Digital Humanities in Practice?

I’ll try to make some posts prior to our class sessions, both to guide your thinking and to contextualize some of what we’ll be doing.  In our next session, we’ll be looking at some digital humanities projects “on the page,” as it were, so I want to highlight a potentially artificial contrast established by the shift in topic.  As we’ve discussed, there’s some question as to whether digital humanities are something one does, or a field or discipline or area of study.  Are they an approach to doing things we already do?  A new set of tools to accomplish a new set of tasks?  Are they in the design of those tools, or just in their usage?

Turning from theory to practice risks an endorsement of a particular (and suspect) definition of the digital humanities, whether it be as code or as specific accomplishments which live at specific web addresses.  But even in the list of sample projects I’ve provided you, serious questions arise as to what truly constitutes digital humanities “work.”  Can one simply scan a text and declare that enough?  What goes into archival work, curation, and editing and to what extent do those things themselves exist as elements of (or central to) the digital humanities?  And to what degree would we classify these projects as “academic?”  How much does visual presentation, sophistication of form, ease of use, or employment of specifically designed or adapted technologies influence our responses to digital humanities work?  And to what degree must digital humanities replicate the pre-existing work of the academy, or challenge and revolutionize it?  Are these very possibilities inherently polarizing?  Should we instead think in terms of an ongoing process of evolution which inevitably includes blind alleys and dead ends?

As a further complication, while on the one hand the digital humanities present a strongly popularist and democratic approach to matters, emphasizing quick feedback, collaboration and collective intelligence, in practice such approaches undercut the possibility of defining a field or area of study as a discipline.  That a blog posting, or a YouTube video, or a website, could potentially qualify as a contribution to digital humanities, seems not in much doubt (Fish’s concern about blogs notwithstanding, as I think that very post proves that blogs can contribute).  But what criteria exist to allow differentiation?  Who is to differentiate?  How can criteria be developed, and by whom?  In practice, I don’t see how anything other than existing academic standards and procedures will get the job done.  A thumbs-up/down count on a YouTube video can’t establish its dig hum credentials.  The community of digital humanists must do that, in part, as must the scholars who produce digital humanities work.

Milton scholars define the field as they write scholarship on Milton, but they do so within an established context for their work.  The established context for digital humanities strikes me as so contested, so unwilling to dictate or exclude, that I am not convinced digital humanists can generate coherency beyond a generic “family” of work, but these are early days and I expect to be surprised soon enough.  The key question remains: who, precisely, will delineate the field, either through theory or practice, and to what degree will that delineation differentiate digital humanities from specific humanities fields?