Theorizing the Digital Humanities

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    Andy Schocket

    Many of the posts in this chapter posit, explicitly or implicitly, that we all know what traditional (non-digital? pre-digital?) scholarship looks like, and the question is, what constitutes digital scholarship?

    I’d like to complicate the first, and think about the second. Yes, we all know that a monograph—a book-length work peer-reviewed, with bibliographic apparatus–is scholarship. We also agree that the production of a site like the Republic of Letters is digital scholarship. But is editing scholarship? Some say yes, some say no. Is organizing a conference scholarship? Some say yes, some say no. Is developing a theory or methodology scholarship, unless it comes in traditional form (article or book)? Some say yes, some say no.

    Meanwhile, Johanna Drucker argues that

    The challenge is to shift humanistic study from attention to the effects of technology (from readings of social media, games, narrative, personae, digital texts, images, environments), to a humanistically informed theory of the making of technology (a humanistic computing at the level of design, modeling of information architecture, data types, interface, and protocols).

    Others in this section agree that we must shift to a new idea of digital scholarship as something that’s made, something that’s useable, something that’s transformed by the digital.

    What, if anything, do traditional modes of scholarship have in common with the proposed digital modes? How are they different?

    Matt Younglove

    This thought is interesting to me. The traditional definitions and ideas of scholarship are rather limiting, from a time when they limitations were created by the constructs of the society in which they were created. In our highly specialized and digitally-connected world, new ideas for scholarship are critical. The idea from Ramsay/Rockwell that building things (stemming from the idea of creation/creating) can be scholarship is necessary in a world where the digital can accomplish so much, yet so little has been done (little in regards to its potential). Before the “traditional” scholarship can be done, we need the tools to do this advanced study, and it requires the best minds of today to create these theory-based tools. For this reason, academia should open up to these new forms of scholarship.

    Additionally, Dr. Schocket, you mention in the post above about whether or not hosting a conference is scholarship. I think it certainly is, for two reasons.

    1) By hosting a conference, you are bringing together the best in a field to share their scholarship – which breeds new ideas and triggers more investigation – a necessary step for future scholarship. The amount of time required to host such an event is all-consuming, and limits one’s own abilities to do “traditional” scholarship.

    2)In hosting a conference, you have a say in what shape/direction the theme of that conference goes. A successful conference requires a scholarly visionary.

    Just some thoughts to get the dialog rolling.


    Daniel Fawcett

    So, I guess I will keep this running.

    I’m not going to directly address the reading (yet… I’ll get back to it). Instead, I want to further complicate this by pointing us to this blog post. I think that many digital humanists, and humanists in general, are conflicted as to what we, as humanists, actually do. According to this blog post, we as DH scholars should be concerned with “resistance.”

    But “resistance” is not necessarily what we do. I doubt that anyone would argue that Harold Bloom or Stanley Fish are “humanists,” and neither give a pair of plumber’s patooties for “resistance” as part of their academic practice.

    Of course, the blog is arguing that we DH scholars are better poised to engage in resistance than even traditional humanists are. But what are we “resisting?” I know several scholars (some of whom are instructors at BGSU) who have argued, essentially, “activism is great… but keep it separate from your pedagogy.”

    I think it’s hard for us to figure out what the digital humanities are supposed to be if we can’t even come to a solid definition of what the humanities are in the first place.

    Of course, I don’t want to suggest that we shouldn’t try to figure out what the digital humanities are just because the problem is hard. The hard questions are the ones worth asking. But considering that there are significant questions as to what our scholarship is and should be in the first place, maybe we need to push the question back even further.

    I’ll actually connect to the reading here in a bit, after I’ve composed my thoughts. I just wanted to get that out there.

    Alex Koch

    This group of readings intrigued me – as I found debating (aloud and alone) Ramsay/Rockwell’s case and I still feel caught between both sides. To me it appears DH’s identity and evaluation issues largely stem from those fixed atop academia’s hierarchy – which I believe we touched on during our discussion of Macroanalysis a few weeks ago. Backtracking a bit further, I recall nearly all of the pieces in Part 1 of “Debates in DH” referenced the MLA conference as THE moment Digital Humanities arrived…yet Ramsay and Rockwell seemingly chalk this up as the first offense.

    “How dare they expect me, the code-changing, data-mining, app-building, mastermind to document my work?! Can’t they just appreciate the results?!”

    My answer, once again, is yes and no. While irritating to DHers and those of us chasing tenure-track positions, this is decidedly a step in the right direction as it at least presents an opportunity for digital scholarship to be evaluated in what remains traditionally controlled discourse. Additionally, it seems if one doesn’t like documenting their process – they could simply look for grants. One might contest, that traditionally scholars didn’t have to dedicate additional time to grant proposals for their work to carry weight. Then again, the vast majority of them are/were not non-traditional scholars, so it’s simply a matter of playing the game. If grant money seemingly equates to credibility (which may continue to be further embraced as we see more university administrations become populated with bean counters), then it’s on Digital Humanists to play the game. So although traditional scholarship still carries a bit more weight I think all of us can recognize this is a liminal period, and progress has / continues to be made. Though as Matt addressed, this is something that could be occurring at a quicker pace if the old guard would be more comfortable holding a tablet instead of their favorite monographs.

    Digital scholarship, like “digital humanities,” seems like an umbrella term – which unknowingly features a comically large umbrella. This could include digital tools or traditional textual analysis of digital media, both of which are equally large umbrellas. Yet regardless of the medium, I think Drucker is wise to remind us that “the role of humanities scholars is crucial in the production and interpretation of cultural materials.” So while I may be sidestepping Dr. Schocket’s original question a bit, I think this does lean on what Dan was getting at in his post – we need to focus on the mission of work and how it relates to the larger discourse, rather than burying our heads in the HTML sand.

    • This reply was modified 10 years, 3 months ago by Alex Koch. Reason: Fixing a format issue
    Shane Snyder

    I have posted this elsewhere, but it relates so completely to the ubiquitous fear of data sweeping up the traditional canon (whatever that is) and replacing it with the cold and distant stare of a scientist in a lab. It’s a little silly. Silly because Marche’s thesis is predicated on a false dilemma; namely, that by experimenting with macroanalysis (distant reading), close, context-heavy reading fades into obscurity, only to be indulged by old conservatives holed up in their university offices. I tend to reject these luddite fears that get projected onto the masses, as if technology and data weren’t inextricably linked with the quotidian.

    As for the contention that traditional scholarship might get upset by humanities work shifting into other domains, the term “scholarship” takes on a lot of forms. Who determines what counts as scholarly? Does a digital exhibit qualify if it’s just a set of tagged and juxtaposed items meant to signify some relation to a bigger picture? If a scholar uses GIS to map data visually using a mostly-accurate geographic coordinate system, and the results of that project grant perspective for future scholars, then the project seems to have offered a service.

    Maybe a better question is this: Who has access to the scholarship? Those who determine what counts as scholarship have a firm hand in standardizing knowledge work (which is fine, to a degree. Some things require oversight). It seems to me that the allure of digital humanities is its placing a premium on making accessible to the public sets of data heretofore only reserved for certain lofty institutions (read: intellectual elites). Now that people can access programs like Omeka and a free, open-source version of GIS (which you can find here), scholarship itself has shifted away from the large conference, peer-reviewed paper paradigm and has moved toward a more open-source model. What the university has been resisting for decades now reaches a sort of climax. The more access the public has to information afforded–it seems in part–by digital humanists, the more the university can cut through the bullshit question, “what use is the university?” The university, in short, is in the petri dish. With everybody having access to everything, the university can now determine what makes it relevant (if it’s relevant at all).

    • This reply was modified 10 years, 3 months ago by Shane Snyder.
    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.`

    Becky Jenkins

    If our peers in the DH are “scholarly editors, literary critics, librarians, academic computing staff, historians, archaeologists, and classicists,” I believe it’s their duty, as is with any scholar, to progress their field by using any skills they can apply. Ramsay and Rockwell point to digital libraries, the “deep encoding” of literary text, 3-D models of Roman ruins, linguistic advancements, instructional applications and the writing of software that solve academic work flow problems as examples of exactly how this process should be (and is) working. I think that any pursuit, traditional or cutting-edge, that has as a goal the advancement of scholarly knowledge should be considered an applied scholarship.

    Manovich says (something to the effect of) “a prototype is a theory. Stop apologizing for your prototypes.” A decent pop culture example of this (just go with me here!) is Doc Brown’s DeLorean time machine in the Back to the Future trilogy. In the beginning, Marty (Michael J. Fox’s character) goes back to the 1950’s to tell Doc Brown that his “theory” finally worked, that he is there from the future. Doc Brown is clearly an educated man, and uses his knowledge of many fields – physics, engineering, chemistry, etc. – to build a revolutionary machine that would, if a reality, change the world. Not only would a DeLorean Time Machine super cool, it would be ground-breaking to the fields of physics, engineering, chemistry, etc. His work would advance scholarship in each of these fields – scholars would be replicating and improving his work for years to come. I think this is parallel to the work that Digital Humanists are doing, minus the time travel. (Sadly.) Just because Doc Brown didn’t conduct his work in a traditional university research lab, it doesn’t make his work any less radical. Just because Digital Humanists are moving away from the traditional book or journal format for advancing scholarship doesn’t mean that it’s any less valuable as scholarship. In fact, like Doc Brown, I think much of the work that is happening in DH is just that – radical, innovative, and a breath of fresh air for the humanities in general.

    I would argue the same point for the questions that Dr. Schocket is asking – Is editing scholarship? Is organizing a conference scholarship? You’ve already heard my opinion on the “traditional” formation of theories: if Doc Brown can do it, so can we. Organizing conferences brings together scholars and advances scholarship by creating a space for conversation. By my original definition (a duty to progress a field with any skills available), organization of conferences or even editing work to improve it should be considered scholarship. If we limit the definition of scholarship to strictly articles and books, we’re missing out of a lot of opportunities for learning and advancement in every field.

    I also agree with the idea that “we must shift to a new idea of digital scholarship that’s made, something that’s useable, something that is transformed by the digital.” Ramsay and Rockwell’s example of creating 3-D models of Roman ruins, for example, fits all of these criteria – it’s useful and advances scholarship because it allows researchers access to the ruins in new ways. New insights are bound to be born of the 3-D model creation. In addition, scholarship in computing and modeling were probably advanced in some ways, too. Digital humanities – always willing to lend an interdisciplinary hand.

    • This reply was modified 10 years, 3 months ago by Becky Jenkins.
    Katlin Humrickhouse

    “If our peers in the DH are “scholarly editors, literary critics, librarians, academic computing staff, historians, archaeologists, and classicists,” I believe it’s their duty, as is with any scholar, to progress their field by using any skills they can apply.”

    Yes! I love this point, and to continue from HIST 6760, I agree with you again, Becky! In fact, I actually noted exactly what you did about digital libraries from Ramsay. As a “historian in training”, I am so very thankful for the growing digitization of artifacts and documents. Making these items available to scholars around the world in an instant is a powerful thing. (I’m also totally grateful that you referenced Back to the Future!)

    Obviously, for me being the public historian of the group, I immediately think of an archive when I think of traditional. I can’t help it. My mind lives in the museum field. So, for me, the similarities between traditional and digital scholarship lies within the museum. Traditional artifacts, documents, and what have you are important for education. But, digitizing these objects is just as important if not more. Yes, having the privilege to hold a Civil War letter is way more enriching than seeing a scanned copy of it, but it is enriching nonetheless.

    I’m sure I’m totally off with my comments, but I guess digital humanities means something different to each one of us. This is what it means to me. (Plus it’s pretty late, and I’ve been writing a paper about 1984. So my mind is all jumbled about.)

    Daniel Fawcett

    Katlin made an interesting point, writing, “Yes, having the privilege to hold a Civil War letter is way more enriching than seeing a scanned copy of it, but it is enriching nonetheless.” This returns me to Walter Benjamin. (But, really, what doesn’t?) In his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin writes quite a bit about this “enriching” experience, calling it the “aura” of a work of art. For those who haven’t read it (I don’t know if anyone in class hasn’t read it, but just in case…) this loss of “aura” is something that happened when art stopped being the province of individual craftspeople and became something industrialized.

    But where most people get Benjamin dead wrong is in thinking that he was lamenting the loss of the aura. In fact, it is something to celebrate. After all, when art loses its “aura,” we can understand the role that politics, modes of production, and class struggle (among other things) play in the production of art. We can see art in a context when we aren’t concerned with its “aura.”

    That’s not to say that we shouldn’t worry about how art does or doesn’t serve as an “enriching” force on our lives. But we can see the way what we call “enriching” aspects of an artifact are enmeshed in social, productive, political, environmental, and geographic realities. What we see as “enriching” is very much an aspect of our social place and our relative positions within social structures.

    We, as DHers, are perhaps in a new and important position relative to Benjamin’s “aura” and Katlin’s “enriching.” We can examine the technical forces that exist that bring the art to the public, and we can help interrogate the objects that consumers of media actually use in a way that always exposes the matrices of power, technology, etc. in which they are enmeshed.

    Huh. Maybe the digital humanities are all about “resistance,” after all.

    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?

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