Digital Humanist Say What?

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.

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2 Comments

  1. Bailey,

    Thank you for your post. Your investigation of why and how DH has constructed this inclusive/exclusive argument is so helpful! Your analysis is spot-on, and I hadn’t often thought of the tension as founded institutionally as well as communally (institutionally because of the wide-spread influence of different institutes and communally because of the DH “tent,” itself).

    I’m so excited that you incorporated Lisa Spiro’s call for a system or statement of values. For this assignment in our #dh666 class, I thought long and hard about incorporating it myself. I agree that the DH community, “our” community, may be better served by placing a halt on the definition-seeking and beginning a value-seeking project. I may go a step further and say that this repeated urge to define, define, define might begin to hurt the field soon. While finding agreed upon values is still a search for some kind of definition, I also believe it’s less hostile and confrontation than some of the “definitions” I’ve read over the past few months. Do you see your post as an attempt/call to move away from the traditional “Define DH!” genre – or as a call for a combination of value-finding and definition-seeking (perhaps all under the umbrella of “definition”)? You’ve definitely given us some brain feed here!

    • “Do you see your post as an attempt/call to move away from the traditional “Define DH!” genre – or as a call for a combination of value-finding and definition-seeking (perhaps all under the umbrella of “definition”)?”

      I believe value-finding is a really defining journey, so I’m not entirely sure it can be separated. However, in considering my post more and in contemplating a comment discussion I’ve had with Karen here (http://blogs.tamu.edu/kdavis/2012/01/30/plato-was-not-a-digital-humanist-and-neither-am-i/#comments), I’m finding myself also more & more in favor of Chris Forster’s “Four Circus Rings” within the big DH tent. (Those rings can be found at Chris’s blog here, http://hastac.org/blogs/cforster/im-chris-where-am-i-wrong.)

      I had talked with Karen outside of class about how to bring theory & criticism back under the tent, and she mentioned that creative writers and lit. crit. folks do different things, that they don’t necessarily fit into the same “definition”. (She also mentions this in her comment exchange with me on her blog.) And I do think this is true and correct, but I am going to argue that both creative writers and lit. crit. folks fit under the same English tent, to extend that metaphor.

      So to sum that all up, no, I don’t see my post as an attempt to move away from the traditional “Define DH!” genre — merely a suggestion about the direction those definitions should come from / go towards.

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