Reply To: Theorizing the Digital Humanities

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Andy Schocket

There are a couple of threads in here that continue to address the question, “what is (digital) (humanities) scholarship?” I’d like to push back a bit on the contention that building a useful tool, or a website, or some other sort of digital humanities project is necessarily scholarship. A twelve-year-old can build an iOS app that sorts pictures, or write a blog about books she’s read. Those projects may in fact be useful, fascinating, insightful, fun… but are they necessarily scholarship?

Perhaps we need to think along two axes. One is the degree to which work in a particular medium is accepted by a field as appropriate. Chemists and biologists present at poster sessions, which some humanities scholars find laughable (cue the snarky comments about mobiles and shadow boxes). But for their part, most scientists would get zero, zilch, zippo, nada scholarly credit for writing a book; such works are too long to be of use, and take so long to publish that any findings within might be out of date before the book even hits the shelves. I recently was party to a conversation in which a bona fide digital humanist dismissed coding as not a humanistic scholarly production. So again, what kinds of endeavors both fit the “digital” and the “humanities”?

The second axis is the criteria or rigor that must be applied for something to qualify as DH scholarship. Should someone get scholarly credit for building a tool and making it available? Anyone can write an essay and post it on her blog, or even write a book with all sorts of footnotes about a humanities topic that would get published, and scholars would have a pretty clear sense of whether it was scholarship or not (I’m look at you, pseudo-historian David Barton) Similarly, anyone with an internet connection can mount something on github. So, just as we need to determine what media or modes of production qualify as DH scholarship, we need to better determine what counts as DH scholarship. The advantage of grant-funded work is that, in order to be funded, it passed through a rigorous review process. The interesting thing about that, though, is that the grant process evaluates the proposal, not necessarily the results. It would be like being credited for a beautiful conference proposal abstract, with no reference to the quality of the actual paper presented, or scholars kvelling over a dissertation prospectus rather than actually reading the dissertation that resulted from it, no matter the final product. Certainly there are reviews in blogs and some publications, like DH Quarterly or the Journal of DH. But there aren’t many of these venues; furthermore, they sometimes review one iteration of a project, but not additional ones that may be crucial. How do we collectively decide or “know” what makes the grade?