Digital Humanities: A Multiple Choice Test

Digital Humanities 101: The Final Exam

Which of the following is “doing” Digital Humanities?

a) a cross-campus, international team of scholars, supported by an NEH grant, who are encoding, organizing, and publishing a corpus of illuminated manuscripts via a customization of Omeka;

b) a professor preparing a manuscript (collecting screenshots, embedding video clips, inserting hyperlinks, tagging, etc.) on picaresque narratives in blaxploitation films of the 70s for submission to an electronic, open, peer-reviewed online journal;

c) an adjunct professor of English setting up a Blackboard site hours before the semester begins and hours after she’s been assigned a section of freshman composition;

d) a somewhat scarred veteran of the culture wars sending out an email to colleagues, trying to organize a group statement on shared governance at his local institution of higher learning.

If you’ve been following the buzz about Digital Humanities at the MLA, in the NY Times, and in the blogosphere, you’d naturally pick choice number one.  Large, grant-funded, text-based, archival, data-driven, and scholarly projects – – like the awesome Mapping the Republic of Letters project – – have garnered the high-wattage limelight, as digital humanities emerges onto the public stage.

Several of the more programmatic statements of digital humanities might seem to support your choice.  For instance, the Humanities 2.0 manifesto evokes and celebrates digital humanities as “an array of convergent practices” focused on “the building of bigger pictures out of the tesserae of expert knowledge,” “large scale, distributed models of scholarship,” “expanded, global . . . research communities,” co-creation, “iterative, cumulative, and collaborative” “wikinomic scholarship,” performed by “the scholar as curator and the curator as scholar” within a new “topography” of disciplines.  Invoking its roots within humanities computing, Matthew Kirschenbaum says digital humanities is about new forms of “publicity” for scholarship, a scholarship and pedagogy more deeply and explicitly “bound up with infrastructure,” and more collaborative practices of scholarship and pedagogy.

A quick scan of the NEH Office of Digital Humanities pages adds further weight to your choice.  Funded projects cluster around key terms like: library, archive, artifacts, manuscripts, database, text encoding, etc.  In the NEH’s representation, digital humanities is often figured as part of the resource extraction industry: funded scholars are “digging into data,” “digging into the Enlightenment,” “harvesting speech datasets,”  etc.  It’s enough to make a poor country boy hum “Sixteen Tons” and hang a poster of John L. Lewis on his office wall!

Obviously, a very exciting and powerful model of digital humanities is being installed at the center of a new debate about the relationship among the humanities, technology, and the profession.  (Identifying all the players, motives, and interests behind this emerging consensus is also an important task.)  Yet, before anything like a “field” of digital humanities gets seriously institutionalized, we might linger for a minute or two over our multiple choices.

All of the answers to the exam question involve faculty in the humanities doing something digital.  In each case (archive, manuscript, Blackboard, and email), faculty use digital media to accomplish a professional goal.  And, in each case, as faculty use the “digital,” the digital reshapes this work and the roles (scholar, teacher, full-time and precarious faculty) associated with it.  If “digital humanities” is indeed an “array of convergent practices,” then using Blackboard to teach a course in humanities is also doing “digital humanities.”

So, how is it that some of these digital practices are taking center stage and others are not?  First, despite its claims to novelty, the digital humanities seems to repeat the hierarchies that already structure the humanities and academia in general, e.g. scholarship over teaching, text versus reading, profession (as “invisible college“) over institution.

Second, history has always been the enemy of the avant garde.  Although emerging paradigms of digital humanities imply a particular history (rooted in humanities computing), the absence of any explicit engagement with the history of the digital’s intersection with the humanities tilts the paradigm away from some professional practices (teaching, for instance) and toward others (for instance, a very, very conservative notion of humanities “scholarship”).  The absence of names like Randy Bass and Roy Rosenzweig from current discussion of digital humanities is, at the least, ironic (given the emphasis on “scholarship”).

And finally, and to me most problematically, the emerging sense of “digital humanities” reproduces and maintains the class structure of academia.  Digital humanities resources are collecting around the usual suspects – – private and public research universities.  Institutions, like state universities and community colleges, defined by that other academic labor – – teaching – – are being pushed to the margins. Likewise, “digital humanities” doesn’t seem very visible in institutions dominated by those other academic laborers – – precarious or contingent faculty.  And, there seems little attention or effort to think about “digital humanities” at institutions dominated by working-class or non-elite students.

We are all doing digital humanities – – Blackboard users, emailers, EBSCO users, etc.  Arguably, these more pedestrian and less lustrous uses of the digital are doing more to reshape the humanities than any NEH-funded API to navigate Jeremy Bentham’s manuscripts.  Perhaps, by yoking the humanities to neo-liberalism’s technological fetish, “digital humanities” is a last-ditch effort to preserve something of the humanities in perilous times.  If so, we need to be sure that digital humanities doesn’t become an instrument of social and cultural triage.  Embracing a broader vision of digital humanities, one that includes the full range of institutions, academic labor, and practices, means leveraging the “digital” to change the whole world of humanities.

E.g. what would it mean to add an option “e” to our multiple choice exam?  Yep, you guessed it: “all of the above.”


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