digital humanities

upcoming MLA roundtable on digital humanities and writing studies

I'll be in an MLA roundtable with Cathy Prendergast, Spencer Schaffner, Annette Vee, and Matt Gold discussing the intersections between these two fields. It's a topic that's come up many times on this blog, so now I find myself in a position where I want to say something new about the topic. On ProfHacker and DH Q&A one can see some of the underlying issues. For one thing DH and writing studies (which I supposed one would say is rhet/comp plus technical/professional communication) are both loose connections of interdisciplinary practices themselves. However at the core there is continuing ill will between literary studies and rhetoric. It is difficult to imagine a future where DH lit studies folks and digital rhetoricians identify with each other moreso than they do with their non-digital brethren (though certainly there are occasions and issues where they share common interests). But I don't know that it's enough to reach a point where the emphasis  and identification comes on that digital rather than whatever follows.

In any case I don't really think of myself as a digital humanist or even necessarily as a humanist. And, in a way, that's easy to say. I think it's typical for academics to see themselves as outsiders. After all, this is work that attracts people who like to work independently and we create scholarly value by differentiating ourselves from others. But that said, I think rhetoricians in particular are outsiders in the majority of institutions. How many English departments would imagine rhetoricians as being central to their disciplinary identity as they would any fill-in-the-blank literary period scholar? Not many. And rhetoricians appear in a variety of departments in education, social sciences, and so on. Certainly it has been argued that rhetoric is excised in order to create the Modern Anglo-American humanities with its core focus on literary studies. 

But this is all territory I've covered here before. 

I am attracted to Jeff Rice's recent comments on DH's focus on interpretation and "critical thinking."

If the digital is also a question of display (making apparent through connectivity, access, visuality, aggregation, and so on), then the need to be critical or to be a so called critical thinker can yield to the need to show.  Digital Humanities could relent on its drive to interpret or decode a supposed image for some reality (a Humanities passion exemplified maybe best in literary studies) and begin to understand how to gesture, demonstrate, juxtapose, show among actors and media.

I would put this a little differently, but I believe along the same lines. What does it mean to move from interpretation to composition? Which is not to say that one no longer interprets when composing (or that one can interpret without composing); it is instead a shift in emphasis where the scholarly objective is no longer "to interpret"  but rather to make. The DH refrain for more hack and less yack might reflect such a sentiment (though perhaps that characterizes the yacking as "mere rhetoric"). So that woudn't quite work for me. Given that I spend much of my time as a WPA, I am often thinking about these concerns in terms of undergraduate education. I would like to see a reform of general education where student compositions where not focused on interpretive claims (e.g. read a couple essays write an argumentative paper in respose) and "critical thinking" (whatever that is). Again, not to abandon interpretation, but not to see it as the goal either. I would think that DH (to the extent that one can even speak of DH as a single entity) should align itself with such a move. For my money DH is less about the technology than it is about the creeping realization that the modern humanities is played out. The objects are still there to study, the fundamental mysteries of human experience remain, errr, mysterious, but the methodologies… well, again, I've been over that territory. And, to be clear, this is as true for writing studies as any other disciplinary area. But there is a thread in the digital ends of these disciplines that is perhaps willing to move into a new perspective where interpretation becomes a nonlocal phenomenon and only stands as an intermediary step toward a new emphasis, perhaps on invetion, composition or activity rather than hermeneutics. 


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