Conferences Digital Humanities Reflections Research

Identifying as a /*Digital*/ Humanist

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So I’ve been thinking …
In the past few weeks I’ve found myself thinking about how I identify with the Digital Humanities and as a Digital Humanist. It’s possible that I’m hyperaware of issues relating to DH right now as I apply for jobs that are specifically or tangentially associated with Digital Studies, but I’ve been a Digital Humanist since long before I ever heard the term. Somewhere on Dropbox is my 2003 application to the UToronto MA program in which I waxed poetic about a digital scriptorium. In the years since I’ve got used to explaining and defending methodologies and perspectives, but recently I’ve been surprised by how many people still find us alien and a little bit threatening. In fact, it really hadn’t occurred to me that there is an “us.”

I may have been a blissfully unaware grad student when we apparently first crossed the MLA’s field of vision in 2009, but I was at the 2010 conference when a senior scholar I really respect dismissed us as the Digital Mafia. And this was the MLA in Los Angeles where, I observed, the DH sessions were the only ones playing to overflow rooms.

Three weeks ago I presented the first phase of the Queen’s Men mapping project at the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference in Cincinnati. The paper read well; the session, Sixteenth Century Society and New Technologies sponsored by Iter and Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, was a safe space for Digital Humanities in the middle of an Early Modern conference. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was something of a novelty act on the midway. It’s easy to forget (except when in a job interview)[nbnote]There was that interview last year in which the hiring committee got hung up on the appropriateness of my using Twitter in the classroom. Needless to say, that interview did not end well.[/nbnote]  that for many in the mainstream of the academic community the idea of using digital media for research and teaching is a shortcut and a copout. But who among us can claim to be purely analog? //crickets.

One audience member at the SCSC panel, exasperated, demanded to know why *we* keep coming up with tools that are designed to replace the human in the academy. She said she had tried a text analysis tool once and while she was curious about the possibilities she was offended that whoever developed the tool was relying on the Riverside rather than the Oxford Shakespeare. That led to saber-rattling challenge from another in the audience that the TEI approach to tagging is unworkable because it is not expansive enough (?); that it is not, in fact, a universal solution for text markup because it is too reliant on individual approaches to research. I couldn’t be sure, but that sounded as if there is too much human in the Humanities. I was moderating the panel at that point and so bit my tongue and grabbed my chin to prevent it from dropping to the floor. After all, we only had 15 minutes for Q&A. I was equally troubled after the session when one of the panelists – A PANELIST! – shrugged off the discussion, dismissing DH as just another fad, like queer studies and new historicism and etc. etc. Just wait a year or two; some other bright and shiny thing will supersede DH at the annual MLA conference.

So we’re a mafia (an organized secret society of criminals ), [nbnote]OED Online[/nbnote] and a fad (an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities; a craze), [nbnote]OED Online/American English[/nbnote] and somehow Gozer the Destructor while positioning ourselves as Digital Humanists.. I’ve never identified as any of those groups/things.

I went back and looked the two Chronicle articles William Pannapacker wrote in 2011 after attending the Digital Humanities conference at Stanford: “‘Big Tent Digital Humanities,’ a View From the Edge” Parts One and Two. I thought reading them might help me to remember how the academy views DH’s move toward the center of H (amazing that a conference barely eighteen months ago seems like ancient history):

“Digital humanities is a comprehensive activist project that uses technology to respond to the interconnected cultural and structural problems of academe. From my perspective, as part of a generation that went through graduate school in the 1990s, the “DH” field is a response to a feeling of disenfranchisement and alienation from traditional academic culture in the context of a radically changed system of employment.” (Pannapacker)

I was in the process of writing a version of this piece when my Twitter feed lit up, in arms over Stephen Marche’s provocation in the LA Times book review (I’m still trying to understand how his diatribe made it into that section of the paper), taking the line that digital humanists are a nefarious and insidious bunch bent on … obliterating the Bodleian? I never could make sense of his rant and others including Holger Syme have written much more eloquent defenses. But still – according to Marche we’re a bunch of immoral hooligans who threaten real meaningful digital curation work – unlike Google, who is apparently fighting on the side of the angels. And after all, people do read the LA Times book review section (many in its digital version, I expect).

Then, trying to get some much ignored grading done (see above, job market) I got involved in a brief Twitter volley when a colleague tweeted from a session at the Flow 2012 conference asking where are the DH projects concerned with moving image/film/tv cultural studies.

We have a Rube Goldberg / Heath Robinson toast machine as kitchen wall art!
We have a Rube Goldberg / Heath Robinson toast machine as kitchen wall art! by NatBat, on Flickr

My immediate reaction was to go hunting for examples of projects and approaches that would demonstrate how DH *is* engaged with moving image-based projects. It seemed right to be helpful; to overcome that feeling of disenfranchisement with a demonstration of inclusiveness – DH is for everyone!  But at the same time I reacted to what I read as the challenge in the tweet that somehow *we* are not being as inclusive as we might be; that *we* have an obligation to make things happen for everyone. And to return to the Q&A at SCSC, that *we* are falling short in terms of building some magical universal mechanism that will do all things for all people – but only in ways they want them to work.

So what is the solution? Is there a solution? Should I worry that there should be a solution? Should I just go on enthusing about the benefits of digital approaches to humanities research, maybe not prosthelytizing but at least advocating? Should *we* (and the reason I keep using those asterices is because I only ever feel like a group when I’m at DHSI or in a defensive posture like now) take arms against a sea of detractions and by opposing end them? Are we, the disenfranchised, inadvertently alienating others? Is being a big thing a bad thing? I’ve always assumed that eventually the Digital will be bracketed and then erased from the Humanities. That this is just another set of tools that have always served to enhance and expand the ways in which scholars’ engage in research. And since some of my research is considered marginal to the traditional study of literature, I really don’t feel too much more disenfranchised as a Digital Humanist than an Early Modernist.

And having tossed that tunne of tennis balls back at the Dauphin, I’m off to mark student transcriptions for their collaborative digital edition of The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth.

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