Sean Pue: Publics of Sound
April 27, 2016
Sean Pue is associate professor of Hindi language and South Asian literature and culture and director of digital humanities in the College of Arts and Letters.
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time around computers. I taught myself how to program and immersed myself in the computing communities of the day, which mostly congregated in bulletin board systems. Much later, after I began to work on literature, I started to see that my interests in human languages might have grown out of my interest in computer ones. The similarities between the two now animate my intellectual life.
In college I became interested in Indian and South Asian language and culture and eventually started studying Hindi and then Urdu. I got sucked into the literature, especially Urdu poetry. Poetry in Urdu is very popular – people routinely drop couplets into their conversation and it is also often set to music – but it is also tied to sophisticated modes of thought.
After college, I studied Urdu in Pakistan for a year before starting graduate school at Columbia University. There I began a project that eventually became my first book, “I Too Have Some Dreams: N. M. Rashed and Modernism in Urdu Poetry” (University of California, 2014). N. M. Rashed was interested in crafting new forms of poetry in Urdu in order to more deeply engage with modern experience.
While a graduate student, I worked on a few projects involving digital versions of Hindi and Urdu poetry textbooks used in advanced literature courses. At that time, I saw this as a hobby and not really the focus of my work.
When I landed a job at MSU, I discovered its deep and decades-long commitment to what we now call digital humanities, a wide-ranging field that explores the intersection of the humanities and social sciences with digital technologies. The interest on campus allowed me to deepen my own work with humanities computing.
I am now associate professor of Hindi language and South Asian literature and culture and director of digital humanities in the College of Arts and Letters, which offers an undergraduate minor and a certificate to graduate students in departments across the university. As director, I have enjoyed collaborating with colleagues to align the digital humanities program with MSU’s commitment to global scholarship. In fact, April 8-9, our program hosted its first Global Digital Humanities Symposium, which brought together scholars from other institutions and from MSU to talk about important issues in the field.
My current research now involves both digital methods and traditional ones, such as close readings and discursive analysis. I have just received an Andrew W. Mellon New Directions Fellowship that will be supporting my new project, “Publics of Sound: Data-Driven Analysis of the Politics of Poetic Innovation in South Asia,” which explores how and why South Asian poetry seems to be most meaningful when heard rather than read.
I will use literature’s equivalent of “big data” – whole corpuses of poetry written in multiple South Asian languages – as well as recordings, to track the sonic aspects of literature across languages and over time. The Mellon fellowship will allow me to gain the skills necessary to undertake this research, including more than a year of coursework in statistics and probability, computer science and data science programs. I am very grateful to the openness of my MSU colleagues in those fields as I embark on this new enterprise.
Digital humanities use innovative methods to address fundamental questions about how we make meaning in our lives. These new methods can help break down what seem like natural divisions between areas of inquiry, including those between languages and those between academic disciplines. They maintain the humanities’ vital, critical perspective on culture while allowing the broader access to the new forms of media and larger sense of scale necessary to our global moment.