A Broader Digital Humanities?

I chanced across an discussion last night on twitter which aligns with a problem I have been considering – how can the digital humanities include social sciences and science, if at all?  This relates to the question of creating an undergraduate curriculum of some sort in Digital Humanities which would be truly interdisciplinary, that would work for scientists and social scientists as well as humanists

People may argue that the sciences have always used the best available digital technologies, indeed, they invented most of them.  It may be fairly argued that a desire to appear more “scientific” and therefore more academically respectable (and better funded) animated many humanists to start playing with tech toys, and in same cases this would be a fair criticism.

It can also be objected that the fundamental difference in end goals – the scientific  quest for general laws against the humanities valuing of the unique, are so at odds with each other as to limit any hope of real collaboration.  I don’t think science will ever have a theory of everything, but they will come close and I don’t see any objection to walking the road to understanding together.

It seems to me that keys things which mark out the changes wrought by the digital humanities are that digital tools allow us to ask new questions of our data, to pursue inquiry in ways that was not formerly possible. Secondly, Digital Humanities allows us to collaborate in new ways, more closely,  and more intensely if we wish. Thirdly digital humanities allows us to expose our students to primary sources more effectively, and to involve them in actual research in ways which were not previously possible.

It is true that science students have always done lab practicals, but that misses the point. Those practical are tightly constrained, they are safe. We no more expect a first year chemistry student to produce an original experiment that we expect a first year history student to come up with a new interpretation of the French Revolution. (and in that respect, digital arts may be much more experimental than any science at undergraduate level).  Digital tools do allow us to present humanities students with messy, ill formed problems to investigate in ways which was not previously possible, and I think that in the sciences, using inquiry and peer learning, we are seeing more of this. I do not accept that, at undergraduate level, the sciences are more experimental and the humanities less. In fact, I think there is a scale of messy experimental undergrad teaching, and it varies depending not on science v not science, but by discipline and institution.  There are, for example, archaeology depts where undergrads dig, and, remarkably to my mind, archaeology programmes where undergrads don’t dig.

We might feel that the sciences, and social sciences, are ahead of the humanities in using digital tools to advance new modes of investigation, but I wonder how true this is.  Using computers to crunch numbers faster than by hand is a new scale of inquiry, but not a new way of asking questions. (In some cases, it is a retrograde step!) Sometimes, access to large datassets allows us to frame new questions. Sometimes, in the case of data visualisation for example, technology allows us to interpret data in new ways.  But I wonder to what extent both humanists and scientists are simply throwing more processing power at larger collections of data, and to what extent new methods of inquiry are being formed. I think there needs to be a discussion across the “two cultures” about that, and the end result may be disappointing.

In terms of collaboration, at the raw level of outputs, we are all familiar with the multi-authored science paper and the solitary name on the spine of the humanities monograph.  An argument for digital humanities is that it changes the nature of collaboration, from a symphony to a jazz jam session, and I think this, within limits, is true. We presume that a team of scientists, all working in the same lab on the same problem are collaborative, while the historians who debate an issue by article, conference paper and monograph over several decades are not collaborating.  Obviously, I don’t agree – I have a question – what is “collaboration” and how do digital tools enhance it?

I think if we begin from the start point of our disciplines and our traditional disciplinary groups, we will ask questions about the digital which are grounded in our existing administratively convenient academic boxes. But if we ask those same questions from the perspective of the student – “How do digital tools enhance research led pedagogy?”,  “How do digital tools facilitate collaboration and ‘peeragogy’?”, and “What new questions can I ask using digital tools” then we are obliged to answer them not just from the perspective of the humanities disciplines, but across all of the “Studium Generale”





One response to “A Broader Digital Humanities?”

  1. Madelyn Brakke Avatar

    My name is Madelyn Brakke, and I am a student in a digital humanities seminar called “Hamlet in the Humanities Lab” at the University of Calgary:

    In my final paper for the course, I would like to base my argument on your blog post. You can read my paper after April 25th on the course blog:

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