What Are the Digital Humanities?


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In a recent edition of The New Republic, Adam Kirsch provides a helpful guide to understanding various uses of the term “the digital humanities,” and provides some cautionary words about becoming seduced by some of the extravagant claims made by cyber-utopians.

The title of the article – “Technology is Taking Over English Departments: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities” – expresses his worry. He is mindful that English departments and other traditional humanities departments are “in crisis.” The number of humanities majors is down and the image of the humanities in a career-minded world is weak. There’s been a mighty shift in collective thinking since the heyday of the humanities when Baby Boomers entered college in newly affluent America. The recent report from the UCLA survey which measures attitudes among first year students once again demonstrates that expectations for college have shifted dramatically in 50 years. As reported by David Brooks in The New York Times (May 6, 2014), 86% of entering collegians in 1966 said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was important; today fewer than half set this goal. In 1966 42% said that being well off financially was important while today 75% believe this.

One of the life-preservers being thrown to the humanities departments (by rescuers both inside and outside of those departments) is the union of the humanities with computer technology. The integration of digital tools into scholarship and pedagogy will be the salvation of the humanities, a way to establish their legitimacy in a utilitarian, stream-lined world… or so the story goes.

Kirsch identifies three different strands in the digital humanities movement, arranging them from those initiatives that should be greeted enthusiastically to those endeavors that should be met with a great deal of skepticism.

He applauds the ways in which the internet has made previous inaccessible or difficult to obtain text, maps, and images available to all, especially those in the scholarly community. Humanities scholars have done great work in constructing web-site repositories of famous authors (like Mark Twain) or celebrated events (like the World Columbian Exposition of 1893). Furthermore, sites like these and the internet in general have facilitated the efficient communication within the scholarly community. For instance, in researching a claim made by Kirsch, I came across a number of blog posts by members of the digital humanities community and review of the three recent publications that Kirsch examines in his article. The explosion in internet sites and sophisticate information retrieval devices has made materials widely available. This kind of digital humanities has changed the “how” but not the “what” of scholarship and scholarship sharing.

A second type of digital humanities is aligned to what has come to be called “big data.” An example, perhaps frivolous, of how “big data” works: The New York Times recently created an interactive map that showed baseball fan allegiances by zip codes using information available on Facebook and other social media sites. Even computers with mid-level computing abilities can scan huge amounts of text looking for patterns and trends. What past scholars had done painstakingly to establish concordances (establishing elements like word frequencies) can now be done in a matter of seconds. Want to know the emergence and endurance of the word “mulatto” or “iron horse” in 19th century American literature, the computer can assist through a rapid scan of multiple books.  Kirsch cites the example of the scholar who fed the titles of thousands of British novels over a 100 year period in order to reach the conclusion that titles became shorter over time. Yet, Kirsch goes on to argue that a discerning intelligence has to take the raw facts in order to fashion an explanation of why the titles became shorter. The facts remain inert without an interpreting mind familiar with literature and history, a mind that can pose the special research question that the computer programmer can help to answer, a mind that can tell us what it means and why the information in important

The third strand in the digital humanities movement is the one that troubles Kirsch. Advocates of a revolutionary digital humanities believe that we are on the cusp of a transformation in the ways in which we communicate. More specifically they welcome the day when we will attempt to persuade one another less through word and more through images and objects. Instagram and Pinterest are harbingers of this post-verbal age. Humanities teachers will no longer required long-form argumentative essays but will instead encourage if not demand the production of video and multi-media mash-ups. In this brave new world it will be essential that humanities teachers know a computer language and be able to write code. This advocacy gains support among some human resource experts and CEOs who believe that English majors should hedge their career bets by taking courses in computer science. These courses supposedly offer practice in logical thinking that is more rigorous than that found in humanities courses.

If there is a bright lining to this particular dark cloud, according to Kirsch, it is in the ways in which the visionaries recognize the shift to collaborative work and the open circulation of ideas within a creative group. The workplace without walls of the Silicon Valley start-up not the library cubicle is the ideal place. But Kirsch suggests that we may be harboring an obsolete view of the solitary scholar bent over his desk protecting his hard earned wisdom. The truth is that today’s scholars are not technophobic. They use the internet to create and maintain a scholarly community, to exchange research in its preliminary stages, and to peer-review the work of others. Presumably this kind of scholar communication can and should be transferred, with necessary adjustments, to the college classroom.

While the rush to the digital humanities has been motivated in part as the latest attempt to give the humanities the cache that the sciences enjoy by showing their receptivity to scientific methods and tools, Kirsch reminds us that the analogy between the humanities and the sciences doesn’t hold. The process of thinking – the essence of the humanities — can’t be sped up or made more efficient. Furthermore, “no computer can take on the human part of humanistic work, which is to feel and to think one’s way into different times, places, and minds.”

Kirsch concludes his essay by saying that instead of rushing into an ill-advised marriage with the digital world, the intellectual responsible humanist should use the tradition and tools of skeptical inquiry to critique the social changes that computerization has brought about. For instance, the array of questions from classical and modern rhetorical studies should enable us to unmask the strengths and weaknesses, the benefits and harms of new forms of information gathering and knowledge creation. Students should be able to do a PowerPoint presentation, but more importantly they should understand how this presentation tool shapes what can and cannot be communicated effectively.

Teachers on the communications branches of the humanities tree should teach their students how to investigate, use effectively and, if necessary, arm themselves against the ubiquitous screens in front of which they spend a great deal of time. In a related article, Rebecca Shuman, the education editor for Slate, offers this example: using the gender theory of feminist Judith Butler to examine the #aftersex Instagram trend.




About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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