An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Making History Compute

  • Ken Shulman
  • Slice of MIT

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Tara Andrews ’99 didn’t invent the field of digital humanities—a discipline that applies digital methods and tools to the study of humanities—but she is helping to redraft its borders. “My trajectory is a bit unusual because I came from computer science to history,” says Andrews, professor of digital humanities at the Department of History at the University of Vienna in Austria. “Usually it’s the other way around.”

Born in Morgan City, Louisiana, Andrews and her family moved frequently when she was young. Her father worked as a pilot, while her mother raised horses. She came to MIT in 1995 planning to study mathematics. But very quickly she realized she found computers to be “far more fun.”

Andrews soon discovered another passion as an undergraduate: history. She enrolled in a course on ancient Rome, initially to satisfy her humanities requirement. That led to a second course on Rome, and then to a semester abroad in Athens, Greece, her junior year. There she learned, among other things, about the Byzantine Empire, the eastern half of the Roman Empire. “It’s a somewhat neglected area of study in the West,” says Andrews. “And yet it was the center of Christendom from the fall of Rome through the Middle Ages. A time when England and Germany were remote backwaters.”

Back on MIT’s campus the following semester, Andrews scurried to draft a viable history thesis topic so she could graduate with a computer science/history joint major. “In computer science, I was one of hundreds,” she says (computer science is currently MIT’s largest major). “In history, I had all these amazing professors almost to myself. And I knew that if I were ever to go to grad school, it would be in history.”

Andrews worked as a programmer at Akamai Technologies her first four years after MIT, leaving the world in 2003 to pursue a master’s program in Byzantine studies at the University of Oxford in England. She stayed there through 2009, earning a doctorate in Oriental studies. For her doctoral thesis, she began work on a critical edition of The Chronicle of Matthew of Edessa—an important 12th century text written in the medieval Armenian dialect. “A friend once said of me that the only languages I know are computational or dead,” she laughs.

The Chronical of Matthew of Edessa describes elements of the Crusades—a series of religious wars between Christians and Muslims—as well as battles between Arabs and Byzantines for parts of Syria and Asia Minor. Andrews applied computer tools to organize and expedite her analysis of the document. She soon discovered an entire community of researchers developing similar methods in a field called digital humanities. With the aid of digital tools, Andrews explains, historians can amass, organize, and catalog large quantities of historical data. “We can trace and identify cultural networks, learn who was talking to whom, who knew about whom,” she says. “We can even represent data that is uncertain or mendacious—information that is clearly false but was for whatever reason included in historical sources.”

At the University of Vienna, where Andrews has been since 2016, she teaches courses in digital humanities as well as an introductory course on the history of the Eastern Christian world. The history course is particularly popular, she says, in part because students are intrigued to learn about a fascinating subject few of them know anything about. She is also principal investigator of the RELEVEN project, a research project supported by the European Research Council, which takes a digitally assisted look at the 11th century—a critical century in Christian history that concluded with the First Crusade.

“I did have to overcome my computer scientist and mathematician’s brain somewhat,” says Andrews, who is also hard at work on a generalized history of the Christian Near East; the book is slated for publication in the United Kingdom by 2028. “It is easy to fall into the habit of thinking about history as a problem we can solve if we get enough facts. It is a problem, but it’s a different type of problem than writing code. We aren’t looking for solutions—too often the ‘reality’ is irretrievable—but we’re fitting together interpretations of what happened from whose perspective.”

Photo (top): University of Vienna. 

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