Intro to digital humanities

Thanks to Labor Day, this past Monday was the first time my digital humanities (DH) class met having to read something from the field beforehand; as one might assume, these essays sought to define DH, articulate some of the core problems DHers address, provide a brief history, and pose several methods that make DH important to the humanities, the academy, and knowledge production more generally.

Considering that Matt Kirschenbaum argues that the term “digital humanities” (DH) came at least partially from the process involved in titling the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities (CDH), it’s fitting that we not only read his short piece from the ADE Bulletin last January (originally based on address from the summer of 2010), but also bits and pieces from Part I of the CDH (freely available online, thank god). So this blog post is an attempt to outline some of the arguments in those pieces and maybe (maybe?) make sense of them.

Kirschenbaum answers the questions in his piece, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?,” rather directly if not generally. In response to the former, (What is DH?) Kirschenbaum (appropriately, says me) relies on Wikipedia’s definition, but also adds that DH “is more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies,” embracing approaches to common humanities texts using powerful analytical tools and archiving processes.

In terms of history, Kirschenbaum argues that the the creation of the Office of Digital Humanities at NEH — and all the grants and visibility that came with it — was the “tipping point for the branding of DH.” He likens the creation of DH to the Birmingham School and discusses general ways that a ADE crowd might have encountered (or missed) DH visibility, such as through tweets at conferences or articles in the Chronicle/Inside Higher Ed. After connecting DH interests to the academy at large, he then makes a case for why DH belongs in English departments. He gives six reasons: text is the primary data, the “long association between computers and composition,” the editorial theory that lead to digital archiving (curation?), the excitement and following of hypertext and e-lit, the inclusion of cultural studies in those departments, and finally the growth of e-reading and associated hardware. He ends his piece with a call to scholarship and pedagogy that is both “collaborative and depend on networks of people and that live an active 24/7 life online.”

The intro to the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities by Schreibman, Siemens and Unsworth argues that the collection, which was published in 2005, marks the first time scholars of DH, representing several disciplines, came together to share their perspectives on the purpose, functions, methods and tools of DH. According the authors, DH uses “information technology to illuminate the human record” — distant reading practices, for example — “and bringing an understanding of the human record to bear on the development and use of information technology,” with things like usability technologies and geographic information systems (GIS).

Aside from Susan Hockey’s chapter on the general history of DH, Part I of the book provides as survey of the various disciplines’ engagement with and contributions to DH. Archaeologists/historical geographers use GISes to reconstruct key historical sites; literary studies engage various computer-assisted tools to quantitatively (and controversially) detect patterns is large bodies of text (a later chapter by Martha Nell Smith talks about how these methods have assisted scholars in putting major debates — like Dickenson’s use of the dash — to rest); performance studies use CAD software to construct sets in virtual 3-D; multimedia theorists consider what should be digitized, how those objects will represent the original, and how media manipulation alters meaning. Based on these readings, some of the common tools used in DH include:

  • GIS
  • CAD
  • databases and archiving code (TEI and XML for records, images, or corpora)
  • database mining (searching and sorting)
  • hypertext

Throughout all of this, though, as the introduction to CDH makes clear, representation — specifically how the digital environments alter artifacts’ meaning — is a fundamental concern for DHers. At the end of the introduction, Schreibman, Siemens and Unsworth puts it this way: “Ultimately, in computer-assisted analysis of large amounts of material that has been encoded and processed according to a rigorous, well thought-out system of knowledge representation, one is afforded opportunities for perceiving and analyzing patterns, conjunctions, connections, and absences that a human being, unaided by the computer, would not be likely to find.”

In order to do this, DHers must, as Hockey puts it in her history of humanities computing, “embrace the two cultures”: to use scientific and systemic analytical methods to reach new humanistic problems. As one might expect, a push away from hermeneutics and toward more objective, science and thus quantitative methods, received its fair or direct or indirect resistance.

A few questions came out of these readings in class. Questions, I’m sure, that don’t have definitive answers, but will become easier to approach as the semester goes on.

  • At the conclusion of the chapter on multimedia, Rockwell and Mactavish claim “There are two ways we can think through multimedia. The first is to think about multimedia through definitions, histories, examples, and theoretical problems. The second way is to use multimedia to think and to communicate thought.” This led us to ask if the same can be extended to DH approaches more generally. And so if that’s fair, how does comp/rhet as a discipline contribute or help define the activities of DH? What’s our place? What does a statement like this one from Hockey say about our influence outside of the classroom: “Gradually, certain application areas spun off from humanities computing and developed their own culture and dissemination routes.’Computers and writing‘ was one topic that disappeared fairly rapidly.” Say what?
  • Susan Hockey’s history goes back as early as 1949 to trace the evolution of “humanities computing” to the current moniker of “digital humanities.” Given the sales pitchiness of Kirschenbaum’s address (not necessarily a critique given his audience), I can’t help but wonder if there is an honest disciplinarity to DH or if it’s a buzzword. (Just previewing some of Wendell Piez’s piece in DHQ, part of our reading for next week, I’m led to believe I’m not the only one.)
  • Related: Can scholars arrive at a better understanding (or rhetoric, even) of the major tenets and purposes of the humanities via DH methods? That is, given some of the recent claims in the academy about the relevance and future of humanists’ work, is the invention of the term and concept “digital” useful as a heuristic for better defining our relevance in the academy?
  • If I’m going to pursue a major project on fanzine history (something I’m interested in), how can DH approaches support that project? How can the technologies, but also the methods, help me develop a better understanding of the transition, for example, in the mid-90s from print-based subcultural zines to e-zines. What work has already been done here? What would such a study tell us about other forms of writing? Remix culture?
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin. 150 (2010). : n. pag. 31 Aug. 2011.
Schreibman, Susan, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, eds. A Companion to Digital Humanities. Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.