Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Defining Digital Humanities

For the last month or so I've been on an evangelistic kick at my home institution promoting digital humanities.   It has been a lot of fun learning what my colleagues in the Humanities departments think when they hear the phrase "digital humanities."  Inevitably, the tables get turned on me and I am asked: what do you think Digital Humanities is?  This has heated up a bit in the last few days since the New York Times published an article on how Digital Humanities could unlock Humanities' riches.  Reading that article, along with the almost 100 comments and the response to that response by Martin Foys and Asa Mittman has prodded me further to reflect on defining on what I do. 

It is typical in both the humanities and the sciences to engage in research without first identifying its context in absolute terms.  Indeed, one should always be wary of any a priori definition of research fields, since the more accurate accounts of academic work come  out of praxis.  So I haven't been necessarily embarrassed that I had never properly defined what I do as a digital humanist.  But with the question dangling, I had to articulate my vision.  Here's what I have come up with:

"As a form of scholarly work digital humanities  offers methods and resources that can strengthen the established methods of humanities research.  It can also help make the boundaries between the constituent disciplines more porous and thus bring together different groups of scholars and students.  Digital humanities comes closest to how our students engage the world on a daily basis as consumers of digital information. 

"Such possibilities may seem incommensurate with the common (mis)perception of digital humanities namely that is defined solely by the task of digitization.   This is certainly a principal task of digital humanities, but it hardly accounts for all that it is.  In sum, digital humanities comprises three general tasks: preservation, aggregation and integration. To begin with, digital humanists engage in the digitization of existing artifacts as an act of preservation, from text to images to 3D objects.  Digitization projects, however,  preserve artifacts for the sake of access. There is no point in digitizing if does not change the scope of access.  Digitization ought to be about broadening access.   As for aggregation,  the methods of digital humanities allow for a wider consultation and analysis of large data sets through automation.  Even if computer algorithms assist in this analysis, it is based on the core methods of “pattern matching” that most humanists use: finding common ideas or words/phrases in a set of texts, matching textual accounts to other cultural artifacts or practices, etc.  Digital humanities permits this type of work to occur on a larger scale, and often supports complex forms of pattern matching.   This data, when brought together, can give the humanist scholar ample evidence to draw significant conclusions.  I would include here the role that "crowdsourcing" has come to play recently.  Many projects can achieve so many more goals with a large number of scholars and interested parties working collaboratively.    Finally, the ample evidence from the aggregrate sources is analyzed within an interdisciplinary context. On a very basic level, it encourages the integration of text and image, but it can also provide ideal opportunities to integrate different textual types (or different sets of images) in a way that assist the reader or user to engage the complexity without becoming confused.  Digital humanities can provide the virtual means to bring together disparate sources, ones that have never been connected before (and perhaps can never be physically present together), and provide for the humanist scholar the tools to develop a more complex picture of the topic under study.  It can also bring together disparate scholars which can open new ways to study and interpret cultural artifacts.  One example is how historians are using GIS technology to contextualize historical narratives within a specific geographical space (paying attention to meteorology and other environmental conditions)  or to map the path of documents as they traveled from reader to reader.

"Digital humanities can therefore breathe new life into the world of scholarship and teaching, without snuffing out how humanities scholars currently function.  Additionally, it can provide a mechanism for the critical evaluation of technology as both a pedagogical tool and a form of research.  As our culture demands immediate access to larger and larger sets of data, and also seeks ways to integrate that data in multivalent ways, digital humanities can assist students and professors in this complex, wired world."

I'm not suggesting that I have developed the definitive account of digital humanities.  Some of my fellow DHers might object to the way I privilege text -- although I employ a rather elastic notion of text as simply a container of information.   And, I'm sure I've not accounted for everything, but this is my modest contribution to trying to understand what we do as digital humanists and why we do it.

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