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?


This article was linked in the second post in Fish’s blog series (By the way, does Fish ever really say anything in any of those essays? I feel like he’s just getting paid to sit in his easy chair while he delivers self-satisfied prophesies of the end times). Anyway, I must thank Fish for linking Robert Coover’s “The End of Books” because it’s fascinating. Written in 1992, the essay implies, in its dramatic title and elsewhere, that books are ending because linear, authored narrative is becoming less useful to everyone and also because “hey, computers!” And of course, I mean OF COURSE, twenty years later hypertext fiction still hasn’t replaced the regular kind of fiction (whatever that is) because the regular kind of fiction is much easier for people to deal with. So print texts have simply become digitized.

But Coover’s article is also interesting because it’s pedagogical. He discusses how the hypertext form assists students in considering, dismantling, and undermining narrative structure. It facilitates a kind of experimental, collaborative authorship and also facilitates collaborative learning, which is theoretically the kind of learning upon which the academy is built. It seems like scholarship could benefit from a similar dismantling. What do we do when we do scholarship? We try to think of new ways to think about things. What do we do when we talk about something like intertextuality? We think about texts in a way that is boundless and nonlinear…like hypertext. Is writing a traditional academic paper in MLA style really the best vehicle for delivering ideas like intertextuality?

Twine is a free program that allows for quick, easy creation of hypertext documents. It seems like most people who use it are using it to write fiction/text games. On a similar note, Bee is a piece of interactive fiction by Emily Short about a young girl who is training for a spelling bee.

Thoughts on Fish’s Theology

“The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality,” Stanley Fish presents his reader with an examination and criticism of the digital humanities that reveals some interesting difference and similarities between DH and traditional scholarship in the humanities. Of particular interest is the fact that Fish apparently fails to realize that he lauds the same characteristics in traditional scholarship that he criticizes in the digital humanities. In his blog in the New York Times, Fish refers to digital humanists’ vision for their field as being theological in the sense that it “promises to liberate us from the confines of the linear, temporal medium in the context of which knowledge is discrete, partial and situated…and deliver us into a spatial universe where knowledge is everywhere available in full and immediate presence.” In other words, DH seeks to lead us to a sort of nirvana, an enlightenment of mind and spirit in which the “would-be knower” is no longer separated from any knowledge source. In addition, DH also promises to remove the obstacle of mortality by creating a “steady yet dynamic state where there is…no beginning and end, just all middle,” a state in which knowledge and existence would presumably continue in perpetuity. Based on this description, it would appear that Fish considers digital humanists as tech-hippies in pursuit of everlasting nirvana, eternal enlightenment; they want all knowledge made available to them, and they want it now and always.

In opposition to this vision of DH is Fish’s depiction of traditional humanities scholarship: “a hitherto linear experience – a lone reader facing a stable text provided by an author who dictates the shape of reading by doling out information in a sequence he control.” My issue with this description of traditional humanities scholarship is how is it any less theological than DH? Could the traditional humanities scholar not be seen as a god figure who decides what knowledge the readers (his subjects) should receive and in what order/structure they should receive it? And how is this more strictly delineated and hierarchical form of scholarship and knowledge-sharing really any different or better than DH? Are both scholarships not seeking the same thing: knowledge, or enlightenment? Are they not both forced to work within the limitations of their given field? And yes, both do have limitations. As Martin Mueller points out in “Stanley Fish and the Digital Humanities,” just because an algorithm only takes “seconds or minutes to execute” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rely on “data that it took weeks to prepare” or that it might “spit out results that it takes days to analyze.” Digital humanities may offer new possibilities, but it still functions within a set of limitations. So, it would appear that DH and traditional humanities scholarship have more in common than Fish would care to acknowledge. Perhaps, then, instead of pitting these two forms of scholarship against each other as stark opposites of which only one can prevail, we should more appropriately focus on the similarities of the two and the ways in which they can work together and complement each other. Perhaps Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore have it right when they suggest that the “job of digital tools [in the humanities] is to draw our attention to evidence impossible or hard to see during normal reading” and to serve as a complement to “the skills of close textual analysis that are the staple of literary training” (“What did Stanley Fish count, and when did he start counting it?”).

Response: Stanley Fish Columns

Am I posting this in the right place?


Reading Stanley Fish’s columns, especially “The Digital Humanities and Transcending of Mortality,” made me think of Lewis Carroll’s riddle: “How is a raven like a writing desk?” I think that a problem in DH debates is no one exactly knows how to define digital humanities, so this all-encompassing “it’s the study of everything except online with computers and stuff” definition is attached to it. So Fish’s lamenting of Fitzpatrick’s argument that “a blog privileges immediacy… This emphasis on the present works at cross purposes with much long-form scholarship, which needs stability and longevity in order to make its points” is, I believe, incorrect, or at least ill-placed.

The nature of a blog isn’t the nature of scholarship, but journalism. I mean journalism in the expository sense–where articles are archived based on what is newest; that’s why they call it the news and not the olds–and journalism in the sense of journaling. It is a very linear method of recording thoughts. I don’t know where Fitzpatrick got the notion that blogs and academic scholarship (another gigantic and vague attachment) are even similar. They’re second cousins, twice removed, if anything. In the same way that newspapers, history books, or anything concerned with the recording of things in time does not encompass all of academic scholarship (that’s just history), so it is with blogs, Twitter, Facebook, whatever. The only difference between these forms of recording and a ledger or a diary available to the pubic is that one is material, with a beginning and an end, and the other seems to have no end.

Second, I am tired of people prophesying the end of books because of Twitter. Books aren’t going anywhere. Bookstores I cannot speak for. But when I look at history–people complaining that folks didn’t read enough of the Bible because it wasn’t available to them in their own language; people complaining that folks didn’t read enough literature because they were too busy working in factories, and if they did have time to read, they read “sickly, stupid German novels”; people complaining that folks didn’t read enough because they were too diverted by the radio-then-movies-then-television-then-internet– I see that nothing much has changed. Intelligent people who read will still read, because it is their civic duty as intelligent people, and those worrisome people who only communicate in short bursts of Twitter-like messages will still cling to a lower form of communication/entertainment than books.

As for how DH will change academics, the only real change I see it making right now is in libraries or research. As I said last class, until the end is changed (the dean/people in charge of hiring the college-educated masses/the government making public education mandates and also SAT-makers decide that turning upside-down present our way of life in favor of a groovy world where we can take online classes and get respectable degrees for respectable jobs, sharing everything and abandoning authorship) the means will not noticeably change. But I think Stanley Fish realizes that as well. That’s why he makes that “everything has its day in the sun” argument in “The Old Order Changeth.”

Tom Wilson’s visit

As promised, here’s a digital copy of Tom’s presentation text.

Something I increasingly think characterizes DH, as I constantly cut & paste items here, is the degree to which it remixes, reuses, directly links or incorporates other texts.  That’s not unheard of in traditional humanities work, but I wonder whether DH is unique in its attitude towards drawing upon other people’s words.

Here are some of those words:  DH-Tom Wilson

Response to Pannapacker

I’m not 100% positive that this is how we’re supposed to do this, but I figured I would give it a try. Here are my thoughts on our assigned readings for this week:

William Pannapacker’s blogs on The Chronicle of Higher Education in regards to the digital humanities accurately capture the major concerns, or at least my major concerns, about this rapidly developing field. Pannapacker captures one such concern in his observation that “the field, as a whole, seems to be developing an in-group, out-group dynamic that threatens to replicate the culture of Big Theory back in the 80s and 90s, which was alienating to so many people. It’s perceptible in the universe of Twitter: We read it, but we do not participate. It’s the cool-kids’ table” (“Pannapacker at MLA”). This statement effectively highlights my fear that instead of making the humanities and humanities education more accessible and diverse, as is their intent, the digital humanities, like the universities of the past, is actually just forming a closed social club that accepts only those who are “coding” and “making”. My fear is that digital humanities is the future, but because I am neither “coding” nor “making,” it is a future in which I will have no place. It is a fear that I am sure others who are equally as technologically unsavvy as myself share.

In addition to this concern of the true accessibility of the digital humanities, the concerns of others that Pannapacker notes in his blog “On ‘The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities’” reveal other glitches that need to be worked out before the field is likely to find the acceptance it needs to be taken seriously. For example, Pannapacker admits that in order to sell what they do to administrators and the like, digital humanists have a tendency to “talk about DH in ways that might trouble [their] colleagues in the humanities.” Likewise, there is an abundance of criticism against the digital humanities – it’s too diverse, it requires coding and gamification, it’s affiliated with MOOCs, etc. – as “a construct, something imagined—rather than the actual practices of individual digital humanists” (“Dark Side”). Pannapacker’s rebuttal to this type of criticism also points to its cause: “The digital humanities is not a monolithic movement: it’s a “big tent.” One of the major issues with the digital humanities seems to be that they are distinctly lacking a set definition of exactly who they are and what they do. Until such a definition has been reached, it seems only logical that people will continue to misunderstand the digital humanities and to express uncertainty and apprehension towards them and their endeavors.

Finally, in “Rebooting Graduate Education in the Humanities” Pannapacker’s questions about how the digital humanities will fit into the current graduate education system – “How would students’ work be assessed, and how would credit be allocated, particularly when projects involve many people of different ranks and develop over a period of years? How would projects be financed, given that graduate students in the humanities are usually supported for teaching rather than research?” – and his ultimate conclusion that “graduate education, as it is currently constituted, would have to change” speak to scholar’s concerns that their entire structure will have to be replaced. This is a concern for many not only because it means that the style of education used by generations will become obsolete (as we discussed in class last week, nobody really likes change) but also because it will mean a difficult, lengthy, and probably painful process of completely overhauling our education system. The lack of traditional tenure-track positions available makes it obvious that we need to reconsider how and for what jobs we train our graduate students, I feel like a complete overhaul of the education system is unnecessary and deterring. I can’t help that if the digital humanities could find a better way to work with the system already in play, it would be more readily accepted. Also, going back to my previous paragraph, if the digital humanities did a better job of defining itself and its practices, people probably wouldn’t be so uncertain about how to fit it into the education system in the first place.

Response: “On ‘The Dark Side of Digital Humanities'”

I think what many discussions of DH come down to is philosophy versus utility. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the societal change a true integration of DH, but let’s not wax foreboding and throw in Darth Vader and the Imperial March so quickly.

I think what we should first discuss, instead of how DH will overthrow the galactic republic of humanities and “that DH is complicit with the neoliberal transformation of higher education; and its strongest support comes from administrators who see DH’ers as successful fundraisers and allies in the ‘creative destruction’ of humanities education” is to start with the most basic questions. In terms of education, which is where I always start when I think about society, because it is not the generation that embraces the change that makes the difference but the next generation that grows up with the change, I ask:

1) What is important to our society/ our society’s prosperity?

2) What do we want our citizens to do in order to ensure we get whatever the answer to number one is?

3) What kind of skills do our citizens need to know in order to do the jobs that answer number two?

4) How do we effectively teach the skills (the answer to number three) in public education?

So. If we say:

1) The use of technology to our benefit is important to our prosperity in this increasingly digital world,

2) We want our citizens to be technologically savvy in some way. (This is where the debate sets in–how technologically savvy? Do we want to, as Pannapacker accuses, “insist upon coding and gamification to the exclusion of more humanistic practices,” or still retain our basic skill set–you know, reading, writing, arithmetic, things that we can build on to develop financial skills or public speaking skills or whatever we want to do for a job.)

3) Well, in the nineties, I know that as an elementary school student I was supposed to develop at least a rudimentary knowledge of the programs in Microsoft Office. Most of these were means of presentation. That is, my knowledge of the digital world is best employed in presentation. Now, if we wanted our future citizens to be digital doctors, like in this “A Day Made of Glass” video (, we would have to teach them how to use, according to the video, basically an iPad for most of their work. Which we are already somewhat doing. I know there have been several elementary schools where the students had access to iPads, which were somehow integrated into the lesson.

4) Finally, we not only have to teach about technology, but we should be able to use the technology as a tool for education. If we can’t use the technology, what good is teaching about it? Let me explain. In one of my education classes, some random guy gave us a lecture on thinking out of the box to use technology in education, and not just for presentations. He gave an example of using a Prezi as a digital geography quiz. He showed a video of students having a class discussion via text messaging, sitting around in beanbags instead in desks. My automatic response was “Yeah, right. Teachers would never completely scrap the structure of the classroom that has been around for at least a hundred years. Teachers are presenters, so they will use technology as a means of presentation, but nothing is going to radically change in the classroom just because there are iPads now.” See, if that mindset which I just expressed is still the majority, which it is, but everyone is afraid to say it, then DH will never really live up to this Darth Sidious persona we have created, blowing up the humanities as we know it like Alderaan, because it is, as Pannapacker suggests, “a construct, something imagined—rather than the actual practices of individual digital humanists.”

I know, my lack of faith is disturbing.