Defining Digital Humanities?

I just got out of a department meeting where we were discussing the possibility of creating a new graduate certificate in the “digital humanities.” I think this is a terrific idea, but I have to admit I’m a bit ambivalent about the term “digital humanities,” partly because there’s some dispute over how to define it.

In a recent post on “The Digital Humanities Divide,” Alex Reid examines the CFP for the 2011 Digital Humanities conference, and finds that a

significant part of the digital humanities that is not captured in this call is the humanistic investigation of digital technoculture: no mention of games studies, social media, or mobile technology. In other words, no mention of the significant digital technologies and practices that are transforming human experience on a global scale. No, instead, we’re going to talk about writing software to analyze hundreds of out of print literary texts that no one can even name.

This aspect of the digital humanities is also reflected in the NEH’s recent call for Digital Humanities Start-up Grants. The call itself presents a fairly wide interpretation of “digital humanities,” but looking over the examples of projects that are getting funded (and based on a second-hand account of a conversation with a grant program officer), it seems like their main priority is on the activity of

planning and developing prototypes of new digital tools for preserving, analyzing, and making accessible digital resources, including libraries’ and museums’ digital assets

For the record, I don’t have anything against making such tools. However, as Reid points out, it seems odd that digital humanists wouldn’t be focused on “the powerful ways that digital technologies are changing the world.”

So, on the one hand, we have some folks saying there should be “more hackety-hack, less yackety-yack,” but on the other we have Neil Postman’s assertion that “technology education is not a technical subject. It is a branch of the humanities.” I think the tension here is not between digital and analogue, but instead in what we think the humanities is for. Is the point of the digital humanities to develop new tools for doing fairly traditional things with a narrow range of privileged texts, or is it to understand something about what it means to be human in a digital age?

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7 comments on “Defining Digital Humanities?

  1. Pingback: Defining Digital Humanities? « scrivel

  2. Basically I find myself sympathetic to the idea that the humanities should address the question of what it means to be human, particularly now in a digital age, or as Reid puts it “the “crisis” the humanities face today is in no small part due to its misguided belief that it could abandon rhetoric and hence abandon its commitment to public-civic discourse and pedagogy.” Recommitting to a public-civic discourse, part of which addresses concerns about the emergent digital age, is key to the humanities being more than vocational training for jobs after college [though preparing students for jobs is— I think—a necessity].

    However, I may disagree somewhat with Postman, in that I believe technical education can entail some amount of technical instruction. Some hackety-hack could be good because it would help students understand what they’d like their relation to technology to be. Certainly using a word-cloud to look at old texts is fine, but what about using word-clouds to draw parallels between old texts and digital ones? What about developing a facility with technology that supports the students’ critical understanding of where they stand between the old and the new?

  3. I really like Jason’s comments above, and I do believe that there has to be a level of balance between theory and practice when one “does” Digital Humanities. He sums it up quite nicely: “Some hackety-hack could be good because it would help students understand what they’d like their relation to technology to be.”

    With that said, however, I think the beauty and appeal of Digital Humanities is that one doesn’t have to be an expert in, say, programming, because DH is about collaboration and the sharing of knowledge and expertise among people with different sets of skills. Of course, such a project calls on human resources that may not be readily available at an institution.

    In regards to the other question of what digital humanities is for, I think there is certainly more than one answer, and that, again, is the beauty of DH: it should be far-reaching and cuts across disciplines, so that there is a bigger discussion of not only what we can do with tools, but also what it means to use such tools (I think the HASTAC community is a great example of this). However — I wonder if, perhaps, part of the problem is that despite the designated big umbrella term, “Digital Humanities,” the field is really not all that far-reaching yet…? It seems to me (and I may be completely wrong in this) that current DH projects (as referenced above) are primarily based in literary studies, and done by scholars mainly in English and History departments. I’m sure that is a generalization, but I think that seems to be the trend these days — English depts. across the country are trying to catch up with the digital wave, and so in a sense, the Digital Humanities are, in the current moment, still based mostly in only a few of the same humanities departments.

    I do think , however, that this is part of the excitement: there is still ample room for DH to grow in many different directions — through other humanities depts. such as psychology, sociology, etc. — and the possibilities are, really, endless. I think it is useful, and in fact necessary, for us to consider what it means to be human in a digital age, and what the psychological, social, and cultural implications are.

    Sherry Turkle is already doing some of this work in thinking about what it means to be human in a digital age — but would she be considered a digital humanist? Derrida, too, talked about how e-mail changed communication and the meaning of archives — but would/could his work fall under digital humanities?

    • I think the beauty and appeal of Digital Humanities is that one doesn’t have to be an expert in, say, programming, because DH is about collaboration and the sharing of knowledge and expertise among people with different sets of skills. Of course, such a project calls on human resources that may not be readily available at an institution.

      I really like your point about not having to be an expert. That’s important to emphasize because it captures both the collaborative and DIY aspects of this field that offer great opportunities for getting a variety of people with a variety of backgrounds involved. And as you’re pointing out some of these people could be outside the classic academic institution which I think is a strength. For a specific example of the potential for collaboration inherent in the DH, we could look to this description of social-issues gaming (or serious games):

      Other fields strongly connected to serious games include semantics, culture and arts and music and audio specialists. While most of these areas are not new to the gaming industry, serious games do in a higher degree rely on a more detailed artificial intelligence than traditional games.

      [p. 6-7]

      Elements involving semantics, culture, and art are ones the humanities are uniquely positioned to examine, but other elements of gaming architecture rely on skill sets outside the humanities; thus supporting collaboration between disciplines and individuals. And I completely agree with you that this makes the potential for the DH quite exciting.

      • I like this focus on collaboration across disciplines. I’d like to toss in a couple more in light of the news headlines that we are reading lately: One is journalism, with its growing dependence of citizen sources (i.e. mobile phone video, twitter dispatches from Libya, Bahrain, and Egypt), and two–this goes to the hackety-hack–artificial intelligence (IBM’s Wilson beat the best human players of Jeopardy). So on the one hand, are relying more upon the individual to supply needed information about events in the world, but on the other, we will also be relying on computers to answer our questions once the raw data supplied by individuals is uploaded into the cloud.

        I would like to see more emphasis on case studying current applications of digital communication technology in the real-time unfolding of events. I feel that the rapidity and dynamic nature of digital technology requires that we study it in real time. I would like to something along the lines of a real-time survey. Digitizing previous media is important (although so last-minute!) but so is understanding what’s unfolding before our eyes.

    • I think you raise good points, Viola and Jason. I actually agree that more “hackety-hack” would be good for students, and that their teachers need to understand it as well. I guess what I worry about more is how business as usual has backed the humanities (and English studies in particular) into its current crisis of relevance. If all technology enables is the more efficient production of scholarship that’s disengaged from everything but a handful of texts and a handful of other scholars, then I don’t see the point. I think the heyday of (supposedly) disinterested scholarship and research has come and gone.

      This is why I think the idea of “digital humanities” could be quite promising, if it’s the impetus to rethink the mission of the humanities. But I can’t get too excited about it if it’s really just a new means to an old end.

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