Introduction to Digital Humanities

RELI/ENGL 39, Fall 2015, University of the Pacific

So What’s Up with the Digital Humanities, Anyway?

In the wake of the two readings we’ve been given for Tuesday, the biggest conclusion about the Digital Humanities (DH) I can draw is that no one can seem to agree on what it is. I imagine all these different people and organizations involved with the DH as chickens running around squawking and pecking at each other. And no doubt it would only be worse if they were all stuffed into one chicken coop together. These people must be a lot of fun at parties, right?

But I digress with my poultry analogy. If I were to give some kind of definition of the DH myself, it would be along the lines of, “people involved in Humanities work that either use digital media to examine texts, art, etc, or contribute to the Humanities through digital media.” It seems the happy medium of the DH would be to bring together the “hack vs. yack” sides, as Mark Sample puts it in “The Digital Humanities is Not about Building, it’s about Sharing”. Because truthfully, the DH involves both theory and practice, just as regular Humanities studies do. We’ve been doing both in class – examining texts with tools like Voyant, and then discussing our theories about them in our blog posts, for instance. Those who pick apart historical documents using computers and technology are just as much Digital Humanists as those who write their own essays and journals online. Frankly it baffles me why many scholars haven’t seemed to realize that yet. Why can’t we all just get along, guys?

In light of this, I think the question of why the DH, as opposed to what they are, is much easier to answer. Lisa Spiro essentially spells this out for us (in a rather repetitive way, I might add, but we’ll ignore that). Her lengthy discussion about a potential value statement for the DH is precisely why this shiny branch of the Humanities exists. She puts particular emphasis on “openness” and “collaboration” throughout her essay, which I think gets right at the heart of the matter. The DH provides a medium for sharing insight, findings, creative work, and a whole truckload of other information about the Humanities that hadn’t been available before the kind of technology we have today. Humanists can share with each other across global divisions in a matter of seconds when they work digitally, and that allows for nearly everyone to have their work seen and discussed, rather than isolating people to a small ring of local chitchat. It connects everyone who dabbles in the Humanities, and provides a means for us all to work together.

Spiro also mentions how diverse the DH are, at least in terms of things like occupation, education, gender, etc. (She does mention the DH are not as racially diverse as they could be, but that’s an issue for another time that needs to be worked on.) The diversity that the DH does have as of now is another essential expansion on what is normally referred to as just the Humanities. Bringing all these different kinds of people together through the digital world allows for input on Humanities subjects from varied viewpoints, rather than just from specific scholars who publish their work in written journals. Spiro brings up social media like Twitter in her essay, and how that brings about the chance for basically anyone to join a discussion about the Humanities. Though that may not always be a good thing, depending on who you ask, I do think it’s important to allow for that kind of broad contribution to the Humanities, something else that wouldn’t exist without the digital realm.

So in the long and the short of it, the Digital Humanities is an evolution of sorts for the Humanities. It’s moving Humanities work to a technological sphere, one that provides that “openness” and “collaboration” Spiro was so fond of rehashing. And to me, that’s a fantastic step forward for the Humanities as a whole. Because let’s be real, without it, Humanists would most likely be holed up in their own little thinking caves writing down their discoveries on pieces of paper. While the being holed up part might still be true, at least if there’s a computer involved, one wouldn’t be so entirely alone.

1 Comment

  1. I really liked your “Poultry Analogy” because it does seem like the scholars and professionals involved in the Digital Humanities are just off doing their own thing, while at the same time trying to define the Digital Humanities: telling others what is or isn’t a part of the Digital Humanities.
    And you point out how Spiro talks about “openness” and “collaboration” which I think is really something that the Digital Humanities needs. Rather than trying to define it, I think that scholars should just explore it and share what they learn and discover with one another.

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