digital humanities digital rhetoric

digital humanities and digital literacy #dhdebates

In her latest HASTAC post, Cathy Davidson considers "How Digital Humanists Can Lead Us to National Digital LIteracy," and she frames digital literacy in terms of one's ability to answer the following question (as she says, "an entrance exam question for 21st-century literacy):

QUESTION:   If SOPA/PIPA had been passed into U.S. law in 2002, would Wikipedia exist today?  If either law had passed in 2012,  would Wikipedia exist in 2022?  Why or why not?  Discuss.

There's no doubt that IP, copyright, and other legal issues are central to the way digital networks function. In a way I find it a curious question though, because we wouldn't establish the analogous question as an entrance exam for print literacy (e.g. if the Constitution hadn't established copyright laws, would Huckleberry Finn have been written?). Certainly there is a feedback loop among cultural conceptions of authorship, property, the marketplace, technology, and the law. And what we see with digital networks is clearly a shift in technology that has fed into a shift in how authorship works, while the remaining concepts are seemingly in flux.

So, yes, this is one important question and one would bring one's digital literacy to bear in answering it.

It is also, not incidentally, a question that interests many digital humanists (and I really want to make an effort to use that term narrowly: that is, scholars who employ/build digital tools to study traditional objects of humanistic inquiry). There is no doubt that digital humanists are proponents of open source (as both a practice and an ethic) and have been strong opponents of SOPA/PIPA. To be a digital humanist, I would imagine, requires a fairly high digital literacy, just as traditional humanists required a fairly high print literacy. However, at this point I need to interject that beyond a fairly low level, literacies become highly specialized. E.g., being a literate humanist does not mean that you can read extensive legal contracts, complex technical documentation, or a physics journal. Just as I would argue that all faculty are responsible for teaching writing, for teaching the specialized discursive practices of their field, we are all responsible for helping our students become literate. That is, part of teaching a student about physics or mathematics is teaching them how to read like a physcist or mathematician. 

From this perspective I think it is unfair to put the expectation on the digital humanities (at least as I am using the term here) to lead the way in terms of digital literacy, just as I think it would be a misplaced expectation to believe that literary scholars, historians, and other traditional humanists led the way in terms of print literacy. I was an English and History double-major as an undergrad, and now I am a rhetorician (of sorts). Certainly as an English major I learned strategies for reading poetry, novels, and plays. As a history major, I read some important historical documents and a good number of scholarly texts by historians. However I can't say that we ever spent much time talking about the practice of reading or deciphering arguments in either major. I did learn some literary interpretive strategies (mostly close reading techniques, scansion, things like that) in English, but those strategies don't really apply to non-literary texts. 

If there is a humanistic discipline that studies literacy in some broad sense it is obviously rhetoric. Yes, literary studies does as well, but only in the narrow frame of literature. And that's not meant as a criticism. We all study what we study. Every field has its limits. Outside of the humanities in education, communication studies, psychology, cognitive science, there are other modes of investigation into literacy. There's linguistics, but I don't know of a linguist that would say s/he studies "literacy," and there is media studies, and perhaps there are folks in that field that study media literacy, but they may or may not think of themselves as humanists. In any case, those humanists who study literacy and/or digital literacy in particular, including me, wouldn't really think of themselves as digital humanists. And even though digital humanists are clearly digitally literate and are deeply concerned about questions such as the SOPA/PIPA one, I don't think that's where their work lies. Similarly a literary scholar or historian or philosopher may be concerned about K12 literacy or the quality of undergraduate writing, but that's not their area of scholarly investigation. 

Certainly, Davidson (and HASTAC) offer up a different, more capacious, definition of digital humanities. By Davidson's terms, I am a digital humanist, as are all the people mentioned above, plus many people who are not academics. It is because of the visibility of HASTAC and other organizations, which have drawn us all together under this DH nomenclature, that I find myself in the position I am in. I am uncertain of the value of being lumped together. I think there's some interesting scholarship being done by the people I would more narrowly term digital humanists, but I don't think its work that really addresses itself to Davidson's concerns. I also think there's interesting scholarship being done in my field (computers and writing/digital rhetoric), in education, in media studies, and so on, that does directly examine the question of a public/democratic digital literacy and the attendent pedagogical challenges. I am not sure how much overlap there is between the two, though I do believe we are fellow travellers and share many values, practices, and pragmatic concerns. 


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