When you think about literary theory, most people think about analyzing books, but now we have technological tools which let us look at general trends. -Shafat Rahman ’20
Major: Computer Science and Math
EH Courses taken: EN/ES 283: Environmental Humanities: Stories of Crisis and Resilience
How have you been involved with Environmental Humanities at Colby?
I’ve been working with Chris Walker on the Climate Futures project, and have been doing that since this summer. We are building a database of passages from mostly climate fiction novels. We’ve designed a bunch of categories of different forms of climate change, physical change and how climate change affects people. We are categorizing passages under those categories. The idea is that, if you are trying to figure out how climate change in Maine is talked about in different Climate Fiction novels, you can go onto our database and do a simple search to find how different authors are talking about climate change in Maine. I am helping with reading the books and sorting out the passages, and in the long run, I will be doing some technical stuff for the project, in the short term making it something that is presentable.
Do you plan on including environmental humanities in your future studies?
Digital humanities is an idea that I am seriously considering. I’ve looked at digital humanities projects and it looks very interesting to me. A lot of the projects I was impressed by were representing data. When you think of scientific data, it is, for example, how many mice died as a result of a certain chemical being used on them? If you think about our project, you can ask how many climate fiction novels have been written that talk about flooding, that talk about desertification? How many climate fiction novels are by authors in different parts of the world? Are people in the US talking more about climate change in their novels, or are people in Africa talking more about climate change in their novels? Questions like those. Those are really interesting insights in literary theory. When you think about literature and literary theory, most people think about reading books and analyzing books, but now we have these technological tools which let us look at general trends.
We even read a book by Franco Moretti, “Maps, Graphs and Trees.” He was talking about general trends in literary history. In order to find those overall trends, a lot of the the things I learned in computer science come into play. You can visualize a lot of those data, and it doesn’t have to be scientific data, like how many mice died. In order to do that, I can use my skills for that, and that’s what I’m interested in. I digressed, but your question was whether I want to do that in the future. Yes, definitely. This is a field that I am very interested in.
Was there a shift that made you interested in EH or were you always interested in humanities as well as computer science and math?
I was always interested in the humanities but then when I took the environmental humanities class, I got especially interested because Chris is a great professor. I really enjoyed the class itself, and then when he talked to me about the project I was very interested about the project. But I would say that the EH class was a key turning point. Especially because a lot of the novels we were reading were so different from the novels I’ve read before. Most of the novels were talking about a side of human beings that a lot of novels I’ve read before would not talk about. The general theme I felt was that, at the end of the day, human beings are biological beings, they are animals who are trying to survive in this ecosystem on earth, and they will do anything to survive. Stuff like cannibalism, people killing people, people doing damage to the earth. If you think about it I think the reason they’re doing it is their will to survive. The novels were suggesting that when humans are exposed to extreme situations those instincts show up. In normal everyday life we’re still trying to survive by working and going to school and stuff, but when it boils down to a survival instinct you really understand why humans are damaging the environment.
So they’re suggesting that people are more concerned with survival on an individual scale rather than as a species?
That’s interesting too. Some damage to the climate is happening because human beings want to survive as a species. For me what was striking was that you really realize that this is why someone’s doing something: because at the end of the day, everyone wants to survive.
Through digital humanities are you seeing these different interests of yours coming together?
Yes, if you talk about computer science, there are a lot of applications for it in digital humanities. One of the things I’m interested in in computer science is computer vision, so you take pictures and make the computer learn to understand those pictures. So if I take a picture of you, and give it enough pictures of you, it would be able to recognize other pictures as you. We are starting to use computer vision in our project. When we select passages we select them and say this should fall under this category, and then you have to type it out because we have to transfer it to digital. My suggestion was that we could take a picture and the computer could do it for you. Typing it out doesn’t take a lot of time for each passage. You might need two minutes to type one passage, but when there are 50 passages in a book, that’s 100 minutes per person. There are four people on the project right now, so that’s 400 minutes. That’s a long time. So small things like those we’re looking at.
Also we have to design the database and user interface that will give our users a good experience, which is something I’m looking forward to designing. You can ask Google anything and it will give you results, You can phrase it any way and google will give you the same results. With the database the problem is our language is such that you can express the same things in different ways and still have to get the same results. For our database when we’re building it we have to expect what the users might say and be able to account for different kinds of phrasing. That’s interesting.
There’s a lot of other interesting stuff. Something in the very long run, and I don’t know if this will be possible, is once we have enough passages – at least 300 different passages and categories- we can start identifying passages automatically by training the computer. This is a very wild goal. This is something I would really really like to get out of the project.