DH: The Name That Does No Favors

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I just returned from a workshop at NYU called “Why Digital Humanities?” I went primarily because Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who’s always fantastic, and Diana Taylor were on the panel — but also, I must admit, because, even though I work just a few blocks away, I often miss my alma mater and its fancy facilities and nice catered lunches.

After the four panelists presented, roughly a half-hour remained for questions — and it became clear after the third or fourth person spoke that most of their questions centered on the issue of definition. “If I show a YouTube clip in my writing class, am I practicing the digital humanities?” “Will history departments ultimately split into traditional and digital camps?” I’ve been working with digital archives for 15 years. I was a digital humanist before there even was such a term!”

Last summer I participated in a think tank organized by our Provost’s office at The New School. The challenge I set for myself was to do an “environmental scan” of “alternative modes of scholarly practice” — focusing in particular on DH, a “field” I’d been curious, but also skeptical, about for a while — and to figure out how to translate some of those findings into my classes in the fall. After several months of research, some skepticism lingered — but I also managed to find a new, more fruitful, less techno-fetishist way to conceive of the really valuable things that DH has to offer.

I came to the conclusion that the “Digital Humanities” name doesn’t do anybody any favors. It prioritizes the digital, implying that the insertion of new media into any endeavor inevitably makes it better — and, conversely, that print and old media are inherently retrograde. This is not the message I need to send to my students, many of whom already assume that the world was reborn — and humanity reached its apotheosis — with the rise of the Internet. What’s more, it singles out the humanities, suggesting that in this evolving educational universe, they can go it alone — with the help of a few technical gadgets. DH (or [insert better name here]) is necessarily interdisciplinary and collaborative.

Anyway, here’s the summary report I wrote. It’s no masterpiece, since I wrote this while simultaneously finishing the syllabi for two new grad classes. Still, I think it gets at some of these “image” and “self-definition” problems that seem to get some people stuck.

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In the work I completed in my preliminary literature review[1], and in research I’ve conducted since then, I’ve discovered that a sizable portion of the Digital Humanities literature is dedicated to addressing when the Digital Humanities began, what the Digital Humanities (DH) are, and what counts as a DH project.[2] These identity-negotiation discussions are perhaps to be expected of a “diverse and still emerging” field[3]. Yet I find that the prevalence of these debates, and their focus on self-justification, limit the attention directed toward meaningful applications. In addition, the efforts to define the Digital Humanities as a discipline often mean that a great deal of (liquid and digital) ink is spilt in establishing the particular nature of DH’s relationship to “the humanities” and “the digital.” Patrik Svensson, in his recent article on “the landscape of digital humanities” – the second in a three-part series in Digital Humanities Quarterly – writes:

there is [even] a question of whether “the digital” needs to be specified at all, and it is not uncommon to encounter the argument that technology and the digital are part or will be part of any academic area, and hence the denotation “digital” is not required.[4]

The continued insistence on (and seeming fetishization of) the digital, however, seems to privilege these media at the expense of other, non-digital, yet equally appropriate and effective, media forms. Rather than fetishizing the database, as some “humanities computing” (what some call “Digital Humanities 1.0”) scholars seemed to do, however, I’d prefer that we consider other modes of “processing” a research project – that we apply the valuable lessons that DH has to offer to a broader scope of scholarly modes. I’d prefer that we consider how particular questions or problems might lend themselves to investigation or representation through aural, visual, or interactive media; through maps, audio archives, documentaries, video games – even architecture, designed products, clothing. In some cases, we should remember, a print document – designed so that its material form reinforces its argument – might be the most appropriate means of giving form to an argument.

I have found media scholar Tara McPherson’s approach most similar to my own vision, and her voice most refreshing. McPherson, who is affiliated with USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy, calls such a cross-platform oriented scholar “multimodal”: the multimodal scholar “thinks carefully about the relationship of form to content, expression to idea.” She examines “what happens when scholarship looks and feels differently, requiring new modes of engagement from the reader/user.”[5] She wonders: “How do you ‘experience’ or ‘feel’ an argument in a more immersive and sensory-rich space?” “Can scholarship show as well as tell?” “Will representing data differently change the ways we understand, collect, or interpret it?”

I prefer to use McPherson’s terminology – multimodal scholarship (although I think that there’s still something inelegant in this construction) – so, for the rest of this document I’ll be referring to “MS” instead of “DH.” However, I do think that there are a great many intellectual and ethical parallels between DH and MS, and in some cases we might even be able to use the terms interchangeably. So, although I’ll be using the term (or, rather, acronym) MS in what follows, I’ll be drawing from the literature on both MS and DH.

Rather than get caught up in the debates over labels and territory and disciplinary status, I have found it much more beneficial to focus, like McPherson, on those intellectual practices and values that are central to the new scholarly practices defining MS – values that seem consistent with the new pedagogies and university structures called for by a host of recognizable figures and entitites, including Henry Jenkins, Cathy Davidson, David Theo Goldberg, and the MacArthur Foundation.[6] Those values, which I highlighted in my preliminary literature review, include (1) opening up, laying bare, and critically reflecting on the process of scholarship; (2) collaboration; and (3) a deep concern with epistemological questions (e.g., how is knowledge “made,” who gets to make it, what’s done with it, etc.) I’ll say a few words about each:

First, the practice of chronicling one’s research process, Johanna Drucker says, benefits the researcher him- or herself in that it opens up “occasions for critical self-consciousness.”[7] The practice also benefits academia’s publics – both the limited ones it has now, and the potentially wider and more numerous ones it could have in the future; explaining what we, as researchers/critical-practitioners/critical-educators/etc., do can “illuminate the shadowy process of critical thinking, encouraging readers not only to digest finished works, but also to learn from and evaluate the mechanisms of their creation.”[8] Second, collaboration allows participants to “leverage the increasingly distributed nature of expertise and knowledge and transform this reality into occasions for scholarly innovation, disciplinary cross-fertilization, and the democratization of knowledge.”[9] Collaborators on DH/MS projects increasingly come from outside the university: libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, arts organizations, advocacy groups, non-profits, schools, and local communities all have the potential to participate (as I’ll explain below, I’ve attempted to integrate several outside participants in my fall application). Third, as Stephanie Barish and Elizabeth Daley, also affiliated with USC’s IML, argue, “To be literate today, one must understand how strategically chosen and juxtaposed combinations of media enable the construction and dissemination of meaning in ways that bypass of enrich traditional text and the spoken word. Indeed, one must not only be able to read such media, but also to author it.”[10] Such knowledge work calls into question the distinction between theory and practice. And, through its continual reflection on process, this work also has the potential to raise critical questions about what constitutes knowledge, “who gets to create [i]
,… how it gets legitimated and authorized, and how it is made accessible to a significantly broader (and potentially global) audience.”[11]

My late-summer research has focused primarily on how these values can be integrated into the classroom. The final section of my preliminary literature review addressed the challenges and opportunities of introducing faculty to DH- or MS-inspired pedagogies, and incentivizing them to make the extra effort to incorporate these new modes of teaching into their courses (and to take some risk in doing so). Much of our online ATT discussion throughout the summer has focused on these issues, too. But my literature review closed by bringing these issues back to bear on the students: I focused on how the collaborative, process-focused, multi-disciplinary, “multiple literacies” approach is central to USC’s IML. While the program is immensely inspiring on paper – and it has no doubt achieved tremendous success during its few years of existence – we heard from Holly Willis recently about the challenges even it, with its generous funding and active fellowship programs, has faced. These types of issues require structural changes and widespread institutional commitment to change – efforts that, as we discussed, are beyond individual faculty members’ purview but within the realm of responsibility of the Provost’s office.

A more small-scale, but no less significant, issue that I then turned my attention to was the issue of assessment. I wrote at the end of my preliminary literature review: “As the rampant DH boosterism and invariably positive commentary on [particular high-profile] projects…reveals, the Digital Humanities community has yet to build a tradition of critique.”[12] But how does one critique a research-based interactive map? Or a theoretically informed performance-installation? The standard processes and rubrics of grading, or of peer review, fail in these cases. So, I spent the final few weeks of my summer investigating models for assessing multimodal student projects. My blog post on this topic, I learned (much to my surprise), was tweeted around a bit. And given the specific multimodal form of my students’ projects – an interactive dabatase-driven map – I’ve begun an effort to integrate criticism sensitive to the medium-specificity of the map, with these multimodal evaluative rubrics. I will continue to work through these issues with my students as the fall progresses. And throughout the semester we will be blogging our design and deliberation and evaluation processes, for the benefit of those who might learn from our experience…..



[1] See here, here, and here.

[2] Sometimes it seems as if it would be easier to explain what doesn’t count, given the expansive nature of some DH definitions. Todd Presner, for instance, defines DH as “humanistic practice anchored in creation, curation, collaboration, experimentation, and the multi-purposing or multi-channeling of humanistic knowledge.” (“Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge,” May 13, 2010, Module m34246, Connexions.)

[3] Digital Humanities Quarterly, “About DHQ”:

[4] Patrick Svensson, “The Landscape of the Digital HumanitiesDigital Humanities Quarterly 4:1 (Summer 2010): ¶ 51.

[5] Tara McPherson, “Introduction: Media Studies and the Digital Humanities,” Cinema Journal 48, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 120-1.

[6] Henry Jenkins, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” [white paper] (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); Cathy N. Davidson & David Theo Goldberg, “The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age” (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).

[7] Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie, “Speculative Computing: Aesthetic Provocations in Humanities Computing,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Ray Siemens, John Unsworth, and Susan Schreibman, Hardcover., Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

[8] Avi Santo and Christopher Lucas, “Engaging Academic and Nonacademic Communities through Online Scholarly Work,” Cinema Journal 48, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 133-134.

[9] Jeffrey Schnapp, Todd Presner, et. al., “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” n.d.: 5.

[10] Stephanie Barish and Elizabeth Daley, Multimedia Scholarship for the 21st Century, Educause Forum for the Future of Higher Education (Educause, 2005): 39.

[11] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[12] See Jennifer Howard, “Hot Type: No Reviews of Digital Scholarship = No RespectChronicle of Higher Education (May 23, 2010).

2 replies on “DH: The Name That Does No Favors”

Thanks, James! I did see that Matthew had posted his forthcoming article to his website, but I haven’t yet gotten around to reading it. Neil’s post looks fantastic, too. I look forward to reading both!

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