What is Digital Humanities?

Eight weeks into teaching Intro DH courses at masters and undergrad level, I should probably have an answer to that question, especially since we’ve teaching a Phd programme here at UCC for three years now.The problem of defining a discipline is one which many colleagues, and many many students, simply don’t consider explicitly. Apart from the odd compulsory, and universally hated, course in historiography, most undergraduates in history can get through a degree in the subject without having to think about ‘What is history’. Students doing English are not usually confronted by parents who want to know “what good is it?” because everyone has a handy preconception that it is about Shakespeare and Jane Austen so you can get a nice job as a teacher.

Digital Humanities, on the other hand, is clearly cool and funky because it is ‘Digital’, but what exactly is it? Selling it beyond the old core audience of digital natives  is complicated by the convention of having most DH courses start with the question ‘What is DH?’ Students who take up a subject in University which they have not had the chance to study at second level will probably be required to buy a text called “Introduction to <Insert Name of Discipline >  in which Chapter One will be called What is <insert Name of Discipline>  which will not only have a definition and some key terms, in next text boxes, but even review questions at the end to remind them.  Every publisher has slightly different versions of these texts for every discipline but not one exists for DH so far.What we tend to do is present students with a selection of readings which reflect a variety of views on what DH is, without making explicit the common elements which digital humanists share.  I will put my hand up and admit that I  do this myself, and as our DH courses draw a wider audience, I’ve come to see that it is a bit like throwing a non-swimmer in at the deep end of the pool. University must be about difficult, contested, troublesome knowledge, but we do need a better shallow end to the pool if DH is to play well to a wider audience.  As DH moves from experimental shows in dark little fringe theatres to the main stage, we need to play more attention to the PrologueDefining the humanities in terms of epistemology or ontology itself is a problem – if pressed for a definition, most will list a set of disciplines. The US National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the largest grant awarding bodies for the Humanities, does precisely that in a definition which is mostly a list of disciplines with a passing reference to methods

“The term ‘humanities’ includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.”

The key failing here as I see it is that these disciplines are only lenses which approach the humanities through different types of evidence, using differing methodologies.

Coming from that type of background, many ‘digital humanists’ have defined what they do in terms of applying digital methods to the subject matter of their home discipline. Not only is this not wrong, but it is important to explore how new tools and methods allow us to look afresh at the subject matter of the disciplines. That may make you a digital historian, or a digital literary scholar, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a digital humanist. I’m afraid that if we are to be honest, the majority of self-described Digital Humanists are in fact Digital Literary Scholars, with a decent smattering of Digital Historians and a few Digital “Insert Name of Discipline”.

The humanities is about much more than a clatter of disciplines in a university. The humanities is about what it means to be human, to live and act in the world. It is about the fundamental nature of our existence.

The interaction of the Digital and the Human is a very fundamental fact of our existence at this time, because one may be changing what the other means. If we are to engage with question like “How is (Insert name of transient tech toy) changing the world?”, we need to declare some first principles about the nature of the work. We need to get past methods and talk epistemology and ontology.

(Part 1 of possibly many posts..)






3 responses to “What is Digital Humanities?”

  1. dtnelligan Avatar

    Eight weeks into studying an MA Course in Digital Arts and Humanities, I’m still avidly reading blog posts with titles like ‘What Is Digital Humanities?’ I should write my own, it might get more traffic on my blog.

  2. Gertrude Cotter Avatar

    Interesting and somewhat worrying, if honest, blog! I can relax now, the person teaching me DH admits to not being able to answer the question “What is DH”?!

    As a new person to this field I am struck at the constant need to define what Digital Humanities is. I suppose it is inevitable that this is the case if a discipline is finding its feet so to speak. I wonder if this has happened in the past with other disciplines like film studies or media studies?
    In fact I think the defining issue is beginning to bore me if I am honest. But I do think it is necessary. Sounds to me like there is a need for someone, maybe you, to write that basic textbook “ What is Digital Humanities” or the “ABC of DAH”.

    I could not agree with you more. There is a need for someone who can speak a language which is understandable to all. I feel sometimes that there is a need for both a translator and a person who can set the debates in context. I suppose at an undergraduate level it is about synthesizing what is in the various key readings, explaining key terms and concepts and explaining these in a coherent way which also engages the student in her own thinking, analysis and understanding.
    Because many people in this particular field are new to it at a post graduate level, that the same approach would be useful, perhaps at a quicker pace, in the first few weeks of a course. Perhaps it is the historian in me too but I personally would like the debates to be set more in context. Why for instance is there still an ongoing debate about definitions, who are the leading voices, what is the difference between their views, where have these debates emerged from and so on. And as you say here, what are the common elements which digital humanists share. In a way that is no different from teaching any other discipline.

    I am very relieved to hear you say “I’ve come to see that it is a bit like throwing a non-swimmer in at the deep end of the pool”. That is exactly how I feel. And I totally and utterly agree with your analogy…yes indeed we do need a better shallow end of the pool..but I don’t think it is as difficult to achieve as one might think. In fact I think it is quite simple to do. 1. A short history of DH, what it is, who is who, where did DH come from and where is it now as a discipline? 2. What academics and writers are saying what e.g. are their different strands within DH eg Big Data, Curation, Pedagogy, analysis of text, analysis of social media, tool etc. What are the main debates in each category, what, at a simple level do each of these strands do, what, if any are the tensions between leading writers? Its not that complicated but some distilling and “setting in context” in language which translates across disciplines, is necessary.

    I also think that there is a need to clarify where the ideas boundaries are between DH as “just adding digital tools to any discipline” and “as a discipline in its own right with all that implies” or as an epistemology in its own right. There is something about how the digital world impacts on what it means to be human that I feel is not being well explained in understandable language. But that might just be me. Coming back into academic after many many years in practical jobs, I do think that the use of language in many disciplines is absurd, antiquated, inaccessible, at times comical and not always helpful to humanity. People make the world very complex. One sometimes has to wade through reams of writing which is just embellishing of one core idea or sentence. If DH is to be fully embraced on a campus my instinct is that a new language is needed. Most people do see it as just adding a set of practical tools and in fact I also think that the use of digital tools is part of the picture and that should not necessarily be seen as somehow less important. The same can be said of digital curation, this is a skill in itself and the traditional academic snobbery of some institutions finds it hard to place value on this. In the new digital world the Digital Humanists may well have the last laugh.

    I very much agree with you’re a digital historian or digital literary scholar is not necessarily the same as a digital humanist and I think this is a very core point that needs to be understood by both students and other academics around campus. I’ve only been reading about DH for about eight weeks and am completely new to it. But I am open to understanding and I have read as much as is humanly possible in that time..and I still do not have a clue what DH is. There is something wrong with that. I do think that many people are applying digital tools to their discipline and I know myself that I am “being” a digital social scientist (or presenting my findings digitally) rather than a digital humanist..but I am not clear enough what DH is to be able to “be” a Digital Humanist. I can’t “be” something if I don’t know what it is.
    I do think that it is worth concentrating on the point about the humanities being about the fundamental nature of our existence. I do think the digital world has changed what it means to be human or at the very least what it means to communicate as humans. I am not convinced that digital has changed the essence of “being human” but neither do I think many other disciplines do that. We can at least say that being in this world in a digital age is different than being here in a non digital age. It has changed most aspects of how we live. I don’t in fact know how you can study anything at all without engaging in some way either theoretically or practically with the digital world.
    So far I don’t think we have really gotten past methods and talked about epistemology and ontology and that is important not just for students in any class to understand but also for other disciplines to understand, for funders to understand and for society as a whole to understand. I am also not sure if many people, including myself, who come to a course like this, are primarily interested in the epistemological aspects of the debate…I may be wrong here..but those of us with a particular interest such as geography, community, social science or whatever, see the world first from that lens. And therein likes another challenge.
    In conclusion I feel (albeit after just eight weeks of experience) that some of the solutions may be as follows:
    1. Set the academic discourse in a historical and present day context
    2. What are the key strands of the academic debate and distill some of the key writings to illustrate these debates
    3. Explain what the main strands are of the discipline. In English you have prose, poetry, drama, creative writing, film etc. In DH what do you have?
    4. Use simple English which can be understood across disciplines
    5. Clearly explain the core epistemological aspects of DH .. a good starting point would also be to explain the difference between a digital historian and a digital humanist
    6. A translation service which bridges different disciplines and cultures both in classrooms and between faculties
    7. An explanation of core concepts and also as people speak, using jargon and acronymns and names, that they remember that some of us have no idea whatsoever what they are talking about
    8. To remember this is a learning environment. And I do think that this implies a certain amount of direct teaching.

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