About the Digital Humanities, Part 1

Since I know you are all also working on your short seminar projects and other things for this and other classes as the end of the term approaches, I thought this week we could take a more general approach to discussing the readings on the emerging notion (field? discipline? study?) called the “Digital Humanities.” So toward that end, here’s where we’ll talk about all of the texts for this first part of the week:

First, a bit of a disclaimer: I am something of a digital humanities skeptic.  I blogged about my feelings about all this last year here, but the short version is a lot of what is being called “digital humanities” and that is being called as being “new” sure seems like the kind of material we’ve been discussing in this class all semester and that has been a part of “computers and writing” for a long long time. Still, there is little denying that “digital humanities,” whatever it might be, is a matter of some intellectual significance now and potentially into the future, which is why we’re talking about it.

Just a few observations about the Ferris recording and the chapters from Kirsehbaum’s book:

  • My favorite part of the Ferris piece is him talking to his son and the difficulty he has in imagining (for example) school work without a pencil, so he imagines a pencil that you can control with your mind. This is a reoccurring theme in technology and I think it takes us back to the beginning of the class. As Denis Baron pointed out, the pencil was not originally seen as a writing tool but a carpentry tool; it took a while to see the point of writing words with it. When the personal computer was first introduced, folks thought the main use for them in the home would probably be to store recipes. And so forth.
  • Kirshenbaum does an interesting job of tracing where the terminology “digital humanities” comes from and I think his reasons for why English departments are so interested in this stuff is pretty accurate, though I would add two points. First, I think the role and rise of composition studies within (and outside of too) English departments is more important than he suggests. Second, part of it is also the very poor job market in literary studies: basically, I think a lot of literature graduate students are trying to find a way to repackage themselves so they can get a job– academic or otherwise– and the digital humanities route seems like a potentially employable one.  By the way, here’s a link to an online version of Blackwell Publishing book A Companion to the Digital Humanities; I’m not sure it is the same one that Kirshenbaum and Fitzpatrick are referring to, but it might be useful for folks who want to follow up on this for future research.
  • I think Fitzpatrick is completely right when she points out that one of the “tensions” that exists in discussions and definitions about digital humanities, that there is a sort of tension between those who think it should be about “making” versus about “interpreting.” But there are still a lot of “medievalists with a web site” who think they are “digital humanists,” in my opinion.
  • Finally, I include this short selection from Bogost, because I think he is funny and because buried in here he has a point: part of what the possibility of the digital (e.g., “the ‘net”) humanities opens up to “humanists” (e.g., stuffy hairshirted professors) is that there’s a big wide world out there that humanists won’t be able to contain and control in the way they can contain and control the analog (e.g., canonical books) humanities.
  • By the way, I am not sure what I think of the interface for Debate in the Digital Humanities. I like that it’s free and I like that I can see trends in others who think particular passages are important and useful, but I wish my highlights would stay for me, if that makes sense.


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16 Responses to About the Digital Humanities, Part 1

  1. Jackie K. says:

    I had just watched Chelsea’s video before starting this reading, and I was thinking about Bryan’s comment referring back to earlier readings this semester–how things we take for granted today (the pencil, etc.) as being related to writing were once new and potentially scary. Is it just me, or is the “digital humanities” kind of an artificial title, something that, in 20/30/40 years, could be pretty redundant? With the evolution of technology and expanding access to technology, I would imagine that more and more in the humanities would go digital until that is just part of the humanities norm–and not something that requires its own coalition of supporters. 😉

    The making/interpreting divide that Fitzpatrick discusses is something I’ve always found quite interesting, mostly for the reason brought out in this quote: “The boundaries between the critical and the creative are arbitrary. In fact, the best scholarship is always creative, and the best production is always critically aware.” You interpret as you make, and if you want to share interpretations over a made something, you generally have to make something yourself. I think even Professor Krause mentioned this when he was saying you learn a lot about something (our YouTube videos, specially) by making it. I guess the reason for such a stringent debate puzzles me. I think it would be a lot easier to acknowledge that making and interpreting are both interrelated–and both important!

    In other news, this is perhaps the truest definition of the pervasiveness of the Internet I have ever seen: “It will find us and it will videotape our kittens” (Bogost).

  2. Melissa S says:

    Kirschenbaum’s chapter was an interesting read, as it seemed to spend most of its time describing how the name “digital humanities” came about as opposed to describing where the field came from and is going. Still, I thought he had some good points (and I did like that Google was the determining factor in choosing ‘digital humanities’ as a name). Like Krause, I thought his reasons for why English departments would take up DH were valid and I especially like the point Krause makes that DH is a way to make English students perhaps a bit more relevant in the job market.

    I liked Kirschenbaum’s discussion of DH has “publicly visible” at the 2009 MLA conference. It made me think of our discussions of social media in this class. I also found myself wondering if social media better fits under “computers and writing” like this class or under DH or in its own category. I’m inclined to put it in DH because social media isn’t directly linked to a computer – in fact it seems like a lot of computers and writing discusses things that are no longer only happening on a computer (unless we want to think of phones/tablets as computers instead of new gadgets that allow for networked lives). Because of this, it seems perhaps more aptly suited to DH, though I think we might need to update the term ‘humanities.’ I’m more fond of thinking about it as digital culture.

  3. chelsea says:

    Hmm. Having not yet read these articles, I wanted to comment on my own thoughts re: digital humanities. To me, it refers more to space – spaces for composing, a shift in location, maybe, from non-digital space to digital space. Does that make sense? And I agree – that in 20 years, it won’t be something we need to rally support for – but I’m sure that that space will again have shifted and we’ll be rallying support for something else, you know? (And hopefully not forgetting where we came from in the process).

    I think about movements that have come before – some of which Palmeri discussed in his book – the Happenings movement from the 60’s and 70’s that Geoffrey Sirc explains in his book called English Composition as a Happening – or “new media.” Of course new media won’t always be new, but other media will become new, and I think that these eras do become suspended in time, like… over the weekend I was at a workshop that had nothing to do with digital humanities directly, that is to say, the speakers didn’t discuss the digital humanities, though we did view digital projects that would absolutely fall into that category – so I have two points to make. One of the speakers asked us to define “a turning point in history,” and my group came up with this: an event that divides history into a before and after. We will remember history as existing before that event, and after. Like 9/11. I’m totally simplifying this for the sake of this post, but bear with me. I think that these movements, like the digital humanities, act as those moments, and I think that’s important. The other point I wanted to make was that the projects we viewed – these video documentaries created by 4th and 5th graders (see my most recent blog post for more info) are absolutely digital humanities work, and I think it is important to think about how “digital humanities” influences the face of composition. So even if in 20 years, we’re not recruiting supporters, the value of the term or the category is not diminished.

    I hope that makes sense. I’ll try and revisit this after I read the articles this afternoon.

  4. Sarah K. says:

    Ferris’ “Exploring Digital Humanities” talk was interesting. I managed to acquire a basic understanding of what digital humanities is supposed to be about when Ferris quoted Katherine Harris who says: “The digital humanities is an area of research, teaching, and creation concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of humanities.” So, from this definition I have come to the conclusion that digital humanities is like practicing an area of study that falls under the humanities category like English literature digitally or on the computer. Then Ferris explains it a bit more in depth while he talks with his son. I liked one other thing he said toward the end of his talk. He said something like we have become really good at applying methods of humanities to studying digital objects, but digital humanities is really applying digital technology to the study of humanities.

    Kirschenbaum defined digital humanities in his essay about the same as Ferris did only he provides a bit more detail when he says that “it studies how these media affect the disciplines in which they are used, and what these disciplines have to contribute to our knowledge of computing.” Now, I have a vaster understanding of digital humanities. It’s not only about using computers and other technologies to practices humanities, but it’s also about leaning about how we can better understand how computers can help us understand humanities.

    Fitzpatrick Helped me understand digital humanities best when she stated: “Digital humanities thus grows specifically out of an attempt to make humanities computing, which sounded as though the emphasis lay on technology, more palatable to humanists in general.The field’s background in humanities computing typically, but far from exclusively, results in projects that focus on computing methods applicable to textual materials.” I liked what Fitzpatrick says here because I get a sense of what types of projects digital humanities are concerned with.

    Bogost is right I think, the problem with digital humanities isn’t digital humanities but the people involved with humanities. We should think more about the world instead of our own private ideals. I guess many people involved with humanities want to keep it old school, but times are changing.

  5. Bryan A says:

    I thought Kirschenbaum spent way too much time and effort to establish for the reader that there is a large quantity of information available about the digital humanities (“a field of study … concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities … It studies how these media affect the disciplines in which they are used”). And then went even further down the rabbit hole, with the majority of the article being a history lesson on the phrase “digital humanities.” I did not find this chapter entertaining or very useful.

    And while Ferris’ approach to defining “digital humanities” by talking to people who consider themselves as digital humanists (experts), it would have been nice if Ferris was a little more humane with his digital volume levels. The disparity between his selected soundtrack music and his voiceover recordings about blew out my eardrums a couple of times.

    Ferris quotes Katherine Harris’ definition of digital humanities as, “An area of research, teaching, and creation concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities,” which is almost verbatim to the Wikipedia definition that Kirschenbaum quoted in his article, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”

    However, I did like Ferris’ question of whether or not we are practicing digital humanities or just digitizing the humanities? He makes the comparison between his question and the general issue people have when adopting any new technologies.

  6. Harley Ferris asked, “are we practicing digital humanities, or are we just digitizing the humanities?” –I have to agree it seems like the “end” will be in effect a digitization of the humanities.

    While I too find his phrase about our immersion in the internet fairly apt, I take exception to Bogost’s idea that, “Humanism does not deserve to carry the standard for humans, for frankly it despises them.
    Although, “We masticate on culture for the pleasure of praising our own steaming shit” has a certain ring to it…

  7. Bryan A says:

    I did however, like what Fitzpatrick had to say about the tensions between different viewpoints of whether the area of study (digital humanities) must always be about making (tools, archives, new digital methods, etc.) or if it can also include interpreting. Fitzpatrick says this tension is little more than an updated version of the theory-practice divide between media makers and media scholars, which was an interesting take on the situation.

  8. chelsea says:

    Reading Kirshenbaum’s chapter, I’m curious about the markers he assigns to the digital humanities: Twitter, sharing photos of your workspace online on a certain day, young people, not the MLA conference, etc. I do think there is significant value to the way digital communication is used politically in English studies, following the example he gave of the Emory PhD student whose presentation dealing with adjunct employment conditions went “viral” after the conference (that he couldn’t attend). I guess I’m wondering…are the digital humanities something created by scholars who were doing similar work, or are the digital humanities an inevitable result of a generation growing up with computer technologies that place writing in the digital sphere?

    I also appreciated Kirschenbaum’s introduction to why digital humanities was found in English departments in terms of text-based data, electronic archives, and networking (digital or not, how texts – and people – are networked). Digital humanities seems not only concerned with what digital spaces make possible in terms of composing, but also in terms of access, and challenging concepts like plagiarism and copyright that are made visible in a new way.

  9. chelsea says:

    The highlighting tool is strange, I agree. I like being able to see others’ highlighted passages, but it starts to shape my reading more than I’m comfortable with. My eyes immediately jump to the thick blue lines on the side and I start to tune out what isn’t marked as “important.”

  10. Bryan A says:

    I totally agree that the highlighting feature is more of an annoyance than anything else. The feature should have the capability to be disabled until a reader decides to use it, and not turned on by default.

  11. Steve K. says:

    I wish I could keep my own highlights and comments, but I also kind of like seeing what others are highlighting. It either makes me feel smart (I was going to mark that too!) or it makes me feel like it was stuff I should pay attention to (look at all the people who marked that!)

  12. Danielle N says:

    Bryan, that’s a question I have been thinking about as I’ve been listening/reading through these. I guess I’m having a hard time seeing the difference. I think, like Jackie said, the “Digital Humanities” title could become pretty redundant down the road. It seems only natural to me that humanities scholarship is becoming more digital. Isn’t everything taking a turn towards digital? That being said, I’m just having a hard time figuring out why the distinction needs to be made. I can understand the debate between creating vs. interpreting, though…

  13. Danielle N says:

    I actually thought it was kind of a cool feature, but I can see how it would be annoying. You can turn it off, though…

  14. Bryan A says:

    While I think it is a neat and useful feature, I just think it would be better suited as one of those “opt-in” features instead of the default. All though, one could make the argument that it’s more prominently displayed to make users aware of its existence, and therefor those that detest it can then just shut it off.

  15. germaine says:

    I too felt underwhelmed by Kirschenbaum’s focus on the history and development of the name itself rather than the actual evolution of the field of study or emerging disciplines. I don’t really think there’s much relevance in talking about what’s in a name if you don’t get to what is actually in the name. So, I feel he fell short of answering his own question.

    I have to say, that when it comes to auditory/video productions of serious content/material, small things like a computer fan and inconsistent volume can become distracting enough to where you can’t focus on the narrative/delivery. I suppose we are spoiled by multi-million dollar Hollywood movie productions.

    In Ferris’s delivery style, I could not get past, what seemed to be a re-production of NPR’s This American Life. I love Ira Glass and his show and it’s even more amazing life in a dark theater! However, I found myself paying attention to presentation style and listening for similar intonations in Ferris’s voice to Ira Glass’s voice. So, I think this is where a multi-modal approach can become frustrating and just boils down to logistics and technicalities that can throw you way off. Aside from that, I did actually retain some information. I think his son’s response in the interview about school in the future being easier was fascinating. Interesting to see how younger generations view technology and it’s application in education as, ultimately, a better way of doing things. I guess, we will have to wait and see what the future holds.

  16. germaine says:

    Oh, and I loved Bogost’s turtleneck article response, a lot for his sarcastic tone and cranky writing style, but because he is holding people in these disciplines accountable for the state of affairs digital humanities is in. He’s totally right, you can’t blame the discipline itself as if it’s its own entity that has just somehow popped out of nowhere and completely flipped everything upside down. Clearly, with the historical background from Kirschenbaum, we know it’s been an evolving process since the 70’s. However, I’m not sure what calling out the academics and researchers a part of this process proves to do, other than placing blame and pointer the finger but, if that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes?

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