Blog Post #1 – What is Digital Humanities?

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Futurist Art By Art Radebaugh

This is the first week of a new semester! This semester, I am in a class called “History in the Digital Age”. The title of the class sounds so futuristic. I took the seminar associated with this class last semester, and I am glad to be able to delve further into readings related to digital humanities during this course. The topic of digital humanities directly pertains to my thesis project on Florida folk music during the Depression because it contains digital components (see my past blog posts for more information about that). The first assignment for our class was to read a book called Digital_Humanities by Anne Burdick et al. The book’s purpose is to stress ways in which digital tools, methods, and design can enhance scholarly practices, particularly in the humanities. The overall argument of the book is that digital humanities breathe much needed life into traditional humanities. The book seeks to indicate ways in which digital tools and platforms can enhance and reinvigorate “humanistic scholarship”. (1)

Digital_Humanities discusses the emergence of the humanities as a field and touches upon the history of digitization from the first wave in the late 1940s to the modern era, the Digital Age. The book describes digital history milestones and mentions notable digital projects and experiments that occurred along the way. The book also emphasizes the importance of design as a research technique. Throughout the book, the five authors highlight collaboration, interpretation, and experimentation. Interestingly, several paragraphs discuss the importance of experiencing and accepting failure. Indeed, the book encourages failure as a way to learn and improve. As someone who is currently attempting to make a digital project and has had many moments of trial and error, it is good to be reminded that it takes time and effort to create a good digital project. (2)

Digital_Humanities contains five case studies of digital humanities projects. The case studies are all fascinating, but the one that interests me the most is “Case Study I: Mapping Differential Geographies in the New World Encounter”. The fictional project combines thick mapping, data mining, distant reading, text analysis, and language processing in order to examine the different concepts of geographic boundaries that were held by the Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the New World during the early days of contact. The project utilizes “thick mapping” techniques, which involve digitally visualizing geographic data to reveal meaningful information about history through time and space. I have recently discovered that I am interested in thick mapping and spatial history. For that reason, I was drawn to Case Study I. As with most digital projects, Case Study I would require abundant time and interdisciplinary collaboration to become a reality. The five case studies illustrate the exciting possibilities offered by digital humanities projects. (3)

The book ends with a chapter entitled “A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities”. The guide is thorough and extensive. The section includes questions and answers pertaining to the definition of digital humanities and explains the objectives and challenges inherent in the digital approach. The short guide also contains a set of guidelines to evaluate digital humanities projects and includes a list of the “fundamental elements” necessary to create them. The section also contains a list of basic essential skills needed to make digital projects, and contains a list of expected learning outcomes. (4)

Ultimately, the book sees digital humanities and traditional humanities as functioning in concert with one another. While the authors stress that the humanities are not in crisis, they make a case that digital humanities can be utilized to reinvigorate the traditional humanities. The book reads as a rallying cry for traditional historians to embrace digital humanities, to re-envision concepts of authorship, and to understand the principles of design. At the same time, the authors highlight the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and imagination. (5)

The book actually inspires me to keep trekking along on the digital history path that I stumbled upon last year. The classes I have taken as a graduate student have helped me realize that concepts such as thick mapping and spatial history speak to me as a historian. Digital tools and platforms fit perfectly with my research interests. Digital_Humanities indicates that there is a place in my field where I can explore my interests concerning movement over time and space. Historians, humanists, and educators in the Digital Age have an opportunity to break away from the traditional path of scholarship. Digital history frees the imagination of the creator and the user because ideas that were once confined to the pages of books can now be brought to life with the help of mapping, visualizations, and other digital history methods. (6)

End Notes

(1) DH, 7-9.
(2) DH, 5-16, 21-24, 36.
(3) DH, 61-70.
(4) SG, 122-135.
(5) DH, 7, 15, 24, 44, 49, 57, 76.
(6) DH, 18, 49-50, 61, 103, 118.

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