Digital Humanities for the Rest of Us


One Thing That All Humanities Scholars Can Do To Integrate The Digital Into Their Humanities

I recently gave a presentation at the Council on Undergraduate Research 2016 Biennial Conference on undergraduate research and digital humanities. The session was well-attended. Some the individuals who attended were not only interested in undergraduate research as a co-curricular activity, but also the unicorn that is digital humanities. I know many scholars in the humanities do not feel that they can participate in digital humanities. However, I think there is at least one thing that all humanities scholars can do to digital into their humanities.

Digital humanities can be intimidating. Many of its proponents focus on technological skills and digital tools (i.e. coding), unfamiliar ways of talking about traditional humanities work (i.e. big data) or highly contested public debates (i.e. the recent LA Times Review of Books series on digital humanities).

There is a school of thought that defines digital humanities by your ability to “build” things. In his essay, “On Building,” Stephen Ramsay doubles down on his earlier essay “Who’s In and Who’s Out” by emphasizing very specific activities that define his brand of digital humanities:

Building is, for us, a new kind of hermeneutic — one that is quite a bit more radical than taking the traditional methods of humanistic inquiry and applying them to digital objects. Media studies, game studies, critical code studies, and various other disciplines have brought wonderful new things to humanistic study, but I will say (at my peril) that none of these represent as radical a shift as the move from reading to making.[1]

Unless you are doing things like coding, creating a database or data mining, you are not engaged in digital humanities. But there are other ways to engage the digital in digital humanities. In an interview with Michael Gavin and Kathleen Marie Smith, Brett Bobley rattles off a list of activities that fall under the umbrella of digital humanities. Some, like data mining, are commonly associated with digital humanities, but others, like media studies, less so. What links them together is technology, which Bobley describes as a “game changer”: “Technology has radically changed the way we read, the way we write, and the way we learn. Reading, writing, learning–three things that are pretty central to the humanities” [2].  Bobley does not say what kind of technology or limit that technology to complex coding languages or digital tools with steep learning curves.

As a result, I suggest that one thing that all humanities scholars can do to take a baby step in the direction of digital humanities is to maintain a blog about their research. Create a project site and make it public. Keep people updated on your work. Share what you are reading.  Use it as a lab to work out problems, readings and trajectories of thought.

Why is this digital humanities? First, writing for a public audience using a blogging platform changes the way you write, because you are engaging a reader who can do things in relation to what you write.  The ability to insert a hyperlink or embed a YouTube video means you have to think about how your reader will engage those things in your text. What if they don’t click and continue to read? Will your writing still make sense? Of course, you do have to learn how to create a hyperlink or embed a YouTube video, but it’s much easier than you think.

Academics are constantly being told that they need to make their work more relevant and accessible to the public. Blogging about your work hits both of those marks. It also means that you have to translate your work from academese to language that non-academics will understand (i.e. jargon) and also foreground the relevance of your work. You have to tell people why your work is important and what it adds to the world.

Humanities scholars can also use a project site to publicize what I call their intellectual bank. One thing humanities scholars are really great at doing is reading, connecting ideas and writing about it. We know stuff! However, that work (and it is intellectual labor) is invisible and largely undervalued.  Yet it forms the foundation of all good scholarship. All people see is the footnote on an article or a note in a chapter in a book. Humanities faculty, unlike their STEM counterparts, do not have labs. We do not have a place for our work and no one sees our process. While there are bibliographic managers that help scholars manage their sources, actually writing about the things you read and how they speak to each other in a way that people can access makes it more likely that humanities scholars will have conversations with others who share your research interests.

I know this works because this is what this blog does. I write about things in progress. It’s necessarily messy. There are no highly complex digital tools here. But I can also say that is has been enormously helpful and beneficial to my work. Writing on your own project site may seem small in the large universe of digital humanities, but it is something that almost all humanities scholars can do to use the digital in their own work.

Works Cited

[1] Stephen Ramsay, “On Building.” Stephen Ramsay. 11 Jan 2011. (27 Jul 2016).

[2] Michael Gavin and Kathleen Marie Smith. “An Interview with Brett Bobley.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 61-66.

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Digital Humanities for the Rest of Us by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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