digital humanities digital rhetoric

where (or if) DH fits

Ted Underwood has a great post exploring the challenges of “fitting” DH into literature departments. He observes

Humanities curricula may evolve, but I don’t think the majority of English or History departments are going to embrace rapid structural change — for instance, change of the kind that would be required to support graduate programs in distant reading. These disciplines have already spent a hundred years rejecting rapprochement with social science; why would they change course now? English professors may enjoy reading Moretti, but it’s going to be a long time before they add a course on statistical methods to the major.

And then a little later, “The reluctance of literary studies to become a social science needn’t prevent social scientists from talking about literature.” The connection between digital humanities and social science is interesting here. I think Ted’s point is that the statistical methods at work in DH are more common in the social sciences, which are generally more quantitative than the humanities (what isn’t?). Ultimately though, he makes a convincing claim that it’s ok if DH doesn’t fit into the paradigms of literary study; the two don’t need to fit together.

I have a slightly different take on this. The paradigms of literary study are shifting. DH isn’t causing this. Instead, I’d say that this paradigm shift and DH are products of a more general digital turn. Ted probably sees more closely than I do the frustrations that occur in English departments when they try to fit DH into their curriculum. In my view, while I think DH has a role to play in English departments, those departments misread the situation if they believe that what they need to do is respond to DH. What they need to do is respond to the broader digital turn happening around them, which might mean exploring the computational/statistical methods of literary studies DH, but mostly means building a digital literacy curriculum in place of the print literacy curriculum that currently exists. What literary studies should do in this regard I have no idea, but I wouldn’t equate English departments with literary studies.

And this is what Ted’s post got me thinking. When he noted the connection between DH and social sciences my first thought was “hmmm… that sounds a lot like rhetoric.” As you know, rhetoric has a humanities side, but it also has a social science side in communications departments. And there is some back and forth. English departments often contain multiple disciplines, why not add DH to the list? We can have print literary scholars, creative writers, journalists, print and digital rhetoricians, media theorists, professional/technical communicators, and digital humanists (and more). To do it though one would need a comprehensive mission that was NOT something about studying literature. In doing so, making DH fit would not be about accommodating it to literary studies or visa versa; it would be about building a larger, more relevant departmental vision.

4 replies on “where (or if) DH fits”

Thanks for this, Alex. I totally agree. I also mentioned to Ted that Rhetoric and Composition have long incorporated social science methodologies. The reason why literary studies doesn’t incorporate social science, IMO, has to do w/ many of the things Ted covers in his book about periodization. Shortly: close reading of periodized literature w/ an incorporated sense of mystification is part of the pseudo-theological background of literary studies. When Moretti talks about making a deal w/ the devil w/ distant reading, I think he’s keying into a very specific theological undercurrent in (at least) the close reading practitioners in literary studies.


Thanks Roger. I’ve read Ted’s book and found it very interesting. I suppose there is a theological foundation to literary studies as a discipline if one thinks about Matthew Arnold, which also is one explanation for literary studies’ allergy to anything it views as “technological.” I haven’t really thought much about this theological argument, though. I wonder how far it goes? I understand that the use of “pseudo” here is to designate that close reading is based on faith, but faith in a secular rather than a specifically religious sense. And yet perhaps a faith in close reading is a faith in a kind of Western/Christian sense of soul and psyche.

Now I am reminded of the theological concerns some of the early cyberneticists had with their work. Maybe an interesting angle to pursue.


Great post, Alex. I fear my piece has a bit of tunnel vision of the usual kind one finds on the lit side of English departments. But in my dept, Rhetoric is actually one of the places where digital questions are being explored most readily and most effectively. I definitely feel that digital rhetoric holds the brightest long-term future for English (if we can in fact embrace a practitioner’s perspective in time, before digital rhetorical practice starts to be monopolized by, say, Media Studies departments).

That’s one aspect of my post that I pitched too softly. I think it’s easy to read my post and come away feeling that I’m meditating about what aspects of DH will or will not be accepted by depts of English, French, History, etc. But “accepted” is the wrong verb, because I’m gently (too gently) hinting that the really decisive question is whether other disciplines get to this stuff first. I think that risk is seriously underestimated in humanities departments; we imagine ourselves as privileged gatekeepers of a long tradition, which makes it very hard for us to understand that there are other actors in the field, and also such things as missed opportunities.


thanks Ted. And perhaps not only which departments but which universities will make these investments (often against the wishes of many/most faculty). I wish I could be optimistic about digital rhetoric, but I am concerned that my disciplinary colleagues can be as print-bound as those in literary studies, albeit in different ways. Either way, I agree that somehow digital literacy and digital methods will be studied and taught somewhere by someone. I’ve joked in the past that in the near future instead of imaging one to two people in a department who do “digital humanities,” there will be one or two people doing “print humanities.” Of course I’m kidding about that. There won’t be anyone doing “print humanities.”


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