DH/Digital Humanities in general – 4 points and a rant followed by a question

I’ve had a few insights into DH in general that I may or may not hold onto as my thoughts evolve. Don’t quote me on this, but:

1) DH is for involving undergraduate/graduate students and for communities in scholarship, knowledge etc., but it is not a replacement for individual humanities research. The value is in the communication, the collaboration and the ‘producing/doing’ not merely ‘ studying’.

2) It can aid in the production of that individual humanities research by scholars when conceived as a database freely available to scholars, but again, does not replace such individual humanities research.

3) It can make connections across disciplines, across forms of knowledge (image, sound, text) in a way unprecedented by / unimagined by / at times impossible in print publication culture.

*4) The sheer scale of DH enterprises prompts questions that are not merely about interdisciplinarity, generationally inflected technology use/expectations and the evolving state of knowledge: that is, they also pose questions about the nature of work.

That is, I’ve seen a few DH projects at 4humanities.org and elsewhere (great site by the way) that gave me great insight into how DH really squares with teaching. As I thought about these possibilities further — and I should say that I fully intend to engage in more DH research and practice, perhaps hopefully teaching a DH class of my own soon — I got both a clearer idea of their value and also of their limitations.

For example–and this one isn’t really on my list at all (I’ve thought of a few better ones) but it is a way of thinking through the issues posed as a relative outsider — one idea is to have an upper-level Spanish class (I’m in a Hispanic Studies department) read novels, short stories, watch movies on the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and then create a DH project as a class. the DH Spanish Civil War/Post-Civil War project would be posted online and perhaps even added to by other classes. Let’s say the focus is on linking accounts of the war with an actual map of its battles or the conditions faced by populations after the war– something very similar to things I’ve seen done. In theory this is potentially very visual, geographical, and historical.

One risk (I referred to this in an earlier piece) is that the DH project would be historical and not literary. Ok, so in response to that problem how about we take it a step further and the class (a literature class, thus my preoccupation for the literary) reads films (good ones, complex ones…) and novels (good ones, complex ones…) and then has points on the map also describe through text how the individual battles or sites have been represented through the novelistic, filmic, artistic discourse of specific authors. Then links are provided to those texts or readings/analysis of those texts (filmic, literary or otherwise)… it sounds like things are getting better perhaps, more literary… but of course also larger as projects go.

[There is also the problem of what to do about the fact that the best film about the post-war is a film that deals just as much (more?) with imagination and interior subjectivities than with the external events–how to chart/map/DH this? Is there, in this sense a ‘concrete’ or ‘antisubjectivist’ slant to DH at a large scale? I’m thinking particularly of Víctor Érice’s El espíritu de la colmena (a 1973 masterpiece)–just doesn’t fit in this analysis].

But more important:  in order to create this DH project as a class, you’ve got to distribute the readings, the films, amongst all the students, you’ve got to fragment the material–even if it is more material–you’ve got to leave time to practical assembly, the collaboration idea reflects the premise that we’re ‘all working together to construct something larger’–and this ‘something larger’… is it not equivalent to a fragmentation/specialized work environment? Is DH encouraging specialization of labor to be reflected inside of the classroom that mirrors the specialization of labor and of knowledge (see Lefebvre’s work) that comes with the triumph of exchange value in the 19th century? The worker bees (to use a metaphor from Érice’s El espíritu de la colmena–) are all struggling on their own projects, and even if working on a larger goal, it seems to me that the larger goal in question differs qualitatively from the individual experience each student would have in the ‘traditional’ classroom putting diverse texts together on their own. Does it not? I wonder.

My ambivalence continues regarding DH–there are huge benefits to be sure– but the individual humanist and the individual student were/are a world in their own. I’m not sure this is just nostalgia for another time. I think it says something about the very complex nature and multidimensional social function of DH… It seems to me that as we embrace it we may also need to think it through more critically…

9 thoughts on “DH/Digital Humanities in general – 4 points and a rant followed by a question

  1. I recently invited a scholar from Texas A & M to give a lecture and workshop at our institution re: Digital Humanities. She does 18th C Brit Lit studies and is very active and engaged, has started a lot of DH projects. Her workshop was the first hands-on experience I’d had in DH and I came away with two strong impressions. 1) DH offers the prospect of crucial tools for undergirding research performed within other arenas, but massive investment in training of faculty and students should be provided by institutions wanting to jump onto the DH bandwagon, massive investment into course redesign, release time to develop projects, etc. 2) DH definitely offers the prospect of greater interdisciplinarity and cross-boundary projects, but until a critical mass of the professoriate/grad student/undergrad student/independent researcher populations are brought up to speed on Digital and Web languages, coding, DH programming and entry, and general web and digital research skills, I see it as something that will benefit certain fields, departments and research groups far more than others, kind of a Global North vs. Global South divide where non-digitally savvy researchers and teams of people who have traditional scholarship skills but don’t know coding, digital programming, etc. will be subaltern within a framework of digital colonization and property management.

  2. This is a really interesting blog and a really interesting comment! I am a student in a Digital Humanities sort of intro class in Spartanburg, SC, and we are discussing digital humanities and the broader meanings of tech/ text by using twitter, WordPress, and other types of social media, and the end of the semester project will be the creation of a digital edition, which may inspire my own senior thesis proposal .What I am leading up to is this-you note that even in creating a larger work, we still seem to be assigning task and fragmenting labor, but I winder if this isn’t what defines DH in the first place-not the fragmentation of labor so much as the individual effort in providing one piece in a massive jigsaw puzzle-yes, we are individually perceiving, but the point is that, through collaboration and open community sharing, we are sharing ideas which will, just as the edition evolves, cause our own ideas to evolve. Let’s say, for example, that you want to do a digital edition of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” One section of the poem may, for some reason or another, remind the reader of a rock song he or she heard, and the student may post that rock song in a link connected to a specific line. We look at the link and listen to the song and realize that another line we are analyzing hails back to another song or another line we have used. So even if the labor is divided, we come back together as a group at different stages, and we realize that we have, through a supposed division of labor, opened ourselves to an entirely new world. I also wonder (though I’ve never been part of a digital edition) if it’s really fragmented if students digitally have the ability to quickly and easily view and update what they see-this is similar to viewing diverse documents in a classroom, but it is more immediate and is consistently accessible in the way a classroom can’t be. What do you think?

  3. The resources question is huge.

    I’ll point out that there is also an ‘easy’ way to launch DH projects using omeka.net, you can see one project here: https://spainsitesofmemory.omeka.net
    but I wonder what the point is? Many of the sites on omeka seem to merely be websites.

    Also, my doubts about the fragmentation of labor involved in DH persist – I’m an interdisciplinary scholar myself who seeks to do two things at once and profoundly rather than two things superficially – and many of the DH projects I’ve seen border on being aesthetic items to be contemplated, the wow factor is big, but when students ‘see’ connections between the Wasteland and a rock song they heard, to use the example above, they are not really analyzing, but more ‘appreciating’ connections to put it that way…

    • I definitely can see your point, particularly since it seems like DH projects gather great numbers of resources, but don’t necessarily analyze them on a highly individual critical basis. However,r I consider DH a sort of gateway discipline. By making connections between the rock song and a specific line in “The Wasteland,” I think you stem more beyond simple appreciation. I think the student is forced to ask WHY someone else linked the two together. This, in and of itself, results in the individual asking a number of questions: 1. Why are these two connected, and does this suggests a larger theme in the work that I might have missed 2. Why would the editors place this link in, and how does the link further change my perception of the text? 3. How do other linked in reviews of the text correspond to how I read this text, and why or why not? I know when I hear any theory or see certain groupings together (because you are absolutely right, this does play a lot with aesthetics too!) I critically analyze why the text is portrayed a certain way and why certain ideas or objects are associated with it. I’d say the danger this poses is that it takes us away from our individual one-on-one experience with text (so I think the text should be read straight up the first time at least), but it also provides us effective links and resources to follow once we have read the text, and it can effectively illustrate the changes the texts goes through as it is reintroduced to a greater readership.

      In simple English, what I mean is that DH, though it should not replace individualized research in specific topics, is simply another way of viewing text in a more expansive light, and I think DH-ists are trying to show, via these extensive scholarly editions, the myriad readings of text and how grouping all of these ideas together further changes the text and how we read it.

      I will admit that this idea needs to be fleshed out further, but we can’t flesh it our further unless we keep discussing it. I think it’s great that you do question it because DH can’t grow without people who question it!

      P.S. You might be interested in Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Media commons book Planned Obsolescence. You can comment openly on the book and some its chapters, which I have done a little bit too.

  4. Take a look at the DH Commons web page. A project of the MLA it brings together a lot of projects dealing with Digital Humanities that are exciting, diverse and wide-ranging. Having particiapted in two digital humanites pre-convention workshops at the MLA and presented in the What’s New In Digital Humanites session at the MLA in Boston the potential for innovative cross disciplinary work that charts new directions is very interesting.

  5. I’ve seen DH Commons and it is indeed interesting. So are the DH projects at 4humanities.org. Very eye opening. But also they confirm my current understanding of the strong value but limited potential of DH work. I think there are some implicit assumptions in DH work that will have to be subjected to further scrutiny. I think currently people are divided between either hating DH for the wrong reasons, or touting DH as a panacea…and the links between DH and larger shifts in the university are going underanalyzed.

  6. Pingback: The questions for digital humanities | Thinking culture

  7. I think DH projects aren’t necessarily about undergraduate/graduate research. I think they are about combining traditional humanities work with digital tools that may help us perceive humanities research in a new light. Some projects are simple, some projects are complex, some can be done on an individual basis and some require a much larger scale and a large amount of time. And I think that every DH project needs to be judged on its own merit — not every DH project, I hope, is considered transcendent or game changing to their particular field. Because it isn’t about transcendence or looking chic. It is about trying to engage in the humanities on a digital level and see what this might generate. Might I point you to Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees. Moretti’s overall argument in this book is that undergraduate or graduate students, or academics in a particular period of literary study tend to only concern themselves with the “canon” of that particular time they are researching. This is obviously because only so many people can read so many books — i.e. if you asked someone to critically read every book that came out between 1900 and 1920 that person would not get any work completed.
    But when you ask a computer to do some analysis (not all analysis of course, but some) that takes into account a body of books larger than any one individual could read in a lifetime, you get interesting results. This is only a particular example but I think it is the crux of what Digital Humanities is trying to get at — 1) There is a problem in how the traditional research is done, that I or a group feel can be handled in some small way by a digital project (in FM’s case, only using the ‘canon’ v. using every text ever written in a particular time period). 2) Use the digital method to attempt to deal with this problem. 3) Asses the results in a scientific manner — was the hypothesis true? Were the expected results the actual outcome? New information that came up during the study which may induce you to change or alter the study in some way. And finally — did this, in the end, produce something useful, meaningful, and important for the study of that field.

    On a smaller scale, and because it is what I now do for a job, there is the creation of digital scholarly editions that attempt to meld a large body of scholarly work — scholarly work that may include multiple version and editor’s hands to a text — into a single online edition. This is very similar to the creation of a print scholarly edition with the exception that there are clever digital ways to link this information together that makes using footnotes and indexes like the difference between what typewriters can do and what computers can do. Something I would say is quite important given that every newly admitted undergraduate student has now grown up with the internet at their fingertips. I point particularly to Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (http://www.oxfordscholarlyeditions.com), and Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts (http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/index.html).

    I currently work for Oxford University Press and I would like to point out that Digital Humanities should not be considered to only be an academic phenomenon. I think that a move towards the digital is present in academia, publishing, marketing, business, and much much more. It is likely to end up being the overall presence in how people do their jobs, no matter what their job is, in the next few years.

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