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:
- Harley Ferris “Exploring Digital Humanities.”
- Matthew Kirshenbaum, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”
- Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “The Humanities, Done Digitally.”
- Ian Bogost “The Turtlenecked Hairshirt.”
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.