Digital Humanities or Just Humanities

[ This is the text of a brief talk I wrote as part of the Makers’ Culture and the Future of English Studies panel at the 2013 meeting of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association. I would like to thank Mark Bousquet for bringing us together and Brian Croxall, Rebecca Burnett and David Fisher for allowing me to present with them.]


I want to begin with a potentially disappointing disclaimer; while the title of this talk is Digital Humanities or Just Humanities I’m not actually going to answer that question. Rather, I want to use the existence of the question as a jumping off point to talk about what this whole thing looks like from my perspective as a digital scholarship librarian.

If that sounds like I’m sidestepping something, it’s because I am. I’m uncomfortable with the binary – this or that – and I detect a bit of defensiveness in the very asking of the question; an attempt to re-inscribe emerging and challenging ideas into a safe and familiar field. The question seems to ask for some reassurance that everything will be OK and that the computers won’t really change what we think of as the humanities. There are many appropriate and necessary critical responses to what might broadly be thought of as “the digital” but dismissing it as a trend or trying to rhetorically neutralize it is a wasted opportunity.

There is no need to retell the genesis story of the name Digital Humanities but it is worth remembering that the term emerged to describe a relatively focused field that utilized computers for organizing, displaying and searching for patterns within digitized texts. Over the past 4 or 5 years, the term Digital Humanities has expanded beyond its birthplace and is currently at the point where it is routinely deployed with varying levels of precision and responsibility. It may have become embarrassingly trendy for a little while as well. I do not have to tell this group that this happens all the time; words acquire new meanings and fields of inquiry evolve. I don’t want to argue for the purity of any one single definition but, for the sake of clarity, I do want to create a few categories within what is becoming the increasingly stuffed bag of DH.

  • Digital Publishing :: online journals, eBooks,
  • Scholarly Social Networking :: Twitter, Facebook,, blogs
  • Digital Pedagogy :: classroom tech, MOOCs
  • Digital Libraries :: online archives, repositories, databases
  • Humanities Computing :: data visualization, distant reading (text mining/analysis), computational linguistics

This expansion of what counts as digital humanities has changed the way some scholars think of what counts as their work and the concept of building has emerged to differentiate some work from a more contemplative and traditionally discursive humanities.

I don’t want to make too much of this distinction though; while we can obviously think of traditional humanities writing and lecturing in terms of building, digital tools allow us to really extend that in deeply engaging ways to include dynamic, multi-modal projects. My fellow panelists will cover classroom-based building but we can also point to the emergence of digital methods and widespread adoption of digital tools in humanities research. I’m thinking of the building of digital corpora, databases and visualization exhibits as well as the codes, scripts and algorithms that help us create and analyze them. Graduate student training, particularly methods training, has been expanded to include hands-on work building projects collaboratively. Likewise, digital publishing has given us the ability to build dynamic and interactive content into scholarly essays, articles and books.

I first became aware of this particular thread of the conversation, this emphasis on building, when I attended my first THATCamp. The Humanities and Technology Camp is an unconference. That means that sessions are proposed, selected and scheduled by the attendees more or less on site. There are no presentations or PowerPoints and the focus is on skill sharing and collaborative creation. Something you are likely to hear at THATCamp is “less yack, more hack.” The unofficial slogan playfully and explicitly draws a distinction between THATCamp and more traditional gatherings. If a traditional conference, such as this one, is focused on individual scholars reporting on the conclusions of their research, THATCamp seeks to start projects, build communities and provide hands-on training for tools.

There are several things about the kind of makers’ culture exemplified by THATCamp that are very attractive to me:

  • the act of building can produce new insights
  • a more haptic humanities is almost necessarily more collaborative.
  • these tools often make projects more engaging for wider audiences

Of course, what I see as the benefits of building, others may see as the drawbacks. Building requires learning new skills. Collaboration requires time and, occasionally, compromise. And some of us really like the fact that most people don’t understand what we do. We’d never say that of course but I think it’s pretty obvious.

Other concerns came to the fore in early 2011 after Steve Ramsay, speaking at MLA, stated explicitly that digital humanities is about building and suggested that digital humanists needed to know how to code. As “digital humanities” had popped up in a number of job ads and appeared to have caught the attention of numerous funding agencies, Ramsay’s remarks provoked some anxiety amongst an already anxious group. Furthermore, some thought the comment was elitist and created an exclusive in-group. This was puzzling, of course, for all the DH scholars who had been toiling away in relatively low prestige quarters of the academy for years and had built a radically egalitarian scholarly network committed to open access and freely available open source software.

In hindsight, the ensuing conversation was great. Some really important issues were placed on the table particularly around race and gender and who gets to participate in the digital humanities. For example, how could it be that men would routinely outnumber women at DH gatherings? This is common in the tech industry but not in the humanities. Along the same lines, why were these gatherings usually predominantly white? The community had to ask itself – and needs to continue asking itself – if there is anything structural causing this and if there is anything proactive they could do to stop it.

I also appreciated the conversation around whether or not the use of digital tools has always been adequately theorized. Are we sure we are not mistaking superficially dazzling for truly insightful? Is it our role as scholars to confront the sometimes shocking labor practices and dangerous environmental impact of the tech sector that fuels our work but is completely hidden from us and allowed to remain hidden by us?

We have seen a few attempts to engage these concerns in the form of critical code studies, THATCamp Feminisms, THATCamp HBCU and an active network of scholars using social media to talk about postcolonial studies under the name DH PoCo. Josh Honn, Digital Scholarship Fellow at the Center for Scholarly Communication & Digital Curation at Northwestern writes,

what I am advocating for is a more central role in DH for this skeptical digital work, both embedded in and existing outside of the digital projects and tools we use and build.

– Never Neutral: Critical Approaches to Digital Tools and Culture in the Humanities

 There is clearly still work to do on this front and I hope that kind of critical embrace characterizes the next chapter of this story.

Ultimately, and to get back to the question I sidestepped at the beginning, I don’t think it really matters if you want to say digital humanities or something else. What will matter is whether or not you are doing good work, ethical work and work that makes effective and rigorous use of the tools and methods that are available whether they be digital or not. I don’t recommend adding digital tools just because you think its cool but I absolutely advocate taking some time to experiment to see if something might be useful.

Atlanta, GA
November 7, 2013


Further Reading:

Stephen Ramsay: On Building

Stephen Ramsay, Why I’m In It

THATCamp, About

Postcolonial Digital Humanities, Mission Statement

Josh Honn, Never Neutral: Critical Approaches to Digital Tools and Culture in the Humanities

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *