Preliminary Statements

What do we talk about when we talk about digital humanities? Below are selections from eight responses from students from a variety of backgrounds, offering their perspectives–in advance of all our readings and assignments–on what DH comprises.

MFA in Poetry

Digital humanities is a field that seems to defy concrete definition, even amongst its most preeminent scholars. Therefore any definition is necessarily partial and probably suspect.  It seems as though the best definition of digital humanities is probably the most broad definition. To put it into a sentence, digital humanities is the intersection of scholarly study in the humanities with emerging technologies.

This can take on an almost infinite number of forms, involving technologies and concepts that we haven’t even conceived of yet. It includes manipulating social media for scholarly purpose, communication, or experimentation.  It includes the analysis of large amounts of cultural data through technological means.  Digital humanities also has a pedagogical aspect, examining the ways in which technology currently impacts learning and the ways in which it might be used to aid scholarly research and education in the future.  This could include ways to present, archive, mine, and interact with data sets or information that had previously been more of a static relationship between the human brain and a piece (or many pieces!) of paper.

Of course, this is nowhere near a comprehensive list of things that digital humanities could be. Because of the relative newness of the field and the constant evolution of technology, digital humanities have yet to really be concretely defined.  This gives much freedom to people who call themselves digital humanists to conduct all kinds of research and experiments in the name of digital humanities.  This is probably a great boon to digital humanities as a field, allowing it to have a more dynamic relationship with its components than a more traditional, thoroughly defined, field of study.  Because nobody has a strict definition of what digital humanities are, there is no strict definition of what digital humanities aren’t.  Digital humanities seems to be a field in which there is a lot of room to move on the margins, resulting in unique scholarship and interdisciplinary study.

MA in World Literature

Digital Humanities studies the maximization and utilization of technology in the liberal arts.  Specifically, how digital media and technology can assist in the quantitative and qualitative study of the humanities.  At the same time, the study of Digital Humanities must assess and critique the validity and credibility of digital sources, i.e. internet publications, internet articles, and digital publishing. Digital Humanities encompasses the utilization of technology in the humanities, while at the same time digital humanities must assess these technologies and develop methodologies and pedagogies that will make their use accepted among scholars.

This raises many questions about the Digital Humanities.  How can new technology best be utilized?  How can one tell if a source is valid?  How can one access all the databases available?  The more dangerous questions Digital Humanities faces is how to integrate itself in a liberal arts department that has ignored it for many years?  Should students be allowed to produce visual representations of texts in English classes, should students listen to actual authors reading their own books, should students create blogs to enable a vast community to partake in knowledge others must pay for?  Do publications online have the same validity as non-electronic scholarly Journals?

Ultimately, Digital Humanities must justify how it can benefit the liberal arts, outside of providing a vast amount of digital information/databases?  How can it help teachers engage their students and how does one incorporate it?  How does one, without a technological background, take an idea of a computer program that will benefit a department and make that program come to fruition?  Digital Humanities must research, address, and make the answers to these questions known.

Digital Humanities opens the door to new research, publication, and methodologies in the liberal arts.  However, much time in this field will be spent proving its validity to the same discourses it seeks to assist.

MA in American and British Literature

What can the digital humanities become?

Perhaps a means of breaking down disciplinary borders, bridging traditionally separate communities, and connecting epistemologies in revolutionary ways. The digital humanities might be the perfect venue for combining different literacies–mathematical, technological, emotional, linguistic–because they create space for (or seem to demand) interdisciplinary work that evolves with changes in technology, information, and global connectivity.

What is/are the digital humanities?

Maybe a constellation of diverse practices that use technology and the humanities in conjunction to ask and attempt answering more complex questions (or to grapple with the same questions in more complex ways).

Are the digital humanities more holistic or more fragmented than conventional disciplines?

Are they liberatory or exclusive?

Singular or plural?

Wondering what I’ve done that counts as DH.

My favorite graduate project so far involved some concepts from set theory (a branch of mathematics), linguistically innovative poetry by women in North America and the UK, and elements (enactments) of critical/literary theory. I collected fragments from poems I loved in two particular anthologies, and recombined/permuted these fragments into an essay about the source poetry itself–an extremely self-reflexive and metacognitive activity. I added pieces of my own work, often matching the tone and style of poets whose language I borrowed. I don’t believe this project was necessarily original, but technology facilitated so much of the execution that I was engaging in a unique, non-reproducible process with those particular materials. The interaction between technology, mathematics, literary study, and writing created a depth and richness of experience unmatched in my academic career.

I’m wondering, then, if DH could mean enhancing human cognition, transforming our conscious experience, rather than (or in addition to, or along with) studying culture and artifacts with technological tools.

MA in Composition and Rhetoric

Digital Humanities, boiled down to its simplest sugars, is concerned with the intersection of the field of humanities and technology. The two ingredients are not, however, equal. Digital Humanities is technology in service to the scholarly and educational pursuits of the humanities.

To get more complex, we must first consider the fundamental concerns of the humanities, a field that, in its own right, defies clear definition. The humanities grapple with questions of “human thought, experience, and creativity.” They explore the meaning of life and of art, and the meaning of life expressed through art. These are grey and intangible areas. The answers to its questions are obscure and shifting. This murky terrain is one where boundaries between disciplines become, necessarily, blurred. In short, the humanities are interdisciplinary. Technology is simply the newest, and potentially life-saving, dance partner.

Bringing the definition back down from its lofty humanistic heights, Digital Humanities is the humanities in a digital age. In this scary economic climate, traditional humanities study is under threat of drowning or loss in a fast and unforgiving current. The questions that humanities asks, and the texts through which it explores these questions, remain vital. The case for why these questions and texts are vital seems increasingly difficult to make. In this inevitable current, ‘DH’ offers the humanities a saving foothold. ‘DH’ presents the questions of human experience/creativity/meaning in the medium that this generation demands and understands.

While the humanities are often regarded as stuck in the past, as stagnant, ‘DH’ is a spark of new energy and life. The field of ‘DH’ is in a constant state of growth and evolution. The digital is no longer just a conduit for delivering the humanities – for repackaging traditional texts  –  but a means for creating completely new artifacts that are representative of the humanities. I feel the need to describe the field in scientific terms, as polymeric carbohydrate structures that contain code but ultimately seek to deliver sustenance and taste in their basic function as food.

Based upon the make-up of our class, ‘DH’ is a place where people of greatly varying professional and academic backgrounds come together with a desire to connect their love of humanities with technology, and with today. Moreover (and of personal interest to me), the Digital Humanities holds revolutionary possibilities for addressing aspects of a hierarchical and outdated academic system. ‘DH’ promises the breaking down of barriers, of information sharing, collaboration and community. These are the ingredients of a successful grassroots organizing movement.

MA in Linguistics

Digital Humanities (DH) refers to an apparently broad field of studies which concerns the academic scholarship in humanities in relation/interaction with computing technology. It is very much interdisciplinary in practice, the scope of which is still not precisely determined. Primarily, DH aims at making academic resources of humanities available electronically with a view to making them better available. Secondly, DH aims to utilize computing methods for analyzing texts, materials that fall in the area humanities. Making texts available in digital forms creates opportunity to make databases of the elements inside the texts and analyze them to any purpose by sorting, categorizing, modifying, etc.

DH is about utilizing computing technology to gain efficiency in humanities scholarship. For example, DH can reduce the waste of time and efficiency in editing texts; while working on electronic forms of texts, editors can work 24/7 from any parts of the world. This is a benefit which print editing would possibly never be able to provide. At the same time, editors can very easily go to difference references to verify any information any time. Previously, lexicographers worked with printed forms, and they had to find their resource materials in a very time and efficiency-consuming manner. Now, with the help of computing technology, it is possible to consult resources sitting at the desk at office or home; and, what is more, computing technology allows us to find, sort, categorize all the lexicons along with their related forms of expressions, which makes the total process pretty efficient.

DH enables scholarship which was practically impossible previously. The job of linguists can be an useful example in this regard. Analyzing linguistic variables is a major preoccupation of linguists. Previously, linguists used to collect data through pre-designed questionnaires and analyze the responses. Many of the variables could be targeted to be analysed due to lack of suitable technological support. However, digital technology has now allowed linguists to digitally record language utterances, extract different variables from the audio data, take appropriate measurements of the intended variables, automate the data processing, and so on. It would not be possible to go for millions of calculations manually.  Thus, the findings allow the linguists to make generalizations on a wider sphere of the academia. DH here assists in making more scholarship available.

MA in Composition and Rhetoric

The term “digital humanities” encompasses the ways in which we document, study and explore the human experience through the use of technology. The goal of the humanities is to make some kind of sense of the human experience, to draw conclusions or to recognize patterns; technology has given us access to a great wealth of artifacts that allow us to consider a vast array of “evidence” to make better sense of the past. The field of Digital Humanities examines how technology is shaping the present course of the humanities while allowing us to explore the past in greater depth.

While at one time special collections were available only to select few individuals, the ability to digitize documents and take detailed photographs has made these things more readily available to a much wider range of individuals.  Our collective knowledge has been enhanced by this increased accessibility of manuscripts and art. Concerns about physically preserving artifacts remain, undoubtedly, but the ability to digitally archive – and also access – evidence of the past has greatly influenced the field.

Although some technology allows us to better preserve and explore artifacts that teach us about humans that lived before our time, this same technology has changed – and continues to change – our experience of life, thus impacting the entire notion of “the humanities” and the human experience. For example, social media has changed our ability to carefully construct our own personas and present ourselves to the world in a very specific way; when future generations study us, or when we consider ourselves, we have to use new filters to sort out what we see from what is accurate and true. It is significant to consider how people want others to see them, or how they want to see themselves; social media gives us a means through which to study and explore that disconnect.

Modern technology also allows the everyday individual to publish and preserve his/her own artifacts, greatly increasing the pool of modern artifacts that inform us about ourselves and will inform future generations about this time in history. While those are great assets to the study of our modern world, there is a flip-side to such easy access to information; once something exists in cyberspace, it essentially exists forever. This is causing us to begin asking ourselves questions about the value of privacy and about the voluntary giving up of personal information; how these phenomena will manifest themselves in modern artifacts will be interesting to explore, through the field of digital humanities.

MA in American and British Literature

In Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Library of Babel,” he postulates a universal library that contains an infinite number of 410 page books composed of random combinations of the 25 orthographic symbols. The library necessarily contains all possible combinations of these symbols, and thus houses, in full or ciphered, every book that will ever be written and hundreds of thousands of slight variations. In Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, in an homage to Borges’ Babel, he includes a similar library. However, Wolfe’s library, among its countless, though finite, volumes, also contains a microchip that, in turn, records every book in the library. One library spans the universe, the other is written on a microchip. Though Borges’ library is seemingly more ambitious, the microchip creates a greater economy of meaning than the technologies of pen and paper. It is for this reason that I challenge the idea that Digital Humanities is a set of methodologies, rather than a set of tools. When I think of methodologies, I think of induction, deduction, the scientific method, and, on a larger scale, structuralism and post-structuralism. A methodology interprets data (meaning), a tool exhumes or constructs the data. A microscope is a tool, not a method. The interpretive methods of the librarian do not change just because the library becomes digital, it is just presented in a different form. Induction does not stop working; a microchip does not invalidate Freud. The Digital Humanities are a set of tools and to study them is to learn how to use them.

MFA in Fiction

Digital Humanities is an interdisciplinary examination of the ways in which technology may be utilized for the study, presentation, and teaching of the traditional humanities (literature, art, history, music, etc).  As it applies to the study of law, it could be exemplified by digital archives of statutes such as the Cornell Institute, or perhaps even by WestLaw and Lexis which more organize and contextualize the field of case law, journals, and other legal references.   In the field of music, it could refer to archive projects whereby old recordings (such as early phonographs of Thomas Edison’s voice) are digitized and placed on the web both for public education and also enjoyment. However an attempt to fully define it as itself becomes immediately recursive and redundant as it seems that it is at its best when it is being used as a productive tool attached to another discipline, rather than being pinned down and used to define itself.