Blog Post #2 – Debates in Digital Humanities

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This week, our professor asked us to read Debates in the Digital Humanities, a book of essays edited by Matthew K. Gold. The 2012 book is divided into six parts that pertain to defining, theorizing, critiquing, practicing, teaching, and envisioning the digital humanities. The book is valuable as a handbook for anyone who is interested in delving into the world of digital humanities.

Throughout the book, the authors attempt to define digital humanities and the role of digital humanists. The book contains at least thirty definitions for digital humanities. (1) In his essay, Matthew Kirschenbaum claims that Wikipedia’s definition of digital humanities is as good as any that he has seen. Wikipedia calls digital humanities “a field of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities.”(2) Wikipedia goes on to describe it as “methodological” and “interdisciplinary”. While some may scoff at deriving information from Wikipedia, it is interesting to note that the site itself adheres to the goals of digital humanities, which is to engage with the public in a transparent, interdisciplinary, and collaborative way.(3)

Kathleen Fitzpatrick defines digital humanities as “a nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities.” (4) Meanwhile, Lisa Spiro cautions against attempts to “pigeonhole” digital humanities by defining it. Instead of concentrating on a definition, she focuses on the “values” of digital humanities, such as public involvement, collaboration, and transparency. While the authors seem unable to give a succinct definition for digital humanities, the characteristics are discussed repeatedly. According to several of the essays in the book, collaboration, transparency, interdisciplinarity, experimentation, and public engagement are all essential aspects of digital humanities. (5)

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The book depicts digital humanists as the hippies of the humanities world. In such an interdisciplinary and collaborative field, making connections and building a sense of community seems to come naturally. Digital humanists are eager to exchange ideas and they often seek out different skills, projects, and viewpoints. (6)

In the book, author Rafael C. Alvarado compares THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) to Woodstock. I have to agree with his comparison. I personally noticed this lively “hippie” atmosphere myself while participating in THATCamp last year. There is something electrifying about taking part in digital humanities events like THATCamp because people are clearly excited about their projects and ideas, and everyone seems glad to listen and to help one another bring their digital projects to life. It is that inclusive, innovative, and enthusiastic atmosphere that draws me into the digital humanities. (7)

Our professor also asked us to pick a specific part of the book to discuss in class. I chose Part V: Teaching the Digital Humanities. The section of the book concerning teaching further indicates that digital humanities are “reinvigorating” humanities instruction. Indeed, historians are realizing that digital humanities can be used to augment student learning in significant ways. Part V highlights ways in which digital projects, blogging, web based peer review, online discussion boards, and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter can help students develop “digital literacy”. (8)

Part V is also a little gloomy as it repeatedly claims that the humanities are threatened. The book conveys the sense that, as digital media is increasingly embraced, traditional humanist educators will be left behind if they do not jump on the digital bandwagon. It seems that the book views digital humanities as a sort of life jacket found on the Titanic at the last minute. On occasion, there is an “us and them” feel to the debates surrounding digital humanities that, in my eyes, is not productive. Digital humanists almost seem to be viewed as a threat to traditional humanities, but I do not think it has to be that way. I see digital humanities as a supplement to traditional scholarship rather than its replacement. (9)

Notes
(1) Debates in the Digital Humanities, 67-71.
(2) Debates, 4.
(3) Debates, 4, 16-30.
(4) Debates, 12.
(5) Debates, 16-30.
(6) Debates, 16-17, 22, 51.
(7) Debates, 50-51.
(8) Debates, 354, 360.
(9) Debates, 362.

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