A manuscripts family tree

Tara Andrews, 36, teaches digital humanities at the University of Bern. She also conducts research into manuscripts.

Text: Anja Eigenmann, published on 12.03.2015

I've got a very reliable alarm clock. Her name is Sophie, she's my daughter, and she wakes me up at quarter to seven on the dot every day. She's four years old. My husband makes us tea. On Wednesdays, when I work in Bern, it's his turn to take her to the Montessori nursery school before he goes to work at Google. We live in the Wollishofen area of Zurich, so I have to leave the house at half past seven to get the Intercity to Bern.

I travel first class, so I can check my e-mails and do some last-minute teaching preparation on the train. I'm Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Bern. It's such a new field that everyone has their own opinion about what it involves. It often entails statistical analysis of texts. The subject of digital humanities can be traced back to the 1940s, when a Jesuit priest called Roberto Busa wanted to produce a concordance of the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas. This is an index of all the words used in the works, together with their context. Busa managed to persuade the head of IBM to support this first-ever digital humanities project, which lasted 30 years.

Busa managed to persuade the head of IBM to support this first-ever digital humanities project, which lasted 30 years.

The University of Bern introduced the subject two years ago. I'm more or less on my own there, which means that I decide what gets taught. I have a lot of freedom, but it can be very lonely sometimes. I teach four courses a year. One focuses on theory, the other three on technical skills, including Python programming and the use of tools and techniques from a variety of disciplines. Students learn, for example, how to create a map or a chart from a data series. In the theory course, we look at how technology is transforming the challenges we face and the risks inherent in using computers to simplify research. At the end of the course, I ask my students to write an essay on the nature of digital humanities.

I work at the Unitobler. My teaching starts at quarter past ten. A lot of the students attending my course have never done any programming before and are intimidated by the idea. I try to dispel their fears.

I use SWITCHengines for some of my teaching because it's protected and because I can reconfigure the necessary tools very easily when I need to. Each session lasts for 90 minutes, then it's lunchtime. I grab something quick. Sometimes, I go for a run. The afternoon gives me time for my projects and meetings with colleagues and students. I occasionally do some reading, writing or coding.

I wrote my thesis about an Armenian chronicle from the time of the Crusades. Oxford is probably the best place to study that kind of thing.

My career history is unusual. I'm originally from the US, and I studied computer science in Boston. I got into Byzantine history while I was an exchange student in Greece. I was looking for a way to combine history and computing. My Bachelor's degree may have been in computer science, and I had worked as a software engineer for a while, but I finished my Master's in Byzantine history in 2003. I wrote my thesis about an Armenian chronicle from the time of the Crusades. Oxford is probably the best place to study that kind of thing.

I produced a digital critique of part of the chronicle while I was there, and one of my current projects is aimed at continuing that work. I want to work out the "family tree" of the manuscripts in the chronicle so as to determine who copied from whom and whose writing is closest to the original. We're concentrating on the most common errors, variants and agreements. I've developed a tool to analyse and visualise the relationships between the different scripts. You can find it at stemmaweb.net. The calculations are also done on SWITCHengines because these comparisons need rather a lot of computing power. I found about this SWITCH service quite by accident from Ann Harding, a SWITCH staffer whose husband works with mine.

I get home at about half past five. Sophie goes to bed at about half past seven. Round about eight o'clock, I cook dinner for my husband and me. We eat, chat and drink a glass of wine. We spend some evenings in front of the computer and others building Lego models. I normally try to get to bed by eleven.

This article appeared in the SWITCH Journal April 2015.
About the author
Anja   Eigenmann

Anja Eigenmann

Anja Eigenmann has worked at SWITCH since 2012 and is currently an editor for online and print media. She trained as a journalist and later completed a Master of Advanced Studies in Business Communications. She has previously been an editor-in-chief and consultant, among other things, and has led a course in online content writing.


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