on the digital turn in digital humanities

This is partly a continuation of the last post, maybe more like a variation on the theme. It's also inspired by Gardner Campbell's recent post on the New Media Seminar for faculty and staff that he's been doing. The question here is, "what happens when a humanist becomes a 'digital' humanist?"

So in part that depends on how one defines digital humanities (see previous post), but here I want to focus more on the experiential difference rather than an abstract definition. By that I mean to suggest that "going digital" means waking up every day and living a different academic life from the one you did before you were digital. 

I'm not sure that I recall this transition for myself. I don't think I ever called myself a "humanist," does anyone? We tend to identify ourselves more by specific disciplines, e.g., rhetorician, historian, philosopher, literary critic, etc. The very first time I taught, in 1992, was in a computer lab. My first publication was for an online journal, Theory & Event. I edited an online literary magazine in 1995-6 as a Phd student. Every academic job I've ever had was partly based on my ability to teach with technology. In short, I can't say I was ever a "non-digital" rhetorician. 

At the same time, I experienced the social/mobile media revolution along with everyone else over the last decade. When I started blogging here in May 2003 (has it been that long?!), my academic life shifted. I moved beyond the walls of the college CMS and started teaching with blogs, wikis, podcasts, Ning, Second Life, Twitter, etc., etc. I built a whole new professional community out of the associations I made in those networks. I am still doing that today. It's in these spaces that I came to know Ian Bogost, Levi Bryant, Tim Morton, Graham Harman, and other object-oriented folks. I also work daily with many faculty who have made that shift, so I think I know something of the difference and also of where we need to/might go.

The shift has to do with what is happening right now. It's 9:27am. I'm sitting in a classroom waiting to observe one of my adjunct's composition classes and I'm 360 words or so into this post. Finding time to blog this semester, my first as director of composition at UB, has been more challenging than in the past, but it is always tricky. In some respect, one has to prioritize this activity and value what it does. What else could I be doing right now? 

  • writing a policy memo on something or other related to the program
  • reading a journal article or book in my field
  • writing a conference proposal for Computers and Writing (deadline 11/15)
  • working on an in-house grant proposal (same deadline)
  • writing any one of a dozen emails

Those are all things I need to do, and arguably I don't need to be writing this. 

OK, so now I have observed that class and met with the instructor. It's 11:30, and I am back to blogging. So while I still need to do all those things on that list, I am doing this because, for me, being "digital" means being part of a blog-networked community. Of course blogging is not the sole means of being digital, or even necessary. My point is that becoming an academic blogger changed the way I do my work and what I value as a researcher. While I realize that blog posts are not considered great sources when I cite them in a articles, I know that reading blogs and tweets and similar things turn me on to other more academic material. I know that TED talks and other videos connect me to a larger field of academic inquiry than I could get otherwise. And my academic life operates in that larger field in a way that I do not think would be possible for a non-digital colleague who would more likely define her life around a narrower definition of academic interest and work. That colleague certainly has other non-academic intellectual issues, e.g. listening to NPR or reading NY Times, but there is a wall there that I think has dissolved for me in my becoming digital.

So I can see the conundrum that non-digital colleagues face, a conundrum that I think is visible in Gardner's discussion of his seminar. Simply put, you cannot keep your non-digital notion of what it means to be an academic and become digital. It is a more fundamental transition than that. It means inhabiting a new academic space with new behaviors and expectations. Just like we all learned in graduate school what it meant to be non-digital academics, one must now learn those ethics anew. 

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