digital humanities

digital humanities and the study of the digital

It would appear that one of the standing definitions of digital humanities is that it is the study of traditional humanities objects using digital technologies. As I have previously pointed out (as have many others) this divides the "digital humanities" from many humanists who also do work with and about digital technologies. And, as I have also said before, I have no issue with defining areas or fields in this way. However, I have noticed, especially on a local level, that there are some practical problems with this view, which had led me to wonder if I am thinking about this in the wrong way. 

First I should say that I have been part of the steering committee for UB's digital humanities initiative for three years (since I arrived here). I have been very active with DH here and received some small grants. This might appear a little strange since, obviously, I am not a digital humanist, at least not by the conventional definition. Then again, a number of the folks on the committee were not DHers and I would say the majority of projects we funded were not DH projects, again, at least by this defnition.  We funded many interesting projects, big and small. Some I would categorize as digital production/digital arts projects. Some were digital education. Others were little more than helping faculty projects get a web presence, such as helping start up an online creative writing undergrad journal (if my memory serves me). There were some true DH projects, such as Neil Coffee's Tessarae Project, which is "a freely available tool for detecting allusions in Latin poetry." Neil has received money from the NEH ODH for this project, so hopefully it will take off. So, what I've noticed is that despite the fact that UB is a fairly large university, we don't have a critical mass of digital humanities faculty. We do have an English Education program with a number of faculty interested in multimodal composing. We have a Media Study department that combines art, design, programming, and research and a Visual Studies department with a number of artists and researchers interested in digital media. There are also faculty in archeology, architecture, and other places that have interests in digital technologies that resonate with a broader conception of digital work in the humanities. I've never worked on a campus with a vibrant DH center, but I would imagine it would try to bring these kinds of folks into conversation with one another. Ultimately, it seems to me that DH's viability will rest on its capacity to address the challenges of digital literacy, democracy, and culture, that the projects of conventional DH will need to connect to those larger questions in the way that we (at least historically) have claimed that traditional humanities spoke to the concerns of literacy, democracy, and culture.

This brings me back the way that I have viewed the field of DH, which basically is as people doing something that I don't do. Without erasing differences, I am now thinking it might be more important to think about connections than differences. As has been addressed in digital humanities, the digitiziation of traditional humanities objects is not a neutral process. That is, while it is certainly salient whether one is studying a digital version of 14th century English tax records or early 19th century American novels, the fact that one is actually studying a 21st century digital record is also significant. There are some interesting ontological questions here. For instance, let's say that you have a digital record of the full text of every novel published in the US from 1800-1830. This record never existed before now. Presumably, no human has ever (or will ever) read that entire record. What is the status of knowledge produced from the study of that document, from the analysis of an assemblage that only exists in the 21st century? Does it tell us something about the 1800s? Obviously I'm not the first one to ask such questions, but it's important to note that these are not questions about 19th century American literature. They are questions about digital information. We could ask the same question about studying Twitter (and we do). 

I suppose we could think of these as methodological questions, and we do tend to think of the digital humanities as a method or methods. But I view this as more than an engineering/design/programming question (though it is obviously that as well). These are philosophical questions. Without being overly animistic, these are new beings, new objects. And the question of how to address these objects is being asked across the humanities (and beyond), so that would seem to me to be a way of building some kind of community. Again, my interest is more philosophical than practical. I mean it could be practical. I could, for example, collect close to 100,000 pages of student writing each year from UB's composition program. One could very quickly have an immense data set that would presumably be relevant to my field. But what would the ontological status of the data set be? What network of what objects would need to be constructed in order to compose knowledge from this data set that would connect to students or instructors or curriculum/policy makers? What would it mean to write for and with such a data set? I don't really have any questions to ask that data set, but I do have questions about what it means to write for and with it. Because even though I haven't collected those pages, they do exist, just as the Twitter stream and the blogosphere exist. Even though I don't have access to that data, I am aware that I am writing into a giant flood of information, even if I am unsure how I am connected to it. I know that I have to build connections, maintain networks, and so on, and that these tasks are different now than they were a decade ago. So these are questions of method, of rhetoric, but they must involve philosophical concerns as well.


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