getting oriented

As we end our fourth class meeting on January 22nd, we are nearing the end of the first two weeks of this introduction to digital humanities: that is, we have been in the introduction of an introduction. So what does it mean to get started — or to get started with getting started? We’ve actually already traversed  a number of different entry points as we push off from land into the yet-to-be-mapped regions where — maybe? — “there be [digital?] dragons.” The New York Times’  2010/2011 “Humanities 2.0” series by Patricia Cohen offered examples of what kinds of projects and methods have been created when computing technologies are used to ask humanities questions, and are similar to what we will be doing this semester. The chapter “Humanities to Digital Humanities” from Digital_Humanities [pp. 3-26] offered a history [where did we come from, how did we get here?] of computational methodology in the service of humanities research, along with more in-depth descriptions of what the term “digital humanities” currently points to, and what characteristics seem to cohere around the term.

The collection of definitions provided by participants in the last two years of the “Day of Digital Humanities” in 2013 and 2014 brought together a miscellany of musings on the fly from a wide variety of individuals who define themselves as digital humanists of one sort or other — with divergences and disagreements and contradictions on display as well as congruences. [And they not only wrote definitions but also blog posts documenting what it is that digital humanists each do on the same day as they go about their separate lives: here and here. And, guess what? We will be participating in Day of DH 2015 — each of you is a digital humanist now. So, how will you define “digital humanities”? Your ideas will, in turn, be absorbed into the on-going morphing of whatever it is that digital humanities is becoming…]

We are also starting with some idiosyncratic dimensions, due to the idiosyncrasies of your instructors. In my case, that is an insistence that digital humanities is more than computer-assisted methods — “tools” — and the projects they make possible within the world of academia. Digital humanities, in my view, belong first of all to the larger public world — as in “in the beginning,” not as a derivative component of what “we” in academia do as digital humanists. So the class introduction provides an initial time and space to think about how the era of digital communication and digital making and digital playing and digital experiences relate to attempts to understand the cultural materials [literature, music, history, philosophy, art, religion, film, architecture, and more] that provide evidence of what it means to be human [these attempts at analysis are the traditional responsibility of those who study the humanities]. As companions to the beginning of our journey we are bringing along David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know in our metaphorical backpacks so that we are encouraged to contemplate what the world of knowledge creation looks like when it is no longer constrained by legacy media [print, radio, film, television]. And we are also gifted with Michael Peter Edson‘s visit to campus to share his thinking about what is happening in the public world of the open web — a universe of “dark matter” — and the challenges it poses to the cultural and knowledge institutions which are the traditional repositories of our attempts to understand the materials that have been produced that document human experience.

So my [current] definition goes something like this: the term “digital humanities” refers to the possibilities that have opened up due to the use of powerful computational hardware and software and the widespread adoption of computer-mediated communication (aka as “the Internet”).

  • Beyond this general claim, I believe that the primary and most important digital transformation “in the humanities” is in the public sphere via the open web, where an unprecedented increase in access to cultural materials exists and an unprecedented increase in discussions about these materials is taking place due to digitization and the use of interactive media. Digital humanities is, first of all, “public digital humanities,” or what I call “everyday humanities” — as it occurs in the vernacular.
  • Next, then: in the research domain, digital humanities refers to three forms of action: 1) the multi-disciplinary creation of digital tools that allow scholars to continue using their traditional methods but at a scale that is not possible without computational machines, as in the ability to study a massive number of sources in exhaustive detail at great speed; 2) the use of these digital tools to experiment with new source materials, new methods, and new forms of analysis that result in the creation of objects for study that would not exist otherwise; and 3), in addition, is an area in which emergent digital genres of writing, publication, discussion and critique allow for the transformation of what it means to participate as an author or as a researcher or as a creator in thinking about the subject matter of the humanities, and in making and advancing knowledge in these areas.

What are the relationships of “everyday [digital] humanities” to “learned [digital] humanities”? That is step one on our agenda — and I can’t tell you how excited I am that we are taking those first steps together. Maybe this will help, though: Allons-y!, yeah?

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