13 April 2010

Digital Humanities vs the digital humanist

[Note: I'm cross-posting this, an article I wrote for the official HyperStudio blog, since this space allows for comments.]

What does it mean to be a Digital Humanist?

In a Dave Parry's widely-circulated, post-MLA2009 blog post, tauntingly titled "Be Online or be Irrelevant," Parry argued that social media should be front-and-center in Digital Humanities:
The more digital humanities associates itself with social media the better off it will be. Not because social media is the only way to do digital scholarship, but because I think social media is the only way to do scholarship period.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this claim sparked fierfce debate over the role, nature and future of digital scholarship. Who can claim to be a digital humanist? Do you have to have a PhD? How much coding do you have to know? Are humanities bloggers and twitterers participating in e-scholarship? At the root of it all: how do we (or do we not) want to delimit our community?

Last year, I completed a born-digital thesis for the Comparative Media Studies program here at MIT. It was written as a media archaeology that attempts to take its methodology seriously, excavating the deep history of text-generating mechanisms through a text generating mechanism and thereby forcing the reader to participate in the writerly, combinatorial practices I was theorizing. At the time, I considered my work deeply implicated in Digital Humanities: I was doing e-scholarship, I thought, making a webtext that rethinks the relationship between media form and media content. Wasn't this exactly what I spent my days doing as a research assistant for HyperStudio -- designing web-based scholarly tools that remediate our relationship with texts, artifacts and history?

Since its completion, though, I've found my work doesn't have much resonance with the Digital Humanities community. Labs like those at UVA or GMU direct their energies toward large-scale, database-oriented resources such as NINES or scholarly aids like Zotero -- tools that, in themselves, tend to support research whose end is in print. Meanwhile, to many university presses, "e-publishing" still means PDFing printed journals. Somewhere in the push to build an infrastructure supporting web-based research (an infrastructure which, I should underscore, we need, and I use), we lost the idea of web-based scholarship. It's a difference between means and ends in academic work.*

A few months ago, I exchanged emails with Cheryl Ball, editor of Kairos, regarding another webtext I was working on. I naively asked her what had happened to all that early '90s excitement over multimedia essays. Her response (accompanied with a chuckle, I could tell) was that it only seems like nothing has been done in these areas because "most folks have ignored the work that rhetoric and composition has been doing on multimodal scholarship since the late 90s." While the "literary-critical digital humanities scholars" have pushed to produce archival, collaborative resources to support scholarship, others (often producing scholarship digitally, and in doing so rethinking what scholarship itself means.

So what was I doing? My born-digital thesis was not a scholarly resource: I wasn't and never intended to present or curate a collection of digital artifacts for others to browse. My work was critical and individualistic, conscious of its methodology and historical moment. It strove for self-awareness. In this respect, it had more in common with the essays on Kairos than with the work of NINES; yet it never emerged from the disciplines of rhetoric and composition. I was more interested in challenging notions of "old media" literacies, or even "literacy" itself, than exploring those of "new media."

I was positioning my work as Digital Humanities, but Digital Humanities didn't really want to claim it. Ultimately, my nomadic thesis found a home in the digital arts community, where it's been shown and circulated as "art." Perhaps this shouldn't surprise me -- artists are people used to rethinking the fraught form/content relationship.

I want to use this example to revisit Parry's question about social media -- a question that I think, now, can be reformulated as one of methodology. On the one hand, the Digital Humanities community -- the community formed around institutions and labs and grant cycles and funding structures -- has set itself up as a production house, a place where the infrastructural work of digitization, marking-up texts, and producing tools to facilitate research gets done. Many of these tools, like text mining applications, attempt to rethink the boundaries of texts and artifacts in a digital space, and all -- even the most minimal PDF work of university presses -- have made scholarship easier and quicker. On the other hand, though, is the promise of a more radical, and radically individual, break with university structures: Parry's social media-savvy digital humanist. This is the twitter-blogger who follows her passions across interdisciplinary boundaries, the Facebooker who makes the personal the political and in doing so humanizes the humanities. Against the disciplined Digital Humanities and its large-scale iniatives, this model is lower-case and personified, enacting micro-revolutions that reframe our mundane interactions with new media as points of connection and collaboration. If the digital humanist emphasizes pedagogy, it's not through class websites and digital resource-based assignments, but by signing students up for a WordPress account, giving them a camera and saying, "Here; make something."

I'm not sure Digital Humanities, even a big-tent Digital Humanities, has room for all these digital humanists. Samuel Pepys as digital humanist, Doris Lessing as digital humanist -- they quickly crowd the field. Conversely, I'm not sure these digital humanists fit under a tent; for what I'm proposing is not interdisciplinary, but fundamentally antidisciplinary -- an uprooted methodology that's productive, always in process.

* To be clear, I admire the work done on NINES and similar large-scale archival projects. I use these resources, have worked on similar projects, and see them as integral to the work of the "digital humanist" I posit later in the post. I'm not challenging their value, but their primacy within Digital Humanities as a discipline.


Whitney said...

I didn't want to edit the original post, since it's a re-post, but did want to add that: 1) yes, what I'm talking about has a lot of resonance with the work Johanna Drucker got rolling at UVA, and therefore yes there's space within big-D, big-H Digital Humanities for what I'm talking about -- the dichotomies aren't entirely stable -- and 2) I realize that NINES et al. often have some form of "curate," "publish" or "exhibit" function, but a) find them pretty useless, to be honest, and b) am concerned that these features only further entrench structures and models of scholarship that negate the early promises of the open web.

Cheryl said...


This quote puts a lot into perspective:

//Against the disciplined Digital Humanities and its large-scale iniatives, this model is lower-case and personified, enacting micro-revolutions that reframe our mundane interactions with new media as points of connection and collaboration. If the digital humanist emphasizes pedagogy, it's not through class websites and digital resource-based assignments, but by signing students up for a WordPress account, giving them a camera and saying, "Here; make something."//

although I'm not going to comment much on it, just to say "I agree."

Your post is otherwise well-timed in that, tomorrow, I have to argue to my English department colleagues why we need a hire in digital publishing (we have a publishing studies sequence...). The odd thing about that proposal is that it purposefully expands the tent of DH (without actually using the DH term, maybe to its downfall). Such a position would cover everything from NINES to just short of Kairos -- or as much as humanly possible -- and/but it's completely transdisciplinary in that this person's field of study could be *anything* within English studies OR a host of things outside of English (history, informatics, anthro, arts tech, you name it).

So, I'm not sure about the "anti-disciplinary", except that it's good for encouraging academics to see that walls need breaking. DHers feel they/we are already breaking walls, in our own small ways (and, no, I don't really see myself as a DHer. Like you said, it's a funding term.)

Reason why I'm not keen on the "anti-"? Cuz, at the end of the day (for the sad, foreseeable future), if we do get this hire (which is unlikely in this economy), that person has to reside in a disciplinary department -- as broad as that dept (like mine, graciously so) is -- and has to conform to /some/ disciplinary standards. We're gonna have a helluva time writing the actual job ad and figuring out where to place it, if we do make the cut. I feel like maybe a combination of HASTAC blog and Twitter would be the best job-ad venues, cuz none of the traditional ones would cross widely enough for our current and future needs.

btw, when are you going to send me your thesis for consideration in Kairos? ;) Or in Vectors? Or in Computers & Composition Digital Press? Or maybe even MIT Press? ;) There's some goodness going on out there. We just gotta take more advantage of it!


Rachel Lee said...

This is a long & rambling comment; advance apologies!

Your post resonates with two others I've read recently, which you might have already come across. Kathleen Fitpatrick recently wrote about DH & disciplinarity; she begins with the observation that what we now call DH is not always what the term referred to (which is partly the reason for the DH identity crisis), and she also links this to institutional turf wars.

Virtualpolik gives an overview of the DH identity crisis in terms of the major associations (on the one hand, the Association for Computers and the Humanities, the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, and the Society for Digital Humanities -- and on the other hand, the Association of Internet Researchers) and their radically different vocabularies and purposes.

The post also touches upon various positions with the conversation about what the DH is and does, including this snippet from Bogost's "The Turtlenecked Hairshirt":

It's not "the digital" that marks the future of the humanities, it's what things digital point to: a great outdoors. A real world. A world of humans, things, and ideas. A world of the commonplace. A world that prepares jello salads. A world that litigates, that chews gum, that mixes cement. A world that rusts, that photosynthesizes, that ebbs. The philosophy of tomorrow should not be digital democracy but a democracy of objects.

For me, your call to tell students to "MAKE SOMETHING" points to this interface between the humanities and the outside world of jello salads, but it's still not quite getting at the problem of born-digital scholarship, and Where It Fits (or doesn't) within the DH.

One last point: I know I'm part of the problem. I'm a PhD student in an English Dept, and I've been claiming DH as one of my research interests for some time now without giving much thought to what that actually means (which sounds awfully silly, now that I say it). I've been working on a dissertation chapter on Wordsworth and media history, and recently thought it could be fun to use a text comparison/collation tool (Juxta) to more closely examine textual variance in different versions of the texts I'm working with. I can manage basic XML, and follow directions, but I don't have very solid tech skills. I imagine it would be really cool to do some data visualizations of these textual differences...but really, I have no idea how, or where to put that kind of work, or how my advisor would "assess" that, or even how to really use such activity as some kind of real evidence (beyond a cool thing to try) in an otherwise fairly standard dissertation.

I recently saw Victoria Szabo speak on the DH, and she, like others, argues that we as a community need to figure this out, we need to determine things like how much technical knowledge can we expect DH scholars and researchers to know. And I feel like as a grad student, who already struggles to figure out and fit into the Academy (or maybe that's just me!), working within DH seems in some ways like just another identity crisis. But, of course, it also feels like there's a lot more at stake -- those glimpses of jello salad.

Whitney said...

@cheryl re: "anti-disciplinary," points well taken. I think where I'd like to come down hard on the "anti-" is in emphasizing that *thinking through media* is a methodology, a way of being a scholar, not a canon. As soon as we start defining it as such, we've lost the point.

@rachel helpful links, thanks! I've read these posts but haven't revisited them. You're right, they seem to have worked themselves deep into my brain somehow. :) I'm really fascinated that you say you don't have any "hard" technical skills -- I hear this a lot from colleagues, and am always tempted to say "BUT IT'S SO EASY!" We no longer have to wait for a print-out to test our BASIC skills; plug-ins, CMSs, libraries like jQuery (which I love love love) make it ridiculously easy to "make something" online. A little CSS, a little HTML, and a good CTRL-U/CTRL-C/CTRL-V dance is all you need to start hacking something together. In fact, the root of my frustration with some of the big, all-inclusive projects that provide fancy tools is that the fancy tools are, more often than not, harder to learn and incorporate into your daily routine than just familiarizing interested scholars with the necessary skills, making them literate in what they're looking at and using.

I *really* wish programming 101 was requisite for a liberal arts degree. I also wish we didn't make it so scary, like the hardcore geeks are going to come after you with pitchforks if your code isn't beautiful and clean and efficient. If I, who totally suck at programming -- and seriously, I really don't think most of my code and/or websites could *be* any more ugly or inefficient under the hood -- can hack something simple together, anyone else who wants to can, too.

Nick said...

Whitney, I appreciate your discussing some of the other ways that "digital" and "humanities" can combine, some of which were voiced at the recent Hyperstudio conference on Visual Interpretations. I hope that as people in the capitalized Digital Humanities bring new methods to the study of traditional objects, they also become willing to accept new forms of digital publication and the study of culturally important computational objects (that is, computer programs).

I thought I'd mention, though, that when you call your thesis "born digital" you're using the same term that, for instance, Matt Kirschenbaum uses to describe contemporary published-in-print novels that are composed on word processors. Your thesis wasn't *just* born digital!

Whitney said...

Nick -- thanks, wish I could have been there last weekend! And good reminder. "Born digital" is an admittedly terrible term for scholarship produced, published and disseminated in a uniquely web-y way. I haven't hit on the right word yet; and as tempted as I am to devise my own perfect portmanteau, ramification is better left for trees. I should probably start (and stick) with something like "webtext."

brennen DVD-DVD brennen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
brennen DVD-DVD brennen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.