99 Problems, but a Glitch Ain’t One

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.

12 thoughts on “99 Problems, but a Glitch Ain’t One”

  1. Emily,

    I had a very similar thought process in this week’s reading, but I think I took a slightly different stance than you. For me, DH has seemed like there’s more discussion and thought devoted to the inadequacies of the field rather than the production of any quality academic work. This certainly is the ephemeral nature of any field so deeply entrenched in technology, but I couldn’t help but think about how much progress is made through all of this reflection. I also couldn’t help but reflect on the “Debates” reading and wonder if the way the problems and products are intertwined in this section isn’t a result of the constant defense of Digital Humanities as academically sound and necessary. If one always has to prove their worth, so to speak, is it possible to allocate the mental resources to further develop the field, or is the thought, research, and publication always devoted to defending DH?

    Also, I’m curious to know what other people think about the Electronic Errata essay. I liked that essay a lot because I personally believe more than just academic journals are useful for reading, research, and discussion. Especially with the proliferation of the internet, it is time we include these things in the canon of academia. I think this sentiment has been expressed in multiple ways multiple times through the readings we’ve conducted this semester, and yet, again, I question the need to defend this opinion so vehemently. It seems as if many researchers and practitioners of the field of DH buy into this concept, so what will it take for this paradigm shift to occur?

    1. Cassie
      I think you make some profound statements here. I agree that there is a great deal of reflection happening in this section of the text, and when does it get to the point that problem-solving beings?

    2. Cassie, you bring up several good points! I thought of the same thing when I was first reading this section, and I actually frequently find myself thinking about how there seems to be a whole lot of defensiveness going on in this field. Every time these thoughts surface, however, I find myself caught when I think of other academic disciplines I know and love like literary studies or humanistic studies in general. Entire courses I have taken in these fields have been caught up with similar concerns of self-preservation and defense. Are we sure that the Digital Humanities are really that different?

      1. Emily,

        Sorry for the delay in response! I’ve adjusted the settings to alert me when there are comments on the posts, but it still doesn’t.

        I have been thinking about this idea in application to my current field of education. It’s definitely very similar– lots of reflection and analysis, lot of defense, but, unlike DH in many ways, not a lot of change that is truly meaningful.

        I think maybe it’s my own perspective getting in the way, but the nature of DH as seemingly more theoretical and academic than practical, it seems to require a lot of defense as the world of academia shifts from being less about critical thinking, especially in the way of the humanities, and more practical skills for the career world.

  2. Emily,
    I appreciate your focus on the “glitch”. You do point out that DH isn’t all about the problem but in my previous readings I feel that DH is portrayed as the problem. I feel that DH is more of a perfecting and preserving field that doesn’t get the respect it deserves. I agree with your two main points of DH implementing change (effective change at that) and the multi disciplinary factor. Every piece of DH that we have experienced in this class I feel is an improvement on something. Whether it be coding languages or how those languages are used, DH works to show a difference in something. And not only a difference but an improvement. I’m sure the improvement part is debatable. Not only is change needed with improvements, but it is effective change.
    Your point about DH reaching out to different fields could be the reason it isn’t respected or considered scholarly. DH just spreads itself across to many curricula to gain the momentum that is needed to be respected in the world of academia. I quite frankly think that it should earn the opposite reputation. More fields utilize it so it should be more popular and revered.

    Thank you for insight.

  3. Yes, ma’am! Thank you for this post! I agree that in a lot of humanities studies I’ve done been a part of, there is so much emphasis on recognizing problems and hardly a glimmer of effort toward analyzing solutions. I understand that a big part of critical thinking is learning to recognize there is a problem, but the biggest part of critical ACTING is seeking solutions, right? I also admire your statement that a lot of the solutions process involves a conglomerate of all the parts of DH that can and do make up critical analysis. It is too easy to take the path often traveled and use the same few techniques, but that gets both tiring and redundant. I think it may prove more comprehensive and useful to explore all DH options and apply them to the work at hand, then use the results to find what appears to be the most practical solution. Sometimes it’s better to discover where the answer is if you ook under ALL the stones instead of one at a time!

  4. Emily,
    I had a very similar reaction to yours as I read about the canon. It is frustrating to read time after time about the need for growth and change, but never see the switch flip. Canon readings have been criticized frequently, and DH offers a solution. DH opens the field and accepts support from contributors of all different walks of life. It offers a unique development that could be discovered when referring to the canon. DH allows for collaboration of change. Great Thoughts!

    1. Thanks, Kristen, agree that DH allows for collaboration and change.These are both aspects of the field that I really respect, and it seems like you would say the same thing. It is nice to see the switch flip for once!

  5. I’ve been thinking about this fine conversation, and the issue of problem-identification and problem-solving. My small point here is that these are not exclusive approaches, and both necessary. And, several years after these essays were written, the problems they identified, and more, are still there. For example, the advent of digital means to disseminate scholarship, which many of us thought would make it cheaper, really doesn’t, and in fact only has created new kinds of problems that most scholars don’t recognize (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2016/03/21/seven-things-every-researcher-should-know-about-scholarly-publishing/). Dan Cohen’s DH Now, so far running strong, is in some ways a second iteration, the first one being the now moribund Digital Humanities Quarterly. Fyfe’s identification of “digital errata” is a problem that some are working on obliquely, mostly through better algorithms for OCR and better ways to have more accurate crowdsourcing of transcriptions, but the metadata problems remain, and, for some resources we use, baked in (don’t get DH people started on the metadata problems in Google books; here’s a recent entry in the long line of observations: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=10664).

    The NEH Office of Digital Humanities has essentially tried to fund the crowdsourcing of problem-solving, as you have gleaned by one of the main possible objectives of start-up grants, namely, to identify and provide a possible solution to an ongoing challenge in DH.

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