Debates in the Digital Humanities

This week our class read Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold. This book is the epitome of what I expected from a class on digital history. It is available completely online, is easy to navigate, have an intuitive design, and has interesting statistics, such as sentences marked interesting, that helped me narrow down some larger sections in a time crunch.

Often hailed as “the next big thing,” Digital Humanities is an ever developing, and both strictly and vaguely defined field. The purpose of Debates, I believe, is to help assign the nature and purpose of the Digital Humanities in both academic and public life. The introduction to this book discusses the struggle of defining Digital Humanities, but overall the humanists settle on the Digital Humanities being “a field of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities.”  “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” discusses the Digital Humanities as a methodology, as well as a field. The author describes the methodology as almost defining the field itself. This is a concept I easily got behind while reading because this is what I initially saw the Digital Humanities as being. Other parts, particularly the discussion on the Digital Humanities’ social portion was interesting. The idea of people creation and participating in the creation of a new scholarly field is extremely foreign to me. Kirschenbaum recalls the origin story fo the term Digital Humanities as simply a debate on whether the Wiley companion’s title should computing, digitized, or digital. Ultimately, the authors and publisher decided on digital humanities because they wanted a broader scope, not just humanities computing or digitized materials in the humanities, but instead digital humanities which encompasses both of the other titles.

In the fourth chapter, “Practicing the Digital Humanities,” a wide variety of topics are discussed under this  keyword. Practicing includes both methodology and institutionalization. The first post in Practicing discusses canons and close reading. Particularly, the problem with canons in the digital humanities is which texts do we ignore? Wilkens provides figures on publication rates over time, stressing that there is simply too much work to be analyzed for digital projects. Wilkens shows the Digital Humanities in practice when he creates a point-map that pins named places in early American novels on a map. From this he draws conclusions combating the traditional ideas of the American Renaissance, providing them as evidence for American regionalism and as a tool to help understand the American imaginary landscape of fiction.  Other authors also post on “Practicing” as practicing in the field of Digital Humanities, also said as working in the Digital Humanities. In these sections the authors discuss multiple problems and occurrences within the career field of Digital Humanities. These include debates on Digital Humanities Centers, Alternate Careers such as our guest speaker last week, and publishing within the Digital Humanities. Each of these essays argue their own location within the field, as well as their importance and problems.

In the final chapter, “Envisioning the Future of the Digital Humanities,” the most important and interesting essay to me is the one regarding Big Social Data by Manovich. Starting off, Manovich places Digital Humanities in the world of big data, meaning it is not a part of it. The DH do not yet study data sets that range over terabytes, and sometimes petabytes of storage. As a way to get Digital Humanities to this point,  Manovich outlines a possible future of data collection and analysis through the current use of APIs on websites that hold valuable social statistics and information. Currently, users can access and request small portions of the statistics from a website, including their content. I personally have uses Google analytics and this definitely falls into the scope of this essay. From here, Manovich moves onto the harvesting of data from social media sites as a means of collecting culture and other things. Unfortunately, human nature censors the posting to these sites, whether it be because of a tyrannical government or for the posters own embarrassment. Computers cannot yet distinguish these factors like a human can, and while a research could dig through all of these posts it is impossible due to their sheer size. Digital humanites cannot enter the realm of Big Data until computers can distinguish the small differences in and the reasons why people post certain things on social media.



This week’s readings in Digital_Humanities introduced me to the the broadest sense of the field. I came into this class expecting to gain a strictly historical perspective on digital tools, but I now realize I am only a small part of a much larger field.

Digital_Humanities begins with the author’s primary motivations in the use of the underscore in the title of their work. The underscore acknowledges the “undefined future of the humanities in a world fundamentally transformed by everything digital” (DH p. x) as well as the interconnect nature of humanity in this age.

The authors break the book into three primary chapters, along with a “Short Guide to the Digital Humanities” acting as a final chapter. The first chapter of the work essentially summarizes and defines the field of humanities, as well as locates the shift to the digital realm with the advent of the computational world we live in. Upon digitization, humanities became a field and curriculum that focuses on unification through “its emphasis on making connecting, interpreting, and collaborating,” particularly through the project. (DH p. 24)

The case studies of the second chapter seek to immerse the reader in the core concept of the Digital Humanities, the project. With different styles, goals, and uses of media, the author successfully communicates the wide-range of application of digital humanity projects, including gaming and animated archives.  A case study particularly interesting to me was the one involving Jewish ritual object in Diaspora. Here, the goal of the project was to create an animated archive of the primary source materials and artifacts located in the holding of said museum. It aims to create an archive in which you can view the objects without actually visiting the archive itself, as well as creating a database of metadata that can assign connecting between objects that shows their significance to one another.

The third chapter, “The Social Life of the Digital Humanities,” analyzes the relatively new field and discipline of the Digital Humanities. The primary discussions in this section revolve around the ideas of publishing, participation, and ownership. Authorship in the digital humanities is the primary concept that I believe I will struggle with. Traditionally in academia, authorship is a quite simple idea being that he/she who writes the text and provides new ideas, approaches, or evidence is considered the author. IN the Digital Humanities, the projects undertaking almost always require a group of people, or collaborative authorship as the text puts it. To solve this problem, the digital humanities have loosely enforced the role in the project, being Principal Investigator to curator to programmer, in an effort to allow legitimate understanding of authorship by a third party.

Ultimately, I believe the book’s purpose to be to provide an understanding of the digital humanities, it’s history, and it’s current role in academia, including all of the quirks that come with it such as collaboration and the problem of authorship. After reading the book, as well as the Short Guide, I came to a slightly troubling conclusion for myself and other moving on in the digital humanities from a more traditional previous role. This book seems focused, almost entirely, on the technical side of the digital humanities. Dr. French had mentioned the, almost derogatory, phrase “more hack, less yack” during our first class meeting when discussing the turns in the field. This worries someone like myself, a self defined yacker. The vast majority of competencies in the Short Guide are technical competencies, with only a few truly intellectual ones, these being communication, imagination, and lateral thinking. My larger implication regarding historians revolves around the usage of digital tools in research. This book seems to focus heavily on how to organize digital projects and material, rather than why you need to. I believe an increased focus on this will change the historian’s role to the cataloging of information rather than the drawing of conclusions from that information.