Trying to Wrap My Head Around the Digital Humanities, Part 2

Laying Bare the Process of Scholarship. This reflection on method and process is another defining characteristic of Digital Humanities 2.0. “From a distance,…much of what is currently done in digital humanities has the look of automation,” argues textual theorist Johanna Drucker; it often appears as if digital scholarship consists of feeding a data set into database, and waiting for it to crunch the numbers and perhaps graph or map the results.[1] Digital humanists “have to show that digital approaches don’t simply provide objects of study in new formats, but shift the critical ground on which we conceptualize our activity… The challenge is to structure instruments that engage and enable these investigations.” Sometimes these investigations happen when the instruments call attention to themselves. Matthew Kirschenbaum notes that the technologies he worked with in creating the William Blake Archive, a text-and image-encoding project that has been online since 1995, “constantly make their presence felt, visibly and palpably pushing back against the interface we attempt to enfold around them.”[2] This is a common occurrence in the digital humanities, he says, because “necessity often dictates that we adopt and adapt tools and technologies that were originally developed for other needs and audiences.”[3]

But in the 15 years since the Blake Archive debuted, new technologies have emerged that make even the most rudimentary sketch appear professionally produced; they often smooth over the cracks and create a semblance of rhetorical seamlessness. Likewise, new tools have the potential to further automate data input, crunching, visualization, and analysis. DH projects often use these tools, but do not do so uncritically. As Drucker says, “Digital humanities projects are not simply mechanistic applications of technical knowledge, but occasions for critical self-consciousness.” In creating an interactive version of her book The Virtual Window, Anne Friedberg discovered the limitations and affordances of the print and interactive formats: “the digital format is not at its best in building a complex argument; it works by accretion, by juxtaposition, by comparative assemblage. It is rhizomatic.”[4] Creating a digital humanities project requires that one consider the unique capabilities of particular instruments, media formats, etc., and employ those that are best suited to their particular project.

Foregrounding these considerations in the public presentation of a digital humanities project has the potential to open up the scholarly process to a wider audience, and to invite them into a conversation on method, value, even the purpose of research. Avi Santo and Christopher Lucas have noticed a shift “in scholarly work practice, from an emphasis on polished demonstrations of academic virtuosity to a foregrounding of scholarly process and collaboration.”[5] Blogging one’s research or posting drafts online and soliciting comments – through standard blog comments, or through platforms like Commentpress or Sophie – 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.”[6] The public is thus not merely an audience for this work; it has the potential to critically engage with it and perhaps even contribute.[7]

The actions that constitute the research process in DH might seem foreign to our traditional models of humanities scholarship, which emphasize solitary study and single authorship. Presner describes DH as a “humanistic practice anchored in creation, curation, collaboration, experimentation, and the multi-purposing or multi-channeling of humanistic knowledge.”[8] Many proponents of DH draw particular attention to its collaborative nature, which helps it 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] This “distribution” of expertise and knowledge spans both traditional disciplinary boundaries and geographic boundaries. Inclusive, team-based DH projects are thus well positioned to respond to, and foster, interdisciplinarity and the globalization of education.[10] Computer scientists from California might collaborate on a project with designers from China, historians from Canada, and high school students from Zimbabwe.[11] By further integrating institutions outside the university – Presner mentions libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, advocacy groups, non-profits, schools, and local communities (I would add arts organizations) –  DH projects can become inter-institutional, inter-public, fostering “community-based learning experiences” that promote “new forms of civic engagement.”[12] Such ways of working have the potential to make possible new ways of knowing.


[1] 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).

[2] Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, “’So the Colors Cover the Wires’: Interface, Aesthetics, and Usability,” in Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Ray Siemens, John Unsworth, and Susan Schreibman, Hardcover., Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

[3] The “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0” exhorts scholars to not only think critically about how they use existing tools, but also to play an active role in creating new tools, as does George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. Digital humanists should seek “not only to seek to understand and interrogate the cultural and social impact of new technologies, but to be engaged in driving the creation of new technologies, methodologies, and information systems, as well as in their détournment, reinvention, repurposing, via research questions grounded in the Arts and Humanities: questions of meaning, interpretation, history, subjectivity, and culture. (Schnapp, Presner, et. al., 6)

[4] Friedberg 153.

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

[6] Ibid. 133-4.

[7] Related concerns that are central to DH are open access, intellectual property rights (i.e., allowing content makers to control theirs), and digital preservation (See Brett Bobley, “Why the Digital Humanities?” 2008 [pdf no longer available] and Schnapp, Presner, et. al., 10). Making sure that these “knowledge productions” remain open and publicly accessible requires that scholars and librarians “work together to ensure that the output of our scholarly work is created, published, shared, and preserved appropriately” (Bobley, 3).

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

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

[10] There is much talk about how DH might reconfigure, or reinvent, the academic discipline. We might need a new university structure to accommodate this “transformation of scholarly practice from individuals working and writing in isolation to team-based approaches to research problems that cannot be conceptualized, let alone solved, by single scholars. Here, we are beginning to see the emergence of finite, flexible, and nimble ‘knowledge problematics’ that do not derive from or reflect entrenched disciplinary lines, methodological assumptions, or scholarly silos. I see these knowledge problematics as “virtual departments,” which exist only for a finite period of time, are agile, and are constantly built and dismantled. To use a term from the emergent field of digital cultural mapping, they might function as “overlays” on existing departments and institutions, connecting distant scholars and communities together and creating new feedback loops or among between them” (Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge”).

[11] “Digital Humanities scholarship not only cuts across and unifies traditional fields in the humanities (literature, history, the arts) but also brings the tools—both technological and methodological—of other disciplines to bear on the analysis of culture and society. For example, tools from Geographic Information Systems (GIS) help historians to map the transmission of cultural artifacts; architectural modeling and simulation tools aid archaeologists in the investigation and recreation of ancient city spaces and societies; text-analysis and data-mining tools help linguists and literary scholars to detect and analyze patterns in the study of complex textual corpora (Todd Presner, Chris Johanson, et. al., “The Promise of Digital Humanities,” White Paper, March 1, 2009: 3)

[12] Presner & Johanson, 3.

On to Part 3…



I’m in the process of migrating everything from my clunky old html site (she served me well for the past eight years) to this super-deluxe WordPress site, which will allow for much easier updating. Thanks to Joel for his help! The move is a work in progress, so I hope you’ll pardon all the typos and broken links for the next few weeks.

The new site obviously comes with a blog — the blog that features the stimulating post you’re reading right now. I realize I’m at least ten years behind the curve on this. That’s totally okay by me: I like being anachronistic. Maybe in 2117 I’ll start tweeting.