I’m (not) a digital humanist.
What’s a digital humanist?
Why, a person who studies digital humanities.
What are the digital humanities?
Well, that’s where this blog post gets into tricky territory. Even practioners are no where near settled on one definition of this field. In fact, discussions, articles, and blog posts have put forth so many definitions, I’m not sure anyone is keeping count anymore.
However, there are several definitions that I believe get closest to the center ring of digital humanties (if you don’t know, the big metaphor for DH is “the big tent”).
The definition I’ve seen most frequently cited across blogs and articles is Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s:
a nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities, or, as is more true of my own work, ask traditional kinds of humanities-oriented questions about computing technologies. (Debates in the Digital Humanities, “The Humanities, Done Digitally”)
Or, there is the more simplistic definition provided by John Unsworth:
Using computational tools to do the work of the humanities. (Debates in the Digital Humanities, “Day of DH: Defining the Digital Humanities”)
Or, how about Ernesto Priego’s definition:
The scholarly study and use of computers and computer culture to illuminate the human record. (Debates in the Digital Humanities, “Day of DH: Defining the Digital Humanities”)
I don’t think the above definitions of digital humanities are wrong (nor do I think any of the other 30 or so I’ve read are wrong), but I do think it’s impossible to really settle on one definition-to-rule-them-all for digital humanities. The DH tent is so large, calls upon so many fields, and lives in so many institutions (with their own policies and access-levels) that the person doing the defining is, inevitably, including what works for them and excluding what doesn’t.
This idea of inclusion and exclusion is expounded upon by Patrik Svensson in his essay “Beyond the Big Tent”, also included in the Debates in the Digital Humanities anthology I keep citing in this post. His main idea, though, is that much of what happens in DH seems inclusive to those already established and working in DH, but is potentially exclusive to newcomers and true outsiders. Within DH, there is such a high priority placed on open-access and technology that there is a definite tension between allowing anyone in (who wants in) and not counting “every medievalist with a website”. But what’s true of all fields is also true of digital humanities: you can’t just borrow a few humanities questions and use a few computer programs and be a digital humanist. (Although, here is a very good blog about how to get involved in the digital humanities, if you are interested.)
There is something(s) that digital humanists do that distinguish them from all the other 21st century scholars who are computer-adept. That something is hinted at in every digital humanists individual definition of digital humanities.
So instead of seeking the ruling definition, I would argue that the digital humanities is better served by answering Lisa Spiro’s call for a values system and, ideally, a values statement (Debates in the Digital Humanities, “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities”). Spiro proposes the following values as a starting point for DH: openness, collaboration, collegiality and connectedness, diversity, experimentation.
From there, I believe whatever working definition a digital humanist chooses to use (a definition that is, presumably, directing their scholarship, their research and experimentation, and their projects) can then reflect back upon the values of the field as a whole.
However, I’m not getting out of giving my own definition of digital humanities because it’s a requirement for this blog post. So here it is:
Digital humanities seeks to answer humanties-oriented questions by using digital methodologies and/or computer technologies in ways that emphasize creation, collaboration, open-access, experimentation, and diversity.
So what might a digital humanities project look like?
A good example of a digital humanities project is the Mapping the City in Film project, which is a smaller piece of a larger AHRC-funded project, City in Film: Liverpool’s Urban Landscape and the Moving Image (2006-2008). The project explores the “relationship between film, memory and the urban landscape” by applying geo-spatial mapping technologies to the urban maps created by filming practices.
The project rather obviously seeks to answer humanities-oriented questions (focusing on the relationship between film, memory, and the urban landscape) by using digital methodologies and/or computer technologies (the geo-spatial mapping to “provoke discussion and debate”). However, what’s also very interesting about this project is the aim focusing on dissemination of the research findings, which wants to include “public seminars, screenings and museum exhibitions, and … the project website” and would ultimately like to construct “an interactive digital map display of Liverpool in film” (http://www.liv.ac.uk/lsa/cityinfilm/index.html). In these ways, this project reflects upon the values of creation, collaboration, open-access, and experimentation.
Admittedly, diversity is not obviously addressed on this project’s website, but it’s probable someone may approach the research findings with diversity-based questions at some point, if it’s not already been done and is just not apparent.