What DH Could Be

Way back at the beginning of last semester, I was asked to speak to UNC’s American Studies graduate students about digital humanities and, more specifically, the possibility of creating digital dissertations. To be clear, this was not about submitting PDFs of traditional dissertations to the institutional repository. What interested the students was the idea of creating fully digital dissertations that take advantage of a range of technologies to go beyond the limitations of paper. Amanda Visconti’s stunning Infinite Ulysses serves as an inspiration for the students but also as a hint for departments, graduate schools and libraries of what is coming our way in the next few years.

Of course, there is very little that can be said about digital dissertations generally from a technical point of view as the whole point seems to be utilizing whatever particular technology fits the goals of your project. What worked for Visconti obviously won’t work for everyone. We decided that what would be most valuable would actually be some sort of intro to DH talk. The only problem was, by that point, I was getting a little tired of giving that talk. Not only was I bored of saying the same thing over and over but I had also stopped buying some of my own lecture and I didn’t think I could muster the enthusiasm to revise it.

This was over the summer of 2015 and around the same time I was trying to figure out what to do, all hell broke loose on my Twitter feed. The annual Digital Humanities conference had just started in Sydney and many of those in attendance found the event unwelcoming to traditionally under-represented groups and perspectives. The hashtag #whatifDH2016 emerged to give people an opportunity to suggest improvements for the next year’s conference.

Inspired by this, Élika Ortega, a postdoctoral researcher in the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Kansas, tweeted that she was going to change the opening lecture for her fall Introduction to Digital Humanities course from “What Is DH?” to “What Can DH Be?”

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I instantly fell in love with this reorientation and used it to reframe my talk for the students in American Studies. With thanks to Trista Reis Porter for inviting me to give the talk and to Ortega and all the people using the #whatifDH2016 hashtag, what follows is a slightly cleaned up version of what I said back in September.


Digital Dissertations/Theses and What Digital Humanities Could Be?

Good morning everyone and thanks for coming out for something so early. For those of you who don’t know me yet, my name is Stewart Varner and I’m the Digital Scholarship Librarian as well as the subject liaison for American Studies here at UNC. My office is over in Davis Library. My Ph.D. is in American Studies and I’ve been working on helping libraries and digital humanities engage one another since 2010.

Why the library?
You might be wondering why the librarian is coming over to talk to you about digital humanities. That is understandable and I’d probably have the same question if I hadn’t been working in libraries for years. First, libraries and archives were major partners on many of the earliest DH projects. We’ve been super busy over the past couple of decades digitizing collections and making them available online. All this digital content has been fundamental to DH projects like the Valley of the Shadow, the Blake Archive and the Emory Women Writers Resource Project (where I got my start). The libraries at UNC have been very active in DH work going back to Documenting the American South which amazingly turns 20 years old this year.

Another reason I am here as a representative of the library, is that I like to think of the library as the research co-op of the university. It is a place to centralize some things that lots of people can use but not everyone needs to buy. Maybe that’s a subscription to a journal, maybe that’s a 3D printer maybe that is a special piece of software for digital publishing. The library also wants to talk to you about your digital work because we might eventually be where your digital work goes for preservation. That is seriously hard work but it gets slightly easier if you think about it before you start working rather than after-the-fact.

To sum up:
1. The library has decades of experience with DH.
2. The library has some of the tools and resources you need.
3. The library has a vested interest in seeing you do good work.

What is this?
The original idea for this presentation was for me to talk about digital dissertations but there also seemed to be some interest in talking about digital humanities more generally. While I’m always happy to talk to students about anything, I have to admit that I’ve begun to bore myself with “What is Digital Humanities?” talks. I was turning the idea around in my head when I got the idea to change the title from “What is DH?” to “What DH Could Be.”

Like most of my good ideas, I can’t take any credit for it. The idea for the talk comes from Dr. Élika Ortega, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Kansas. Over the summer, Élika tweeted that, rather than devote a day of her Introduction to Digital Humanities class to the question “What is DH?” she wanted to ask her students to think about what DH could be. This sounded like a much more generative conversation to me so I’ve decided to adopt it here. I’m going to talk a little about what I see going on but I’m really curious to hear what you all have to say. I’ll leave plenty of time to chat after words but please feel free to speak up if you have a question or comment.

Before I get started in earnest, It has occurred to me that I’m being slightly disingenuous; I‘ve said I would talk about what the digital humanities might become but I’m about to give you a bunch of examples of what DH already is. I would encourage you not to think of any of the examples that follow as end points or as destinations where scholarship needs to go (or avoid going). Rather, I ask that you think of these examples as suggestions for possible directions which are not mutually exclusive. These individual projects may be complete but the ideas behind them may keep going, may splinter and may merge in any number of ways.

1. Digital Humanities Could be … just the humanities
Something that people used to say a during peak DH-hype was that this stuff was not special and one day we would all be embarrassed for thinking it was something besides just the humanities. I think there might have been some not-very-well disguised defensiveness in these pronouncements. They seemed to assume a temporary faddishness and also take comfort in the promise that, while techniques may change, the basic questions will not.

That being said, there are some really interesting digital humanities projects that are based on traditional and familiar humanities questions. An extremely good example of this kind of work is coming out the Viral Text Project that is being led by Ryan Cordell and David Smith at Northeastern. This project has built a sophisticated algorithm to search digitized newspapers from the nineteenth century for texts that have been reprinted. The scholars hope to find “what qualities—both textual and thematic—helped particular news stories, short fiction, and poetry ‘go viral.’”

2. Digital Humanities Could be … neoliberalism in the humanities
Evidence that the techniques, habits and even the values of the for-profit sector are not hard to find in higher education. This is especially troubling for scholars in the humanities. Not only does their work generally fall outside of commercial interests and resist corporate workflow, it is also often one of the few sources of critique of the kind of market-driven decision-making that characterizes most other aspects of society.

While I do not believe there is anything fundamentally neoliberal about DH, it has not always explicitly engaged itself in the ideologically critical struggles that have defined humanities for some time. Some have suggested that DH actually marks a turn away from ideology and toward a seemingly neutral “method.” Of course, failing to engage in struggle is not the same thing as being neutral but, for some audiences, this particular type of non-neutrality may be more palatable.

I do not want to start pointing fingers at projects that epitomize the neoliberal digital humanities but I can give you an example of something I worked on once that made me sensitive to this potential. In another life at another job, I was loosely connected to a projected based on a digital map of ancient Rome. The idea was to make the map available online and to let students annotate it with short essays about the buildings that would be accessible through links in the map. I was asked to present the project to groups of potential and actual donors as an example of the kinds of humanities work we were doing. During these showcases, I never saw presentations about intersectional feminism, critical race theory or post-colonial scholarship; all of which were the kinds of things that were actually generating excitement and energy within the humanistic disciplines. I suspect the digital mapping project might have been deemed more suitable for a donor event for any number of reasons and it’s general lack of an explicit ideological stance was probably one of them.

3. Digital Humanities Could be … post-colonial critique
On the completely other side of the spectrum, I suggest that DH could be a powerful way to amplify all kinds of critical and/or underrepresented voices. We’ve, of course, been hearing about the radically democratic potential of the internet for as long as there has been an internet and I think it is fair to say that the web is not exactly an anti-authoritarian utopia. However, it has opened up some useful pathways and some people have taken those opportunities to create room for some underrepresented voices.

One of my favorite examples of this is the Crunk Feminist Collective. The group and their website “create a space of support and camaraderie for hip hop generation feminists of color, queer and straight, in the academy and without.” By publishing online, they are able respond quickly and at relatively low financial cost to current events from a critical perspective in an accessible voice. Traditional publishing in the humanities has none of these advantages.

This kind of work is absolutely crucial as it makes the humanities more inclusive and establishes an important link between the academy and the wider public.  Furthermore, the technology of the web makes it possible to enact many of the values of critical/post-colonial/feminist work. Whereas traditional publishing is generally exclusive and hierarchical, digital publishing can more easily be transparent, collective and networked.

4.Digital Humanities Could be … public humanities
Of course, another advantage of online publishing like the Crunk Feminists Collective is that it allows the writers to engage more directly than traditional journals with a broader public over current events. In fact, there are many examples of public humanities projects that have taken advantage of the internet. Students in UNC’s American Studies program should be aware of the immensely valuable projects like Bobby Allen’s Going to the Show and Main Street Carolina as well as Anne Whisnant’s Driving Through Time.

I also want to point to Kathleen Fitzpatrick incredibly brave experiment with public peer review for her book Planned Obsolescence. What is particularly exciting about a project like this it does not obscure how collaborative and community driven most academic work actually is but actually embraces and highlights these qualities.

5. Digital Humanities Could be … experimental humanities
(Thanks to Miriam Posner’s excellent post titled What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities which inspired this section) Some of the most radical things I’ve experienced have been written words in seemingly harmless books. However, there is a long history pushing beyond the boundaries and the limitations of the traditional text in such a way as to make the very form of the work part of the critique. This history includes radical feminist film, slam poetry and avant-garde art. This is a history of merging art and theory and taking advantage of whatever tools are available.

Therefore it should not be surprising to see experimental and even playful projects scattered throughout digital humanities. Technology offers so many opportunities to create non-linear and polyvocal narratives and all but requires interdisciplinary partnership that bring different kinds of expertise into dialog.

One example of this kind of work comes from Mark Sample, Associate Professor of Digital Studies at Davidson College, and the pair of sharks he turned into Virginia Wolf characters and twitter-poets. Sample describes this complex project in a talk he gave titled, Your Mistake was a Vital Connection: Oblique Strategies for the Digital HumanitiesThe basic idea is that there are a couple of sharks (real sharks, in the Atlantic Ocean) who have geolocation tags and whenever the surface for more than 90 seconds, their location is noted by a satellite. The non-profit research group OCEARCH makes that location data available presumably for scientists who study the movements of sharks. However, new location information about the sharks also triggers a Twitter bot created by Professor Sample which randomly generates a tweet from the sharks based on passages from Virginia Wolf’s novel Night and Day.

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The @Shark_Girls project is certainly playful but I would not dismiss it as a joke. First, as Sample points out, it is an example of deformance, a method of literary analysis that “breaks” a text in order to more clearly see what makes it work. I think the project also offers a deceptively insightful way to think about a range of issues from online surveillance to our relationship to the rest of the natural world.

6. Digital Humanities Could be … empowering
I hope that no one thinks that I see my job as digital humanities evangelist. All I really want to do is make sure people are familiar with the range of work that is now possible and also advocate that good work that is done digitally should be taken as seriously as more traditional work. This is because I think that being able to use every tool in the toolbox is empowering. I want scholars to be able to make decisions about how they share their work and tell their stories based on what will be most effective and not just what they know how to use.

However, if you’ve seen all these examples of digital projects and are still unconvinced that any of this is worth doing, I have to respect that. That being said, I have one more reason why you skeptics in particular really need to learn about DH techniques and tools. It’s not for your own work but so that you can thoroughly critique the work other scholars in your field are doing. Each year, the number of digital projects discussed at academic conferences is going up and we need people in the audience who can point out mistakes. Who better to do that than the naysayers and the skeptics? Along the same lines, we also need faculty members who can effectively evaluate the digital work their junior colleagues are doing when they go up for tenure and promotion. It won’t be enough to just say you don’t understand it so, if you don’t want to empower yourself to be digital humanist, then empower yourself to be critic of digital humanities.

Works Cited and Further Reading:

Ryan Cordell, David Smith et. al., Viral Texts: Mapping Networks of Reprinting in 19th-Century Newspapers and Magazines

The Crunk Feminist Collective, http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence

Fred Gibbs, Critical Discourse in Digital Humanities

Henry Jenkins Interview with Tara McPherson, Bringing Critical Perspectives to Digital Humanities

Alan Liu, Where is the Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?

Miriam Posner, What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities

Mark Sample, You Mistake Was A Vital Connection

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