What the Hell are the Digital Humanities?

Cranking out a simple HTML webpage is not hard and there are a billion tutorials on the internet to learn the basic skills if you don’t have one of those expensive WYSIWYG editors like Dreamweaver. Learning basic code is not that difficult either if you are patient and go step by step at free sites like Code Academy. Learning how to create images on the computer, however, can be a bit more daunting as it requires that you know some sort of Photoshop-like program pretty well.  However, again, if you spend a little weekly free time playing around with some illustrating software, you will be able to produce something. What is hard, however, is writing a dissertation. Writing a dissertation, nay, simply compiling the research necessary to write the damn thing, will make you feel like you are morphing into a cold-blooded horny toad: at one point or another, you will want to shoot blood out of your eyes on to the computer screen. Yes, the computer scientists and web designers in the peanut gallery are wont to bemoan the difficulty of their jobs, but I dare them to write a 200-400 page humanities dissertation and compare.

However, I would like to say that the people I know who studied Computer Science and Graphic Design in college are better off than I, but they are not. For instance, my neighbor is a computer programmer who is working seven days a week in a deli because he can’t find a job, and my friend S. is constantly having to pimp herself out to anybody, and I mean anybody, who needs or wants a webpage. So, I have no earthly idea why people are touting the digital humanities so much. It seems that it takes one job field that has suffered tremendously from the economic downturn of 2008, academia, and has paired it with yet another one that has historically risen and busted along with the vicissitudes of the economy, the web/tech industry.

Many in the humanities are enamored by the new and see the marriage of web technologies with their research as yet another way to stay relevant and squeeze out some precious grant monies from sources previously not available to them. Others are quite skeptical. I probably fall in between because I have no idea what the hell the digital humanities really are. I’ve spent quite a while, ever since the digital humanities became hot topic around 2009, finding examples of digital humanities scholarship, and I am pretty underwhelmed. At it’s most basic, digital humanities is just the digitization of texts, adding hypertext and some visual references that link to further definitions or information along the way. Wiki pages are even considered part of the digital humanities movement. At its most complex, some scholars create video games to educate students about moments in the world’s history. Between the two points of complexity, however, is a vast spectrum of technological skills. For instance, some one like me could easily create a Wiki page or even a simple web page about my research: I have no formal technological training, but could monkey around with the free tutorials on the internet. I could never create a video game, however. I spent too many years becoming an excellent researcher in my field to have had time to learn complex coding skills.

I think many are in my position and this is why I think the digital humanities is a fad that will soon fade away into the background. I mean, unless there are some Computer Science undergrads that become Shakespearean scholars, it seems that digital humanities is always going to have to be collaborative. And if so, what really makes it different from any of the multitude of university-wide collaborative curriculum planning projects that are geared toward blending technology and scholarship? Is it the cool Web 2.0 design palette? If it is the games, well shoot, I remember playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? as a kid, so what is really different? Digital Humanities just seems like a re-packaging of what’s already been around for a long time: archived knowledge. It’s hardly revolutionary.

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1 comment
  1. Katherine C. Mead-Brewer said:

    Thanks for posting on this — this is a very different perspective from what I’ve seen elsewhere. I’m just beginning to learn more about Digital Humanities myself (so I wouldn’t call myself an advocate either for or against DH just yet) but I have a lot of friends studying Medieval and Early Modern literature and they’ve been looking into this stuff for a fair while now with continuous interest. If you’re interested in exploring its possibilities further, I would recommend checking out work by Alexander Huang (a GWU professor) as well as the work of Janelle Jenstad (here’s her Early Modern London Literature DH project: http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/jenstad.htm)

    Also, I’m actually working on an article right now that looks at collaborative writing opportunities made possible through the study of DH and what impacts this has/could have on perceptions of ownership/authorship — if you wanna participate, (which I hope you will as you bring a fresh POV to the table) check out my blog: http://howlinghowl.wordpress.com/

    Thanks again for this post! I look forward to reading more!

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