(Digital) Humanities

This week’s reading was my first introduction to the concept of Digital Humanities. As I read various perspectives on this concept I saw it defined and described as “the ongoing, playful encounter with digital representation itself” (Rafael C. Alvarado), as collaborative, as “nice”, as an experiment it its early stages whose true potential has not yet been conceived of, as concerned about process rather than outcome (Tom Scheinfeldt), as a temporary qualifier to what will eventually go back to just being called “Humanities”(Day of DH), as capitulation to the current cultural inclination away from the arts and towards STEM fields (Gary Hall), and much more.

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My impression is that Digital Humanities is less a separate discipline than a period of transition. The Humanities are the study of “how people process and document the human experience” (Standford.edu). Now that so much of the human experience happens, and is documented, in digital spaces it is natural that our study must not only acknowledge this shift and study its affects but must itself move into those spaces. But does the use of new tools and methods, or the study of new subjects (or perhaps, new iterations of old subjects) constitute a new field or necessitate the qualifier “digital”?

As a millennial, I came of age in the digital world. Though I was taught cursive writing in the 4th grade, I never once used it on an assignment for school. All of my final drafts had to be typed. In high school I socialized as much on MySPACE almost as much as I did in person at school (all with the same people). By college, I migrated to Facebook, and a host of other sites. I get my news from blogs I deem trustworthy instead of the papers or even television networks. I use online streaming services instead of cable television. The digital cannot be removed from my human experience. So from this perspective, I find it difficult to separate “Humanities” from “Digital Humanities”.

Certainly new tools have given us new ways of studying and new facets of human experience have given us new topics to explore. Consider the implications of Instagram for the historians of the future: What will it mean to have access to hundreds of thousands of individual lives, carefully documented? How will historians reconcile the deliberate curation of images to form a desirable narrative with the realities of every day life? Will personal blogs and emails eventually be studied with the same intensity as paper letters and journals are now? Will they bother to describe themselves as “Digital Historians” or will the distinction between studying physical objects and digital objects become unnecessary?

Scheinfeldt has pointed out that it may be some decades before we fully appreciate the possibilities of the new tools used by the Digital Humanities. He even argues that, for now, DH should be allowed to simply focus on the method rather than the outcome. Gary Hall views this as a colonization of the Humanities by the sciences, or a desperate effort by the Humanities to make themselves relevant by mimicking the sciences, and seems to suggest that the Humanities are diminished by these things. Yet if we understand the Digital Humanities as a period of transition for the Humanities field overall then it seems too early to declare that the adoption of scientific behaviors is a betrayal of the true purpose of the field. Rather, it encourages us to embrace Scheinfeldt’s suggestion to focus on the method, to experiment, to have (in Alvarado’s words) a series of playful encounters with digital representation. Hall is not wrong in his expectations that theory remain front and center within the field, to expect the Humanities to provide answers. But the Digital Humanities need time to discover the right questions first.

The Humanities are undergoing a period of growth and change, experimenting with new tools and methods, and possibly even borrowing some of the ethos of the sciences (like the focus on incremental contribution rather than individually driven advances). For the time being the qualifier of Digital Humanities seems useful, at least to some scholars, to describe their engagement in this process of growth. As this transition progresses and is eventually completed, it seems likely that we will go back to simply calling them the Humanities.

 

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