Digital Humanities Venice Fall School 2013

From October 6 to 11, around thirty participants, mostly from EPFL and Ca’ Foscari (University of Venice), got reunited in Venice for a week, in the context of a summer school in Digital Humanities, renamed “fall school” due to the dates. Half the participants were coming from hard and engineering sciences (mostly computer scientists), half from Humanities (mostly historians), and the goal of the week was to bring them together around common points of interests, get them to discuss and work together, and create some links between PhD students from both entities, in parallel to the on-going Venice Time Machine project seeing EPFL and Ca’ Foscari collaborating together.

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What is a summer school?

Summer schools are seminars during generally from two to ten days, addressed primarily to PhD students, but where post-docs and other researchers are also allowed, and sometimes encouraged to participate. It is the occasion to bring together famous Professors from all around the world to give state-of-the-art talks, as well as PhD students from various faculties who can there learn more on their own or on other labs’ fields of research, and get ECTS credits for that exercise. The whole thing is usually offered by one’s University, or an association of them, and it always happens in a very cool place (at least in my case). Venice was my fifth one, after Villars (Networks, CH), Champéry (Game theory, CH), Porquerolles (Social Network Analysis, F) and Bern (Digital Humanities, CH). And it has been by far the most stimulating one.

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Collaborating with Humanists

During this week, one of the goals was to have students from both schools following the same courses and visits, which is quite a challenge. Speaker had to address their talks to a wide audience, from the specialist of a given era of the Venitian Republic, to the researcher in computer vision. That summer school proposed presentations about well-known subjects to some, and peripheral to others, but always stayed in the context of Digital Humanities. I think that this objective was reached, but with some inevitable let-downs for some of us. Anyway, it was the occasion for some to work on their own stuff, or to collectively take notes on the shared framapad more easily than the beginners.

The first talk was given on Monday by Franziska Frey, about preserving and digitizing the archives from the various libraries of Harvard University. She showed glimpses of the huge amount of work done and to be done. Then, on Tuesday, Elena Pierazzo presented XML, TEI, and animated a very friendly workshop giving an introduction to the students on that subject. On Wednesday, Roberto Scopigno gave a talk, with one his assistants, presenting some impressive digitization work of pieces of art and of architecture that had been done by his team, giving many details about the necessary tools. The last talk, on Thursday, was given by Jeffrey Schnapp, who presented some of the work done at the Metalab of Harvard. This one was less about academic, and obviously intended to stimulate the students with original and exploratory pieces of design about interaction with digital content.

We also had three visits, each time with an introduction from a Professor: one to the Ghetto of Venice, one to the Accademia, the last one to the Archivio di Stato.

Group projects and contest

An introductory presentation was given on Sunday by the organisers : Michael & Megan, and Professors Sabine Süsstrunk & Frédéric Kaplan. They presented the mission we had for Friday : writing and presenting a project in Digital Humanities related to Venice (in order to borrow our ideas later ?!). Groups were “pseudo-randomly” chosen by them, always bringing students from diverse environments together. Mine was composed of Valentina Dal Cin and Egidio Priani from Ca’ Foscari, and Sami Arpa and myself from EPFL. Collaboration was great from the beginning. We managed to meet quite often, and discuss the project as the week went by. Valentina came with a handful of ideas, and Sami had great inputs and intuitions. Finally, we presented the following slides (at the bottom of the article), loosely based on the ongoing PhD thesis of Valentina, with great visualisations from Sami. And we won the first prize !

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Conclusion

A summer school can be an exhausting experience. In Villars we went walking, in Champéry skiing, in Porquerolles we went to the beach, rode VTT, played pétanque while drinking pastis, and partied a bit. In Venice, every day I slept 5 hours, had to walk around two to three hours in the city, during at least 7 hours followed talks, visits and discussions, ate quite fat (pizza, pasta, panini, pizza, pasta, …) and repetitive food, drank a lot of wine and spritz (local cocktail, I prefer it with Aperol), had to work with other participants on the project. And partied every night until… well, quite late. But it was worth it, an awesome experience. To conclude, if you go to a summer school in Italy, try to get the most out of it: hopefully the coffee works, and is good.

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