digital humanities and the "s" word

Dear blog, if it weren’t for the slow demise of the humanities and the soap opera that surrounds it, what would there be to discuss? The “s” word, of course, is “save.” And the whole will DH save the humanities in time, tune in next week business should be getting old by now. But it’s part of that larger crisis in the humanities genre of academic journalism (and yes, blogging) that keeps on chugging.

I can’t decide if the humanities crisis is a quantifiable reality or not. The job market does seem not so good (understatement). In local news, there aren’t as many undergrads hanging out in our classes as there used to be. And there seem to be fewer people applying to humanities grad school… though I seem to recall a report from last year that reported the contrary. So who knows. If there is a crisis, it’s the kind of crisis where the people who are supposedly most affected by it (humanities professors and graduate students) go about their lives as if nothing has changed.

In any case, one part of the dynamic is “the humanities don’t need saving” argument, which is what we get here and is an argument that has to be on offer if you want to be able to make the other argument in defense of the humanities. DH plays a mercurial role in this story, like the rich stranger who comes to town, who is maybe going to save the town by buying the factory or is going to destroy the town by buying the factory or is maybe just a charlatan all along. Feel free to cast the rest of the roles if you want. My point is that we have developed this tendency to romanticize the situation. The humanities are Scarlet O’Hara and DH is Rhet Butler and the university is a plantation (of course). Whatever, you figure it out.

Or, if you want a more positive spin. How about the humanities are Jonathan and Martha Kent and DH is Kal-El

If you watch that movie trailer and think of DH as Clark Kent, well then, you’ll get the point (you might even laugh). In which case, “It’s not an S. On my world it’s a symbol that means hope.”

That’s not really helpful here.

What would be helpful? It’s fairly obvious that our students are and will be communicating in a world requiring digital literacy in much the same way as the last century required print literacy… a century that produced and/or expanded humanities disciplines to address this need. So things will change in ways we probably don’t fully understand yet, but someone will need to teach this stuff. And we probably won’t keep doing the things we used to do. But who does? It’s actually somewhat impressive that one can spin such a long running soap opera out of such a fairly straightforward situation.

Anyway, at the end of the IHE article that spurred this post, we get Mark Bauerlien, witness for the defense, saying “We’ve had 30,000 items of scholarship on Shakespeare in the last 30 to 35 years.” It’s kind of an odd non sequitur in the article, but I think the point is that DH is just a drop in the bucket, something to add to this massive corpus of work. That line evoked a different response in me, something like “My tuition dollars paid for what?!?!” But maybe closer to “I think Shakespeare might want to consider a restraining order.” And now I’m not sure if the humanities needs saving or rehab. I guess that’s just another version of the same story.

Tune in next week. 


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