Joanna Guldi

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Joanna Guldi

Assistant Professor of History

Mike Cohea/Brown University
A generation ago, historians could spend a career doing word searches and textual studies of primary sources that now take a few minutes by computer. There should be no regrets about time spent doing that work, says Joanna Guldi. “They are the ones who taught us the important cultural questions to ask.”

In the late 18th century, the British government developed a network of roads that brought profound change to all levels, from social interactions of ordinary townspeople to the Royal Mail to the way regions and nations defined and pursued their self-interest.

“It was the net neutrality of the 18th century,” said Jo Guldi, assistant professor of history. “These were debates about who can use the road and who would pay for it. These are exactly the same state-and-infrastructure debates that we’re having now — who builds the Internet and who is allowed to use it. That’s going to be more and more important in the next 10 years.”

This isn’t a simple matter of simile or metaphor. The issues of roadways in 1785 and of Internet in 2012 are, in fact, the same issues. And there are more. The roadways fueled the rise of the expert-guided democracy. It was the civil engineers, urban planners, accountants, and other technocrats who helped decide the size, shape, location, and operation of major public works — again, the same circumstances involved in creating 21st-century airports, high-speed rail, and Olympic stadiums.

“My specialty is British history,” Guldi said, “which is where you go if you want to study things like democracy and capitalism.” Her dissertation (University of California–Berkeley, Ph.D., history, 2008) was titled The Road to Rule: The expansion of the British road network, 1726–1850.

When she interviewed at Brown, Guldi found a Department of History that was not limited by traditional time- or nation-based courses. “They are offering courses like the History of Human Rights and the History of Measurement. So I pitched some courses I taught at the University of Chicago — big courses like a 700-year history of land use and capitalism,” she said. “The department said, ‘We’d love you to teach land use history and capitalism. That’s exactly what we’d want you to teach.’ I was like, ‘Really?’ It’s a different kind of history from the history that was taught years ago.”

It will be a year before Guldi can offer Brown students courses that embrace larger themes and ideas. Brown has given her leave until the fall of 2013 to complete a three-year appointment in the Harvard Society of Fellows. That appointment — “the best job in the world,” she says, whose only formal requirement is to have dinner once a week with Nobel Prize laureates — has given her time and funding “to launch larger multidimensional, more reckless research projects than I would normally consider if I were teaching and having committee meetings.”

And then there is the historian’s slice of the digital humanities pie. Taken as a whole, the countless legal records, deeds, legislation, books, magazines, newspapers, treatises, transcripts, and other documents that is the stuff of historical research gives historians a computerized corpus of primary sources analogous to what biologists have in the sequenced human genome. But how to access it?

“My first papers started at the hamster level — the cool patterns I could find using keyword searches in Google Books.” Guldi found, for example, that 90 percent of English words denoting locomotion — creep, crawl, stride, scurry, waddle, meander, dash, and so forth — appear with noticeably greater frequency within 30 years of urbanization and the British road network. To an historian, this points to an important but subtle change in how the general public observed each other and interacted. English, it turns out, is easily OCR’ed.

Her current project on the history of land reform now has its own corpus of land-use documents and property law from around the world — 10 gigabytes and growing. She and a graduate assistant can do topic modeling, word mapping, and pattern extractions that show how land-use ideas waxed and waned and moved from continent to continent.

“My work is still fairly traditional. I read articles one at a time, then go to archives and read letters and official documents — and I get overwhelmed very quickly,” she said. “For me as an historian, the key is little tools that tell me where to read. You can then go to an archive at human scale and not just depend on what an earlier historian has done to cut through it.”

Brown’s acquisition of a supercomputer and its institutional support for “Big Data” that includes digital humanities offered her an academic home with strong potential for expanding her digital approach to historical research.

“I’m hoping that the openness of Brown’s departments means there will be a lot of opportunity for co-teaching,” she said. “What might happen if we were able to get computer science students and history students into the same classroom?”

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