A couple things stood out to me in this week’s reading, and I have been ruminating on them all week. I will attempt to articulate them here.
What struck me first was that this week’s reading, “Practicing the Digital Humanities,” really seemed like a continuation of the previous Debates reading we did, which was all about problems in the Digital Humanities. For example, Paul Fyfe covers how we handle “electronic errata” in our transition to digital publishing, voicing his concern that “we have not sufficiently considered error correction as a structural feature and theoretical premise within the transition to digital publishing.” Neil Fraistat also voices a concern when he discusses DH centers and their place in the growing field. He attributes a multi-faceted function to DH centers, as local centers, global networks, and nuclei of transformative action, but he also wonders about the futures of such centers. Furthermore, both Matthew Wilkens and Amy Earhart wrinkle their brows over the role of DH in canon formation and diversification. Earhart particularly focuses her attention on what she calls the “narrow digital canon” as providing impetus for further work in the field.
I find it interesting that this section of the text, with its focus on praxis, remains entwined with the problems in the field. I maintain my earlier position that these are productive problems- opportunities for growth, multi-dimensional expansion, and improvement. This section helps me see, however, what the implications of these problems are. DH, it would seem, is all about problems. As a field, the Digital Humanities seems to focus on identifying, understanding, exposing, and, ultimately, addressing problems. I propose, then, that we add to Ramsay’s definition. The DH may in fact be about “building things,” but it’s also about dealing with problems, and maybe building things to solve problems. These problems may lie in its own practices, or they may lie in the fields that it, by its interdisciplinary nature, encompasses. Now this is exciting.
What’s even more exciting, as I think about this further, is that this week’s reading reveals what happens when problems are addressed in this way. Digital humanists address problems, but in doing so they effect change. We get glimpses of this in Wilkens’ discussion of the canon. He explains that we will never actually “fix” our canons unless we do “less close reading and more of anything and everything else that might help us extract information from and about texts as indicators of large cultural issues. That includes bibliometrics and book historical work, data mining and quantitative text analysis, economic study of the book trade and of other cultural industries, geospatial analysis, and so on.” Basically, DH can help us actually do the work we have been trying to do for decades. This is important because Wilkens is not simply taking issue with the canon; he is offering a solution, or at least suggesting a path that will lead us to one. Similarly, Daniel Cohen describes a new way of “doing” journals in the digital age, one that has the potential to change the way we think about “scholarly validation and attention.” Again, he offers not just a critique, but a solution in his publication called Digital Humanities Now.
Many other disciplines explore problems in their work, but, at this point in my academic career at least, other disciplines largely seem to lack the ability to effectively address these problems. While I am a devoted student of literature, I am often frustrated reading polemical critiques of the field’s many problems without seeing much change happening in response (the canon being one extremely relevant example). To me, this is a major glitch in the system. While the field of DH certainly has its flaws, this glitch is not one. The capability of DH to address problems and provide solutions is like a breath of crisp air. Even more encouraging to me is the reach of the field. It seems capable of reaching a diverse set of disciplines to offer new ways of researching, collecting and distributing data, and presenting information. I was particularly struck by Julia Flanders’ description of her role as a para-academic in interdisciplinary projects, as well as by Fraistat’s illustration of the DH center as a center where many people from many disciplines meet and collaborate.
In this way, this week’s reading gave me hope, not just for the Digital Humanities (which seem pretty bleak in light of my coding nightmares), but also for academia in general. Although progress can be exhausting, and, admittedly, scary, DH offers us ways of moving beyond what we previously could not.