Minor Field Readings, Part 1: Digital Humanities

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This summer I am completing a readings course for my minor field in Digital History.  This weeks readings have discussed the digital humanities, the history of the field, and have offered critiques as well as predictions about where the field is going.  Most volumes about Digital Humanities discuss the history of the field and place its origins in the history of humanities computing.  While there is certainly truth in these accounts, they often overlook the histories of disciplines such as history and how these fields merged together to form the “Digital Humanities” around 2004.  This week’s readings have coincided with the recent conversations about the digital humanities by  by Tom Schienfelt and Stephen Robertson. The current discussion about the fragmentation of the Digital Humanities into disciplines makes reading about the debates, critiques, and trends in the Digital Humanities even more interesting.  While history is most certainly part of the digital humanities conversation (and I’m not arguing that it shouldn’t be) I think it is useful to look at the issues in the field from the perspective of an aspiring digital historian and to discuss how they might be relevant to those of us looking to create digital dissertations and those of us preparing to enter the job market in the next six years.


The Digital Humanities community spends a lot of time working to define just what exactly the digital humanities are.  Many of the edited works such as Matthew Gold’s _Debates in Digital Humanities, _Berry’s _Understanding Digital Humanities, _and Burdich’s co-authored volume _Digital_Humanities _tell a similar story of the history of digital humanities.  The origins of humanities computing go as far back as the 1940s (to Father Busi) but humanities computing accelerated during the 1980s and 1990s when scholars began to utilize the power of computing for humanistic inquiry.  Scholars of this “first wave” used quantitative measures to study traditional humanities topics.  Their projects tended to harness the power of the database to perform quantitative analysis to analyze text and tended to create focus on large-scale textual encoding and digitization projects.  This first wave however, originated and was, arguably, a trend coming out of English and Literature departments.

Meanwhile, in the field of history a very different trend emerged alongside the World Wide Web.  Originating with the American Social History Project and Roy Rosenzweig’s vision, digital history began with efforts to digitize and make available primary sources and teaching material, primarily for K-12.  Roy’s creation, the Center for History and New Media, was founded in 1994 and in the 90s was largely focused on the educational and public uses of the internet.  By 2001, CHNM moved into collecting histories online (through the 9/11 digital archive) and by 2003 began developing tools for researchers.  Developing alongside the internet and the increasing social nature of the web tools such as ECHO, Zotero, and later Omeka emerged.  As Tom Schienfeldt points out the development of digital history developed “as a natural outgrowth of longstanding public and cultural historical activities rather than a belated inheritance of the quantitative history experiments of the 1960s and 1970s.”   Digital history, in comparison to the dominant narrative outlined in Berry, Brundick, and Gold was rooted in “oral history, folklore studies, radical history and public history”.[2. Tom Schienflet, «The Dividends of Difference: Recognizing Digital Humanities’ Diverse Family Tree/s»]

While these two strains of digital humanities may have developed and originated in different contexts, the mid 2000s brought circumstances that would unite the two under the “big tent” of what became known as “digital humanities”.  As Kirschenbaum has described, the term “digital humanities” appeared in 2004 in the publication of _A Companion to the Digital Humanities, _which argued for the replacement of the term “humanities computing” with “digital humanities” allowing for a broader group of disciplines to participate.  In the next few years the term was used in the formation of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations and, perhaps most significantly, the establishment of the Office of Digital Humanities at the NEH.  The appearance of the term “digital humanities” represented several different branches of disciplinary digital work merging together underneath the “big tent”.


It has been argued over an over again that the Digital Humanities are the “next big thing”.[3. Prescott, Consumers, creators, or commentators?  Problems of audience and mission in the digital humanities]   And while I agree with that, I think it’s taken longer than expected for it to be adopted, especially in history departments and I think that has a lot to do with the inward discussion in the Digital Humanities.  Andrew Prescott discusses the range of reasons that digital humanities have not been widely adopted in academic departments and comes to the “less comforting conclusion” that the reason dh hasn’t been adopted is due to its “collective failure to produce scholarship of outstanding importance and significance”.[4. Ibid]  Often times, it seems, Digital Humanists are so busy defining, debating, and justifying digital humanities that they struggle to answer the big “So what?” question and compel their more traditional colleagues to care.  However, some dh’ers would disagree and would argue that the digital humanities is currently focused on tool building and that it just hasn’t developed enough yet to make sophisticated arguments. The debate over arguments, tools, and the results of dh work continue to define the major issues within the field.

Among the debates that are prominent in the field are discussions of what the digital humanities is and what is considered DH work.  Stephen Ramsay’s 2011 talk at the MLA entitled “Who’s In and Who’s Out?” argued that “if you are not making anything, you are not — in my less-than-three-minute opinion — a digital humanist.”   He continued by stating “but if you aren’t building, you are not engaged in the “methodologization” of the humanities, which, to me, is the hallmark of the discipline…”   Whether or not you have to be able to code in order to participate in dh is a hotly contested issue.  Ramsay clarified his position later in another blog post ,«On Building», and claimed that knowing how to program an code at that level applied to a very small subsect of the dh community.  Instead, he clarified that building doesn’t necessarily require programming knowledge but instead a move from reading and critiquing to building and making—which in his opinion defines the digital humanities.  He explained:

All the technai of Digital Humanities — data mining, xml encoding, text analysis, gis, Web design, visualization, programming, tool design, database design, etc — involve building; only a few of them require programming, per se. Only a radical subset of the dh community knows how to code; nearly all are engaged in building something.

This conversation about what the basic required skills for digital humanists are, touches on the idea of tool building and whether or not the digital humanities have to make arguments.

Tom Schienfeldt has argued that the digital humanities do have to ask and answer questions—these are values that are at the core of what the humanities are all about.  However, there haven’t been very many questions answered as of yet, and there hasn’t been any significant interventions into the field because of digital methodologies.  Schienfeldt argues, however, that the better question is “When does digital humanities have to produce new arguments?”  First, the tools must be developed and properly honed in order for scholars to make new arguments and interpretations possible.  Schienfeldt argues that “At the very least, we need to make room for both kinds of digital humanities, the kind that seeks to make arguments and answer questions now and the kind that builds tools and resources with questions in mind, but only in the back of its mind and only for later”.  The lack of questions being answered because of digital humanities tools has led to a large amount of skepticism in the academic world about the usefulness of DH and this remains one of the core debates that surrounds any DH work.

I would argue that the Digital Humanities do have to make arguments.  However, I would also argue that we are at a point where a sufficient number of tools have been developed in order to aid digital humanistic inquiry and we should be beginning to see results.  However, I think one reason we have not yet seen the types of results and arguments that we all think digital tools can help us to accomplish, is because of the lack of training (for both grad students and mid-career academics).  The number of institutions that train their graduate students to use digital methodologies in their research can be counted on two hands.  Graduate students in the humanities are just beginning to utilize digital techniques and tools in their research and they are significantly limited depending on the amount of support at their institution.  Lincoln Mullen and Cameron Blevins are arguably the first to use digital methodologies in their dissertation research and I think in the next 3-7 years we’ll see the emergence of digital dissertations that rely on digital tools and methodologies and make significant contributions by answering questions.  But like everything in academia—it takes time and change is long slow process.


Among all the debates about what DH is and what should be considered DH, most still believe that the application of digital technology and methodologies will allow scholars to answer questions and come to conclusions that wouldn’t be possible through traditional research methods.  The promise of DH and the reason its been touted as “revolutionary” lies in its ability to take “traditional problems in the humanities and propose not just how computational methods and analytics can be used to investigate the area, but also how the findings derived from the method offer new insights and results that traditional methods cannot”.  At a fundamental level the goals of all digital humanists are the same whether or not they differ slightly depending on disciplinary allegiances.   But if dh holds as much promise as most digital humanists claim—why hasn’t it been more widely adopted?  As I pointed out earlier, I think the answer lies largely in the lack of training for both graduate students and academics.  I think this is where the disciplinary fragmentation of dh is not necessarily a bad thing.  Stephen Robertson recently pointed out on twitter that “Both D & H worry many, thus it can be easier to promote exploration of D if begin on their own disciplinary ground”.  It can be easier to explain the uses and the benefits of dh to those who aren’t necessarily on board or don’t understand it’s promise by demonstrating how it can be useful to their work.  I think we won’t see a widespread acceptance of DH in traditional academic departments for quite some time and surely not until we can demonstrate through published and influential scholarship the conclusions that can be drawn and the results that can be reached only through the use of digital tools and methodologies.