What is the Digital Humanities and Where can I get some of it?

As I’ve started listening in on Digital Humanities conversations over the past 12 to 18 months, and especially in the last three or four months as I’ve gotten more fully onto Twitter and understood its potential for academics, I’ve realized that I am mostly just a bobbing rubber duck in a great wave of ignorant interest in Digital Humanities.  “What is this thing, Digital Humanities, and where can I get some of it?”  seems to be a general hue and cry, and I’ve added my own voice to the mix.  Some of that wave is no doubt driven by the general malaise that seems to be afflicting the humanistic ecosystem, and mid-career academics look back with rose-colored nostalgia to culture wars of the 80s when our classes were full and our conflicts were played out in middle-brow journals so we could feel self-important.  Maybe digital humanities will make us relevant again and keep our budgets from getting cut.

On the other hand, I think that most people recognize that many different aspects of digital humanities practice seem to coalesce and provide responses to driving forces in academe at the moment:  our students’ need for technical proficiency, the increasingly porous border between distanced and bricks and mortar instruction, the needs to connect effectively with the public while maintaining high standards of academic rigor, the need for our students to be involved in “real world” experiential learning, the effort to provide opportunities for serious and original undergraduate research, the need to support collaborative forms of learning.

I have been terribly impressed with the generosity of Digital Humanities folks in responding to these repeated pleas to “Show me how to do like you.  Show me how to do it.”   There’s been a lot of different things I’ve discovered over the past year, and as many more than have been put out.  The most recent is a bibliographic blog compiled by Matthew Huculak.  As with any bibliography it is an act of interpretation. There are inclusions I’ve not seen elsewhere–Franco Moretti’s book on data in literary studies was on the list and is now on mine. [Though I admit this is at least as much because I had Moretti as a prof while a grad student at Duke, the same semester I completed my first essay ever on a Macintosh computer].  The blog skews toward the literary–and I have increasingly realized that while there is this strong discourse of solidarity among digital humanists, the traditional disciplinary divisions still play a strong role in much of the practical work that is actually done.  DH’ers have conferences together but it’s not always clear that they work together on projects across their humanistic disciplines. There are also obviously omissions (I thought that the new Journal of the Digital Humanities should have made the list).

My larger concern though is that I’m actually beginning to feel that there may actually be a glut of introductory materials, so many different possible things to do at the beginning that it is actually impossible to point to a place and say, “this is where to start.”  To some degree on this score the Digital Humanities are reflecting what Geoffrey Harpham has indicated is a basic feature of the Humanities in general.

In a great many colleges and universities, there is no “Intro to English” class at all, because there is no agreement among the faculty on what constitutes a proper introduction to a field in which the goals, methods, basic concepts, and even objects are so loosely defined, and in which individual subjective experience plays such a large part. This lack of consensus has sometimes been lamented, but has never been considered a serious problem.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham. The Humanities and the Dream of America (p. 101). Kindle Edition.

The details don’t quite apply.  I’m not entirely sure individual subjective experience is at the heart of DH work, and that is one of the biggest bones of contention with DH work as it has been reflected in English departments (see my reflections on Fish and his comments on DH in yesterdays post).  But I do think the general pragmatic feel of humanities departments where you can begin almost anywhere, which is in stark contrast to the methodical and even rigid approach to immersing students in the STEM disciplines, may be characteristic of DH as well.  Start where you are and get where you want to go.

In reading Harpham, I was reminded of one of Stanley Fish’s essays, which one I forget, in which he talks about the best way to introduce students to literary criticism is not to give them a theory, but to give them examples and say “Go thou and do likewise”.  I’m increasingly feeling this is the case for the Digital Humanities.  Figure out what seems appealing to you, and then figure out what you have to figure out so you can do like that.

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