Reading Series: Part 1, Enacting Digital Humanities 3

Upon entering the employment of Dr. Kevin Kee in the final months of 2009, I unwittingly stepped into a rabbit hole that would descend deeply into a field of study about which I had no previous knowledge: digital humanities. Although I was firmly seated in the English literature and history departments, I was given the role of programmer, primarily because I had once studied C++ and could understand bits of HTML and CSS. My first tasks were reading and summarizing books about digital literacy, twenty-first century learning skills, and the use of games as learning tools. From that starting point, I began slowly to formulate a perspective about digital humanities, which had been called humanities computing and still carries that title in some parts of the world. It was hardly a formal introduction to the field (although it remains unclear whether digital humanities was considered a field at the time, or even whether it is now defined as such). I did not read the definitive texts, such as Blackwell’s A Companion to Digital Humanities, and was not tasked with developing an awareness of the field generally. Rather, I was thrown directly into the practical enactment of digital humanities as a research assistant.

Had I read more extensively as part of my job, I might have come across John Unsworth’s article about scholarly practices and how computational tools reflect our shared primitive actions. Unsworth’s list includes discovering, annotating, comparing, referring, sampling, illustrating, and representing, all of which were present in the tasks I was assigned, or for which I was asked to find approaches or methods. My early attempts to navigate digital humanities resources were fumbling, stumbling scrambles through the web with only a basic sense of the work we were doing and possible tools we could use. In the four years that have passed, and now in preparation for my minor field reading course in digital humanities, I have encountered material that predates my entrance to the field and wish I had been more systematic in my attempts to grasp its history and importance.

Although Unsworth’s article had aged nine years before my first glimpse of digital humanities, it would have proven valuable in helping define the methods and practices of digital humanists. In fact, still valuable today are his arguments for increased support for scholarly activities with networked data, improved methods for communal annotation and shared comments, and careful consideration of the purposes, motives, and implications of new tools. More recently, Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism provides an example of the conscientiousness that Unsworth described. By calling for and describing an approach to code languages and scripting that reflects on, enacts, and further expands the functions and purposes of criticism, Ramsay dismisses the idea that algorithmic computation and analysis can be separated from critical use and awareness of function and form. Although some might describe Ramsay’s model as representative of the second wave of digital humanities, in which reflectiveness, critical building, and media-centred projects are key, it is possible that the core of Ramsay’s argument, a critical approach to tools and methods, was also present in 2000. Where these perspectives differ is primarily in the tools they discuss and the forms that projects and scholarship assume.

In their 2012 article about building better tools, Fred Gibbs and Trevor Owens acknowledge Unsworth’s early contribution to the discussion about critical tool-making, and note that his comments are still largely applicable, even if “the number of available tools was far fewer.” Most importantly, Gibbs and Owens argue that those who are building tools must be conscious of the growing audience. If the first wave of digital humanities can be characterized as asking, “how can digital tools support scholarship” then the second wave is asking “how can digital tools help define scholarship?” The new question acknowledges that scholarship has been (and continues to be) fundamentally altered in the digital age by new forms, methods, and ideas, and moreover, an endless sea of information. Rather than redoubling efforts to cope with such changes by supporting traditional methods with computational power, digital humanists have considered the possibilities afforded by opening up their processes and practices to the influx of new. Humanist conventions and traditions are neither inapplicable nor rejected, but entwined with digital actions to revitalize scholarship.

If we accept the narrative of two waves of digital humanities, there is a visible riptide in the space between those waves. Definitions of the field have become hotly (and coolly) debated and discussed in the multitude of venues now open to scholarly publication. Digital humanists have filled Twitter, blogs, digital publications, and printed books with conversations about what digital humanities is (or are, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick recently pointed out), about whether certain activities can be considered digital humanities, about who can participate, and about how the answers to those questions will shape the field. Even the definition of digital humanities as a field, rather than a practice spread amongst humanities disciplines, remains problematic and undecided. Although most DHers agree in principle with the “big tent” model that tries to include any scholar using digital methods, some have questioned the wisdom of bounding the field in such terms. Patrik Svensson has argued that the purpose of DH is to provide a meeting place or a crossroads where humanists can engage with the digital and one another to create new forms of scholarship and participation. In this model, it is easy to envision a network of roads leading in different directions from a central hub of resources, all supported by paths and bridges. With so many participants contributing their unique perspective to the growing pile of tools and sources, the reach of those roads can be extended further than any tent could encompass.

As these roads extend, they will inevitably encounter new questions, and at times run counter to some established routes. When meeting an existing course as laid down by decades of scholarly activity, questions are inevitably raised about digital scholarship, pedagogy, publication, hiring practices, training programs, and many other topics. How digital humanists, and those who placed older roads, respond to those encounters will shape the future of the network. Within the recently published Understanding Digital Humanities, contributors tackle many questions that seem to centre around one primary argument: digital humanists must be critical in building and using their practices and tools. N. Katherine Hayles argues that the only effective way forward, though difficult, is for traditional and digital humanities to work together, because neither can be as successful alone as together. Digital humanists must practice reflective critiques that may seem frustratingly restraining; on the other hand, traditional humanists must be open toward and, more importantly, support new additions to the definition of scholarship. Each grouping of practices and forms can contribute positively to the other, but the exchange requires intentional, non-trivial application and negotiation.

In his introduction to the book, David M. Berry argues for a humanistic approach to software that can better address its wide impact. Sharing a view similar to Ramsay’s, Berry suggests that humanists should “introduce a humanistic approach to the subject of computer code, paying attention to the wider aspects of code and software, and connecting them to the materiality of this growing digital world.” Falling back on the sea model again, the rise of computer code in the first wave of DH was primarily a solution to existing humanities problems. It is possible that early code was written without conscious attention to theoretical frameworks and critical approaches; if so, perhaps there was an assumption that the principal humanities purpose would consider such questions, leaving the code free to solve problems uninhibited. Although such inattention is unlikely, it seems that only recently, in the second wave, have scholars begun to re-orient their attention to the code as separate from its overarching purpose, so that they question its implications and relationships with culture and context.

Perhaps the intense focus on critical code- and tool-building has resulted from the movement toward what Hayles describes as “time-based art forms such as film and music, visual traditions such as graphics and design, spatial practices such as architecture and geography, and curatorial practices associated with museums, galleries, and the like.” As digital humanities began to share more questions with disciplines that exist closer and react to cultural shifts, such as media studies and public history, questions about critiques and awareness would become increasingly pressing. Additionally, moving further from text-based traditional purposes would cause some scholars to challenge the suitability of digital humanities to produce scholarship as defined by such traditions.

The effect is perhaps best understood as elastic, in which digital humanities, once serving the needs of scholarship, began to spring past into new territory, buoyed along by improved technology and new methods. Traditional scholars, seeing that the necessary checks and balances might be left behind, wondered whether DH could still produce scholarship in their terms, and exerted a pull backward on the momentum. In that moment, tradition was being pulled inexorably forward because it cannot separate from the digital age; simultaneously, digital humanities have been challenged to slow down and think critically about the scholarship they produce and the traditions from which they cannot escape. As a result, both ends of the elastic move toward one another, perhaps coming to rest in some negotiated terms that move forward with the digital age.

None of these hypothetical actions, if even accurate, could have been predetermined by their actors. In fact, no scholar truly fits only into tradition or digital, cautionary or experimental. Each digital humanist was trained in the rigorous methods, critical thinking, and deliberate scholarship of their discipline. As a result, such traditional forces pulling backward are a natural scholarly instinct, acting in response to advances as soon as their value becomes opaque. Having directed traditional inquiry toward such advances, scholars may begin to polish their digital methods so that their value is clear, and thus return to forward movement with balance between tradition and digital.

In trying to find the hub around which we can build our disciplinary roads, we must identify the parts of scholarship that we share amongst all disciplines. To focus on products would be folly; each has its traditional forms: history creates books, literature produces editions, science writes articles, and so on. Even if each discipline opens itself to new forms, however, the production of each will always be distinct from the others. Similarly, the questions asked and methods employed by disciplines will always differ somewhat, and so can only come together at certain points that cannot last. The common core of scholarship must be rooted deeper.

It is an interesting possibility: what if the storehouse from which to draw resources and methods, around which all disciplines can gather, and from which all projects can begin, is simply a shared system of values. The questions asked, methods applied, critiques levelled, and products offered are all founded upon values that constitute the core of modern scholarship: inquiry, critical engagement, peer-review, and original contribution, to name but a few. With these and other values in mind, traditional and new digital questions, methods, and forms can be revisited, evaluated, and revised. In any discussion about whether a practice is suitable or qualified to serve as scholarship, we need only refer to the shared values to assess it anew. If traditional practices still meet the values, then they have withstood the test of time and remain useful to scholars. If new digital methods cannot clearly demonstrate shared values, they should be revised. Moreover, the list of shared values, in whatever form that takes, might have an iterative cycle to ensure that it continues to reflect both scholars and the contexts in which they work.

Although the values of each discipline are likely obvious to participants, they seem to become lost during discussions of what counts. If digital humanities is to serve as a hub for the production and movement of scholarship, some common ground must be found upon which to meet. If we cannot find that space, will we find ourselves simply practicing but never asking?

Augmented Reality Glass

Augmenting Public History in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario


[1] Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Think: Transforming Power and Digital Technologies.” In Understanding Digital Humanities, edited by David M. Berry, 42–66. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 61.

[2] Berry, David M., ed. Understanding Digital Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 17.

[3] Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Think: Transforming Power and Digital Technologies.” In Understanding Digital Humanities, edited by David M. Berry, 42–66. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 44.

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