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Center forDigital Humanities

The Early History of Digital Humanities at USC

The Center for Digital Humanities at USC was founded in 2010, but the need for an interdisciplinary approach to the humanities and computing has existed for over 40 years. At USC almost 30 years ago, two visionary scholars—David Chesnutt and Robert Oakman—sought to apply new technology to the study of literature and history, and to bridge the gap between scientists and humanists.


Dr. Robert Lee Oakman (1941 - )

Robert Lee Oakman, III received his B.A. in mathematics from the University of Mississippi in 1963, an M.A. in numerical analysis from the University of Wisconsin, and both an M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature from Indiana University in 1971. Oakman began teaching at USC in 1986, where he served as a professor in Computer Science and Engineering until he retired in 2001 as well as an adjunct professor in English. During his time at USC, Oakman was the coordinator for an undergraduate computer literacy course designed to teach basic flowcharting and programming and to make computing relevant for all majors; the class attracted over 10,000 students in ten years. In Computer Methods for Literary Research (1980), one of the first overviews of literary and linguistic computing, Oakman writes, “Too often there is a communications gap between these two cultures of letters and science on opposite sides of the campus.” His goal was to bridge that gap.

Oakman was a Fullbright Scholar in September 1988-July 1989, which allowed him to spend ten months teaching and doing research in Computer Science at the University of Bamberg in Germany. He developed URICA!, a textual editing package, with Robert Cannon of the department of Computer Science and Engineering at USC in 1990. Along with Rita L. Childress of the Computer Science department at USC, Oakman created QUIP (Query Understanding in Prolog), a prototype for a system which can parse written English, including disjunctions, negations, quantified statements, and questions. He worked with Carolyn B. Matalene and Robert L. Cannon at USC to develop the computer software LiveWriter, which allows the teacher of a writing class to view and edit students’ work as the student is composing it and hold conversations within the program. Furthermore, Oakman was involved in the development of MediaLink, which helps teachers and students create and use multimedia lessons. These two programs, LiveWriter and MediaLink, were later combined into a single software called Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) which included a sound system and could be used in foreign language acquisition. Oakman not only forwarded humanities computing but included it in his own research, using computers to perform collation and stylistic analysis in literature, most notably in his work Syntax in the Prose Style of Thomas Carlyle: a Quantitative, Linguistic Analysis.

Digital scholarship about Carlyle continues at USC to this day, in the form of both our project The Carlyle Letters Online and individual scholarship.

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