DH…It’s Going to be Okay…

I had a bit of an “Ah Ha” moment while I read Dave Parry’s “The Digital Humanities or a Digital Humanism” essay. In this section of the text, various authors discuss the future of DH and their interpretation of DH. Parry, however, captures and, in my opinion, eloquently defines Digital Humanities (even though he claims it is impossible to do so). He starts his essay by describing the lack of control scholars have over DH and how it is defined. Though, after reading the rest of the text, DH and the possibilities of DH have never been clearer to me. Parry argues that there isn’t a foundational project that exists that other DH projects can be based upon. However, I believe Parry captures the foundation when he says, “digital humanities is largely, or primarily, about using computing technologies as tools to do traditional humanities-based research.” Now, he makes it clear that what constitutes “research” is open-ended and SHOULD expand from texts to social media and beyond.

He wants the division between the “two humanisms” he describes to dissolve, and it should. And this idea ties nicely into his point that we are a digital society. With our heads filled with earbuds, our eyes constantly distracted by some sort of digital image, and our hands constantly filled with some sort of device, how can we argue otherwise? To ignore recognizing Digital Humanities as its own entity is to ignore our daily living. As for Parry, his hope is that DH will continue to thrive and grow, and there is no reason why it should not. Our scholarship is digital, our culture is digital, our lives our digital, and our world is digital.

Parry asks important questions in his piece, and I think it transitions nicely into Matthew Kirschenbaum’s piece. What makes the answer to the question “What is DH” so crucial? Are people annoyed that it’s so vague? Do they really want an answer? Or is the openness of DH part of the intrigue? Do we really need an answer? Or are the powers at be just taking a stance in something that even they don’t understand?

In my opinion, Kirschenbaum challenges the million dollar questions in his essay. Kirschenbaum, in “Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term,” makes it very clear that DH is becoming a stronger presence in the world of academia. Though I didn’t know what Digital Humanities was before I began this class, I can’t help but agree. In his essay, Kirschenbaum makes it clear that the Digital Humanities is far away from sinking back into the humanities and losing its relevance at the collegiate level. Kirschenbaum states, “I believe those who insist that ‘digital’ humanities is but a transitory term that will soon fall away in favor of just the humanities once again, or perhaps humanities 2.0, are mistaken.” He supports this idea by explaining how Digital Humanities came about, its history, and its potential to continue to make change in the future. And he concludes his essay with an interesting idea. He almost expresses concern when he says that, right now, too “much energy is now being expended on defining what digital humanities is” and how staff are dealing with the limitations that this misunderstood outsider causes in academia. Kirschenbaum argues that this should be a time of productivity! DHers and non-DHers shouldn’t be worrying about a dictionary definition to embrace this ever-changing realm; instead of defining it, define it by taking action.

Is this possible? Can studying DH still occur? Can progression still happen without an answer to the question? I believe it has, it can, and it will.

Lev Manovich’s “Trending: The Promises and the Challenges of Big Social Data” highlights the popularity of DH programs. Though there are challenges in DH, particularly with programs and funding, a lot of Manovich’s examples made me realize how DH has affected my life, and I didn’t even know it! For example, Manovich discusses different programs that reminded me of my Kroger Plus card. Because I run that card, DH technologies help the company keep track of what I am buying. In turn, I get coupons based upon my most common purchases, which results in me constantly returning to Kroger to buy the items I need at a discounted price. A complex system, I am sure. However, it’s simplistically brilliant and changes my life for the better. How can someone argue that projects similar to this one will eventually go to the wayside?

Now, there will always be those who challenge the world of DH, as David Greetham states in “The Resistance to Digital Humanities.” Scholars are reluctant to consider digital publications equal to the typical print to paper publications. Tenure tracks are more likely to be upheld if the work can be held in readers’ hands instead of a computer screen. Is this a just way to handle scholarly work? Will things ever be different? This idea makes me think of the time my mom had a “bag cell phone” for her car. It hooked up awkwardly to her car outlet, the antenna protruded from her ceiling, and conversations were screamed instead of spoken in order to be heard. It was very old-school. It was awkward, looking back, but it was all she knew. She was content with what she had, but there was room for improvement. I can remember her getting frustrated with dropped calls and fuzzy sounds through the receiver. Then . . . change happened. Could my mom have imagined a time when her phone would transition to her pocket? Never. My mother hates change. But now, I am certain she cannot imagine life without the ability to FaceTime her granddaughter living miles and miles away. Though she resisted the transition, she now welcomes the new technology. She hated the idea of getting rid of her “reliable” bag phone for some new fad technology (I actually think she still has her bag phone in the basement somewhere). Sometimes we aren’t ready for change, but sometimes we cannot prevent it, and in hindsight, it ends up being the best move for us. That is my prediction for DH. There will come a time when we have scholars who grew up with Twitter, blogs, and digitalization. To sign up for a DH class would be like signing up for an English class: normal and expected. They have grown up working with Digital Humanities projects throughout school and for fun. So, in the future, to consider an online publication for a tenure track wouldn’t seem outrageous to them. Just like my daughter Rory will never think it’s outrageous to see her grandmother’s face on a small device. Things are moving slowly, or “gradually,” or “carefully,” as Parry describes. But either way, things are moving. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be taking this class. Like Cathy N. Davidson says in “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions,” “. . . it took professional astronomers several years before they came to appreciate that their field would be richer if they were more open to the energetic observations and theories of amateur astronomers.” Eventually, the new will be embraced, the youth will be heard, and a new way of thinking will be adapted. Unfortunately, time is the enemy for DH. And what it’s going to take is time.

I think it’s also to consider the fact that the issues occurring in DH are happening in other realms of academia. For instance, my roommate considered pursuing a career path in Literature, hoping to teach at the collegiate level. However, after speaking to several faculty members at our undergraduate college, her mind was changed instantly. They warned her of the terrible path of the tenure track, the time it would take to find a position, the lack in ability to “move up” because of budget cuts in programs that support full-time faculty. I witnessed the negative effect of “budget” issues when I worked on the FogDog review as an editor at Wright State. We were constantly fighting to raise money because our budget continued to get smaller and smaller until, eventually, my teacher had to turn it into a class in order to keep the project afloat. One of my acting professors was out of a job when the requirements for graduation were changed, and she happened to be the lowest on the totem pole. Similar issues are echoed throughout our DH readings: budget cuts, lack of funding, and eliminating staff. Are these happening across the board? It’s hard to ignore the severity of these occurrences in DH and how negatively it affects its progression, but is it the only victim of these issues in academia?

Overall, I walk away from these articles thinking and believe that DH is going to be okay. One day, my daughter Rory will ask me to help her with some basic coding that is required as a general education course during her undergraduate, and I will recognize it, remember it, and see even more changes than I could have imagined.

9 thoughts on “DH…It’s Going to be Okay…”

  1. Sara, thanks for the thoughtful post.
    Two comments come to mind, the first to make DH more capacious, the second to ask about its limits. One is that Parry’s argument circles back to what to my mind is the very simple, three-legged stool definition of digital humanities, which he and others complicate often in useful ways, but do not supersede, to wit: 1. the use of digital tools to answer humanities questions, 2. the application of humanistic inquiry to our digital world, and 3. the use of digital tools to communicate our analyses in fundamentally new ways.

    The second is that I would contend that we should be wary about extending DH to commercially-oriented activities that may do similar things or use similar tools, but with a very different mode of inquiry and with fundamentally different use of results. The post brings up Kroger’s use of data to track what we buy in order to sell us better stuff; another similar example is the use of recommendation engines by online firms like Netflix and Amazon. Yes, their data and tools could, potentially, tell us a lot about our lives and culture in ways that humanities scholars dream about. But these tools are not designed either with humanities questions in mind (that is, what can we glean about people’s lives? What meanings can we attach to what is happening, either for the shoppers themselves or for us as observers? and so on). Plus, the tools and the results of them are proprietary, secret, and so in some ways their use in practice is antithetical to the humanities mindset of access to information and ideas.

    Of course, some of the examples of commercially-based information and tools are somewhere in between. Google, of course, has its own proprietary search engine, but releases a lot of data and white papers explaining how they are generated and the limits of their use (https://www.google.com/trends/correlate). It’s a gray area, and thus should be comfortable to us as humanities people who are trained and whose intellectual life is dedicated to better complicating cultural phenomena and examining all those shades of gray (but not all 50 shades — that’s an entirely different issue 🙂 ).

  2. Very interesting and thoughtful post. There is a lot of great information here and I agree with most of what you said. I can relate to the cell phone part with my dad. He still has a flip phone and insists that is all he ever needs. However, his fingers are too big for the tiny keys and the text is too small for him to read without holding it out back from his face. ( I laugh now, but I am sure it will be me one day). He doesn’t need a new cell phone with all the handy gadgets, he just needs a phone to call and to occasionally text. But you are certainly right that one day change will take over, and there will not be anymore flip phones.

    I see the growing use for digitalization in many aspects of our lives and how DH can keep growing into a required field. As the reading stated, I agree that some college classes are not giving the students what they need to succeed in the job market. It is great for the people that are interested in this field and what to work in a humanities position. However, I am still hung on the fact that would be the only way someone would need to know this information.

    Personally I have no use, or interest in that matter to decode websites, and learn about codes and how things run. (which made this class brutally hard for me) I don’t see a use for that in my career as a middle school teacher. I appreciate the people that work hard to make things digital and to allow us to have this technology to use in our every day lives, but I just don’t DH being a required class unless it had to do with your major in college. I work in an inner city charter school in Toledo. Do my students have phones, tablets and electronics sure. But the school lacks technology. I have a computer, smart board and Elmo. There are laptops but only in the library and right now with the testing for the state no one can use them. So maybe if I had the technology accessible to get the kids more involved with websites and digitalization of documents, then I might be a little more interested in this stuff.

  3. Sara,

    I also liked Dave Parry’s explanation. I felt like for the first time all semester (and ironically right at the end) I got Digital Humanities. Parry made the whole concept a little easier to swallow for me, too. When we read Macroanalysis I was concerned about the future of literary analysis and discourse; I couldn’t see how a computer could replicate what the human mind does when reading and exploring literature. However, I think all of the essays in this section, in particular Parry’s, made me feel more comfortable with the idea of Digital Humanities as a tool rather than a replacement for the typical thinking literary scholars conduct.

    Like Sarah Hummel, I am interested in the application DH can have for professional application beyond academia. I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve worked through my final project and have tried to make it as applicable as possible to my field. I think other fields have embraced technology but it seems the humanities are still resistant. I like how you acknowledged that change is hard, but I think as we become more and more reliant on technology, DH won’t be seen so much as a separate field from humanities, but more just the norm.

  4. “DHers and non-DHers shouldn’t be worrying about a dictionary definition to embrace this ever-changing realm; instead of defining it, define it by taking action.”


    They say the two things guaranteed in life are death and taxes, but so is change! That is how life works! DH is, when you think about it, a technological representation of how our actions evolve, and our history is shaped. When the Civil Rights Movement was going on in the 1960’s (not to mention the civil rights movements happening present day), was anyone going “Okay hold on, stop for a second, we can’t really react to this until we define it”? No! Can you imagine how disastrous it would be to always need to know what something IS in order to use it, admire it, and embrace its full potential? That’s the whole point of DH – using evolving technological methods to explore and research evolving humanities. The possibilities widen considerably when we stop using static mindsets in an always-changing environment.

    Thank you for this post, because (as I’m sure it is obvious) I am much more invigorated!

  5. Sara,

    I too found Parry’s article to be the most helpful of the readings this week. Although he does mention briefly the ‘what DH is/is not’ debate, he moved quickly through it and on to the crux of his argument. One idea from your post I thought was interesting was “To ignore recognizing Digital Humanities as its own entity is to ignore our daily living.” I think this brings up an old argument about whether or not DH will be called DH in the future, or if it will just return to Humanities. Parry mentions again and again that it is hard to define DH precisely because our lives are so “plugged-in.” Traditionally research is all but a thing of the past. Now all one needs is online access to databases like EBSCO host to complete research. It begs the question–if everyone is plugged in and completing their research and publishing online, then why is the ‘digital’ distinction necessary? Certainly there are at least a few academics that would use this argument to say DH isn’t an entity on its own, but at best a branch of the humanities tree. I think Parry does a good job of explaining the difference: “Simply using a computer does not make one a digital humanities scholar–typing your manuscript on a word processor does not let you in the club; your work needs to share an affinity with a certain method of approach to humanities scholarship.” It’s not necessarily the tools you use that make you a digital humanist–it is what you do with the information.

    As an aside, I thought it was interesting that Parry used DH techniques (word frequencies) to document and define DH. I suppose it makes sense to legitimize DH techniques by actually using them in the legitimization.

  6. Your response was very helpful and thoughtful. After all of this reading, we are finally beginning to get an understanding of what DH really is and how powerful it can be. When it comes to education, so many discoveries have been made, but Digital Humanities is the first new subject to be added to education in my knowledge. The application of Digital Humanities to marketing was a great connection to make. It seems highly likely that state curriculums will adopt some form of computer coding or digital humanities course. I just lumped the two together, but I do want to note that DH and computer coding are not the same thing. Digital Humanities looks much deeper into what is being studied and the effect that it has on society.

  7. Dr. Schocket –
    You have shed a light on my Kroger idea that I never would have considered. Now, I do realize there is a difference. Would you think that most DHers would draw the line there?

  8. Sarah –
    This reminds me of the Fisher Price toy that was about coding I posted a few months ago. Your comments make me wonder why FP would invest in a toy if they didn’t see a future in DH.

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