What are the Digital Humanities?

The dig­i­tal human­i­ties are the evolv­ing set of tech­ni­cal and aca­d­e­mic issues that swirl around the inter­sec­tion of the human­i­ties and com­put­ers.  As we have learned through read­ing Cohen and Svens­son, there are no easy elab­o­ra­tions on that skele­tal def­i­n­i­tion, how­ever.  Clearly we are liv­ing at a time of sig­nif­i­cant change in how the acad­emy uses and is effected by tech­nol­ogy, but one of the issues that inter­ests me is how much old-fashioned aca­d­e­mic infight­ing and ter­ri­tory pro­tect­ing is involved.

Cohen and Rosen­weig, for instance, do a good job in their arti­cle of try­ing to rein in the excesses of some dig­i­tal human­i­ties enthu­si­asts.  C&R point out that along with the obvi­ous promise of this field, there are sig­nif­i­cant pit­falls.  For instance, they point out, increased democ­ra­ti­za­tion or “acces­si­bil­ity” opens the acad­emy not just to chal­lenges to their fief­doms, but also to con­trib­u­tors who don’t share the same stan­dards of evi­dence col­lec­tion and pre­sen­ta­tion as pro­fes­sional schol­ars.  One could argue that this open­ness is an unal­loyed good, but as C&R point out, the uneven­ness of basic assump­tions may in some cases lower the “qual­ity” of what gets produced.

Svensson’s first arti­cle gives a nice overview of DH his­tory.  I am reminded of the idea that soc­cer (or Euro­pean foot­ball if you like) has been the “sport of the future” in this coun­try for 30 years.  DH is clearly an emerg­ing sci­ence, but the Svens­son arti­cle makes clear how very long it has been emerg­ing (early jour­nal was 1966).  In some of the quotes he uses about defin­ing DH, one detects the defen­sive­ness of a young aca­d­e­mic field.  From sec­tion 16 of the first Svens­son arti­cle, “…one eas­ily gets a rough and ready sense of what we are about, and con­sid­er­able reas­sur­ance, if any is needed, that indeed, there is some­thing which we are about.”

Svensson’s sec­ond arti­cle, “The Land­scape” of DH nicely lays out the poles, if that’s the right word, of DH as merely research tool, or entire field unto itself, deserv­ing endowed chairs, sep­a­rate facil­i­ties, and so on.  I can eas­ily see how the pol­i­tics of the acad­emy would color how one defines dig­i­tal human­i­ties based on how one views its legit­i­macy.  It seems clear to me, how­ever, that defin­ing and explor­ing the issues sur­round­ing dig­i­tal human­i­ties is an impor­tant pur­suit, not just for this class, but also for the acad­emy as well.

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9 Responses to What are the Digital Humanities?

  1. I’m with you, Dan. It’s becom­ing clearer just how impor­tant it is to dive into the issues sur­round­ing dig­i­tal human­i­ties. There will always be infight­ing and pos­tur­ing when it comes to the con­trol of infor­ma­tion. There’s a lot at stake depend­ing on who has that power. How­ever, it seems we’ve crossed a tech­no­log­i­cal thresh­old not only in acad­e­mia, but in our broader human cul­ture, and there’s no going back.

  2. Susan Garman says:

    Your post left me EXHAUSTED at the prospect of liv­ing through the insti­tu­tional change that embrac­ing DH across depart­ments will engen­der! Change is not always the strength of insti­tu­tions of higher edu­ca­tion. I am left with Svensson’s ques­tion– do we help (force?) the major­ity or those who have expressed inter­est in uti­liz­ing technology?

  3. matthew says:

    I’m with Kristina in that we’ve crossed a tech­no­log­i­cal thresh­old. The acad­emy will even­tu­ally reflect soci­ety because its users will demand it. The rest will be dragged along kick­ing and scream­ing until they retire.

  4. henry Herrera says:

    you’re right. we are liv­ing in a time of sig­nif­i­cant change. It will be inter­est­ing to see how the aca­d­e­mic infight­ing resolves or wors­ens things. The dig­i­tal human­i­ties is ever grow­ing– if the aca­d­e­mic world doesn’t hop on — it is going to get run over.

  5. David says:

    I think we expe­ri­ence this already, with cer­tain pro­fes­sors who are more adept at using technology-powerpoint, PDFs (instead of books), and stu­dents pre­fer it. Even­tu­ally the old guard will be removed and the new guard instated. Maybe they should be required to in the same way med­ical doc­tors are required to take courses to stay up to date on the lat­est treatments.

    Kick­ing and scream­ing, or vol­un­tar­ily, they will even­tu­ally be pulled in by the undertow.

  6. Kevin says:

    I like David’s com­ment about schol­ars need­ing to take courses so we can stay up to speed on advances in tech­nol­ogy. I’ve been using com­put­ers and the inter­net since I started col­lege at a school with a great com­puter sci­ence pro­gram, but that doesn’t meant that much of what we’ve done so far in this class isn’t new to me. This is quite a dif­fer­ent tran­si­tion from that of the inven­tion of the print­ing press, regard­less of how often that com­par­i­son is made. Espe­cially given the rate at which tech­nol­ogy (soft­ware and hard­ware) changes, I can see how such courses may become a require­ment for pro­fes­sors in the future.

  7. Richard says:

    I can eas­ily see how the pol­i­tics of the acad­emy would color how one defines dig­i­tal human­i­ties based on how one views its legit­i­macy.” This is a core issue at some level within DH regard­ing how its “prac­ti­tion­ers” define DH and how they see oth­ers who are not “prac­ti­tion­ers” define DH. Over the last cou­ple of months there have been a num­ber of posts, many relat­ing to the MLA con­fer­ence, that attempt to shed some light on the issue of defin­ing DH–“THAT­Camp and diver­sity in Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties,” “Who’s In and Who’s Out,” “On Build­ing,” and “The (DH) Stars Come Out in LA”–to list a few.

    So, just out of curios­ity: how would you would define the dig­i­tal human­i­ties based on how you view “its legit­i­macy?” Did/do the “pol­i­tics of the acad­emy” color that definition?

    • Daniel says:

      Right off the bat, we have a prob­lem with ter­mi­nol­ogy: “legit­i­macy” is a loaded term. Lit­er­ally mean­ing “legal”, it con­notes accep­tance to some norm or stan­dard as cre­ated by a third party. I’m basi­cally think­ing out loud, but we need a term that means con­form­ing to cer­tain agreed upon stan­dards with the goal of con­fer­ring value to the con­tri­bu­tion based on sourc­ing, rules of evi­dence, etc. In other words, we need a way to fil­ter poorly sourced dig­i­tal con­tri­bu­tions with­out being exclu­sion­ary for the sole pur­pose of con­form­ing to the “pol­i­tics of the acad­emy.” I don’t know what that neu­tral term is yet, but I’ll get back to you.

  8. Richard says:

    I would agree with you on the ter­mi­nol­ogy. It is a stick­ing point in any aca­d­e­mic field it seems–we speci­ficity and neu­tral­ity, but we also like a cer­tain mal­leabil­ity at the same time. This sit­u­a­tion becomes, I think, par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic in DH, not only because of the jar­gon that gets thrown about (I am as guilty of that as the next), but also because DH’ers are still feel­ing their/our way toward a coher­ent def­i­n­i­tion of DH. There are a num­ber of doc­u­ments cir­cu­lat­ing on the web, pro­duced by depart­ments wrestling with this issue as they try to incor­po­rate dig­i­tal work as a part of an aca­d­e­mics per­for­mance and tenure evals. Those doc­u­ments might prove useful.

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