Over the past twelve months, I participated in the Cultural Heritage Informatics (CHI) Graduate Fellowship through MATRIX at Michigan State University. The goal of the program in to increase scholarship in the digital humanities and for each fellow to create a product or project by the end. There were five fellows: three wanted to create digital repositories for their dissertation materials and the other a tool using Twitter’s API. I fell closer in with the former, wanting to digitize methods commonly applied in my discipline.
Among the scholars in this group (a historian, a medical anthropologist, an archaeologist, a digital rhetorician, and me, a forensic anthropologist), forensic anthropology is the “hardest” or most “applied” science, though it is still housed in the College of Social Sciences at MSU. The idea behind the methods of biological profiling is to eliminate most of the interpretation that is the foundation of some other social sciences. Biological profiling is the estimation of age, sex, ancestry, and stature from human skeletal remains, usually in an effort to narrow down the search for a match to unidentified remains.
My colleagues are a very pad-and-pencil group. Some particularly well-funded labs have begun to explore the scientific potential of 3-dimensional scanners and other high-tech tools. For those of us who use the algebraic calculations or morphoscopic (visible to the naked eye) traits developed 40+ years ago, there’s no reason not to go digital, too. The older methods have been tested and shown to be reliable and often revised to increase or quantify their accuracy. They are solid, accurate, federally-admissible-as-evidence methods, and I don’t want to leave them behind just because I think a smartphone can help guide data collection.
For the first time, I was surrounded by people who were hooked in to podcasts, blogs, Twitter and who had personal websites. The immediate benefits of learning about programming and the interwebs are obvious to me. I feel more capable of learning new digital things, including Photoshop and R Statistical Package, which were both thrown at me this summer. I’m holding out hope for long-term (read: getting a job) benefits as well. Special thanks and shout-outs to @adventuresnarch, @zenparty, @galarzaalex, @fayanar, and @captain_primate for being comrades in arms through this enterprise.