Debating Digital Humanities: What is it really?

We’ve only had three weeks of reading for this class so far, and, already, I can see that Kathleen Fitzpatrick seems to be on the money when she writes that “every ‘What is Digital Humanities?’ panel aimed at explaining the field to other scholars winds up uncovering more differences of opinion among it practitioners.” I find these various perspectives about what constitutes DH (and what doesn’t) both interesting and thought-provoking. What is/are digital humanities, really?

For Michael K. Gold, DH “contributes to the sustenance of academic life as we know it, even as (and perhaps because) it upends academic life as we know it.” This certainly seems to be true of DH as a theory—as we from the debates of the aptly named book for this week’s reading. And, as Gold notes, Stephan Ramsay believes the its about “building things” and that “if you are not making anything, you are not a digital humanist.” I think most projects (of those I’m aware of) that label themselves as DH adhere to this standard. For instance, the Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing Project (SLWWP) is building a database of women authors dating from the fifteenth to nineteenth century. Kirchenbaum, offering another opinion, writes that DH is “about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed […] bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, […] collaborative and depend[s] on networks of people and […]live an active, 24-7 life online.” The SLWWP has a team of people (from different departments and universities) making a private, manuscript database available online—so this definition also fits. Fitzpatrick raises the question of whether DH can be interpreting as well as making. The SLWWP interprets data that can further lead to interpretations about the culture of women’s writing in the nineteenth century. And, finally, Rafael C. Alvara argues that “digital humanists are simply humanists […] who have embraced digital media and who have a more or less deep conviction that digital media can play a crucial, indeed transformative, role in the work of interpretation, broadly conceived,” and the SLWWP is arguably doing this work.

Of course using a strong DH project to test the definitions of DH itself may be slightly unfair; but I think it also goes to show that perhaps some of these definitions have more in common than all these debates might suggest.

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2 thoughts on “Debating Digital Humanities: What is it really?

  1. mringraham says:

    I just had a (minor) epiphany: maybe, instead of adhering to Ramsey, et. al.’s insistence on drawing a demarcation between “doers,” “makers,” and “users” (or, Unsworth’s “charlatans”) we could think about how everyone involved in the humanities is, in some way or another, a creator: after all, aren’t we all developing ideas and creating knowledge? Isn’t that a fundamental tenet of the humanities? Isn’t that supposedly our stock-in-trade as humanities scholars?

    Like

  2. mringraham says:

    Then, instead of the question of whether we are doing/making something becomes instead a question of how we go about doing/making.

    Like

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