the initiative forward, the Humanities Research Center is spearheading 10 interconnected activities, all meant to act as bridges across disciplines and schools: studio environments in the School of Humanities; one-week boot camps to teach humanities faculty and doctoral students how to map and model spatial, vector and raster data (the first camp is scheduled for May); funds for faculty to develop spatial humanities research projects; travel fellowships to visit sites; project management fellowships for graduating doctoral students; an annual showcase and meetup event; postdoctoral fellowships; undergraduate practica; a visiting scholars program; and an annual lecture series. The center will also host a geospatial computer lab with a full-time GIS specialist-developer.

“As an initiative, it bridges the humanities, architecture, social science, computer science, Rice’s Data Initiative and Fondren Library (and its GIS/Data Center),” el-Dahdah said. “Many things interconnect around this initiative, which I guess was part of its appeal.”

El-Dahdah himself is recognized for his work in the spatial humanities. Together with Alida Metcalf, the Harris Masterson Jr. Professor of History and chair of the Department of History, he has developed the platform imagineRio, which is a searchable atlas that illustrates the social and urban evolution of Rio de Janeiro over the entire history of the city, as it existed and as it was often imagined.

“I’m very excited about this new initiative,” Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway said. “Inquiry into how people define and interact with the spaces we occupy, build and depend on can contribute a great deal to our understanding of what it means to be human.”

For more information about the Spatial Humanities Initiative at Rice and how to become involved, go to http://hrc.rice.edu/spatialhumanities.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.