Reply To: Theorizing the Digital Humanities

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Daniel Fawcett

A few posts in, and I think the problems are coming into focus. I like that Shane is really getting at the heart of the question… it’s not really “what is scholarship in the digital humanities?” Instead, the question should be “what is scholarship in the new university?” Especially since, as Shane points out, the university is in “the petri dish.” The university is still shaking out, thanks to online classes, MOOCs, TEDtalks, etc.

But is this really any different than it has been all along? I grew up in a home with a college professor, and I can remember listening to many conversations long into the night between my professor father and his graduate students, where they discussed “non-traditional students” in much the same way as we discuss online education.

But we can go back even farther than the mid-80s. For a moment, I want to think about Ramsay and Rockwell’s “Developing Things,” where they write the following:

A book with a bibliography is surely scholarship. Is a tool for keeping track of bibliographic data (like Zotero) scholarship? A literary critical article that is full of graphs, maps, and trees is also scholarship (if, perhaps, a little unusual). Is a software framework for generating quantitative data about literary corpora scholarship? A conference presentation about the way maps mediate a society’s sense of space is unambiguously an act of scholarship. Is making a map an unambiguous act of scholarship?

This made me think of Walter Benjamin. Much of his scholarly work was done either outside of the academy, or while his relationship to the academic world was tenuous. And yet, his Arcades Project is seen as a new type of scholarly archive, influencing critical theorists, philosophers, archivists, and DHers. While his massive archive of fragmentary information was not well-understood at the time, it is now seen as an innovative form of scholarly practice.

So, perhaps we in the digital humanities must spend our time developing new methods, knowing that we are likely to be misunderstood in our moment. (Of course, that’s easy to say in our increasingly privatized, neoliberal political climate). In this way, what I am proposing is a view more in line with Scheinfeldt’s view, when he wrote the following:

Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarship was dominated not by big ideas but by methodological refinement and disciplinary consolidation. Denigrated in the later twentieth century as unworthy of serious attention by scholars, the nineteenth and early twentieth century, by contrast, took activities like philology, lexicology, and especially bibliography very seriously. Serious scholarship was concerned as much with organizing knowledge as it was with framing knowledge in a theoretical or ideological construct.

Of course, as a part-time philologist, that point of view makes me happy. But as a budding digital humanist, I find that view even more exciting. After all, theory is great and necessary. But eventually, you have to have something that the theory can help you to do. Without that, we are all just pontificating.`