Category Archives: Session Harbinger

Work as a problem with DH

One of the things I’m hoping has become clear–perhaps painfully so for a few of us–is the extent to which a digital humanities project represents a substantial amount of work. Even a supposedly small element in a project, like metadata tagging, can turn out to be a difficult and time-intensive piece of work, one which generally isn’t much fun but which has to get done. Continuation, expansion and maintenance of an existing site, like EBBA, typically entails a repetition or reiteration of this kind of work. If the EBBA site adds a new search term (searching by place or by type of image), then a new set of metadata must be developed and then entered for every single item in the archive.

Projects involving tools require either direct coding or adoption of existing code from other sites. In theory, a tool developed to speed the entry of metadata for the EBBA project could be employed for similar projects; in practice, tools often are either outdated or coded in a way so specific to a single project that they require modification for broader use. Hence, the development and proliferation of project platforms (WordPress and Blogger, for example, are blogging/web-page platforms; Omeka is a platform tailored for more metadata-intensive application). Standards for metadata exist alongside such platforms, like the TEI standard we’ve looked into earlier in the semester.

When a collaborative online project exists in the way that user involvement typically exists (with Facebook or myspace or Youtube or Wikipedia), everything seems easy enough. You log in, post your edit to the wiki entry, other people vet the entry, and it’s all good. In practice, this kind of open development conceals from the typical user the degree of work which was involved, from developing and maintaining a platform (like the wiki platform), to administrating a site (Wikipedia servers must be purchased, maintained, replaced, just as one example), not to mention the difficulty in starting up such a project in the first place. And while the Internet bills itself as a kind of instant gratification engine–Google tells you how many tenths of a second it took to generate its results, for instance–the actual time and investment of energy required to develop an online project, not to mention the requirements to put it into practice, looks much closer to scholarly and academic norms and expectations. Most projects I’ve seen which make their histories known took years to get past the starting gate. EBBA, for example, began development in 2003. That means the EBBA development has gone on longer than, say, the iPhone, from initial conception to present implementation.

One of the challenges digital humanities face going forward, within the academic community, is articulating more clearly to those who assess scholarly work the degree of time, planning and organization required to prototype, much less “complete,” a single project.

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?