Why Digital Humanities?

Digital humanities is an emerging field that applies methods derived from computing to the traditional questions and objects of study in humanities disciplines. It is an umbrella term covering a wide range of activities, from online preservation and digital mapping to data mining and the use of geographic information systems, data visualization, and digital publishing.

The digital humanities can help scholars to

  • provide wide access to cultural information
  • manipulate (big) data: to manage it, mash it up, mine it, map it, or model it.
  • transform scholarly communication and collaboration (including student-faculty collaboration)
  • enhance teaching and learning
  • make a public impact

(See Lisa Spiro’s slides, “Why Digital Humanities?”)

Traditional humanities disciplines emphasize scholarly precision, mastery of language, the careful framing of relevant questions, accurate description and use of evidence, perceptive analysis, high quality communication, and meaningful artistic expression. Digital media facilitate the compilation and analysis of massive amounts of data, and the networked sharing of that data. They foster open collaboration and encourage the broadest possible access to knowledge. As a mode of publishing and communicating, digital media tend to emphasize speed and immediacy, goals not always compatible with traditional humanistic methods. In terms of pedagogical practice digital media often facilitate teaching in settings other than the traditional in-person classroom experience, and are often taken as challenging traditional educational modes. There is thus a perceived tension between the two halves of the expression, the digital, and the humanistic.

Yet, as English literature scholar John Unsworth points out, all of the fundamental activities of the humanistic scholarship—from text annotation and comparison to the discovery, representation, and comparison of cultural objects—can be carried out in new and effective ways in the digital realm.

For those interested in exploring this evolving area, Spiro’s 2011 guide to getting started in the digital humanities has some excellent advice and resources. Her discussion of theintellectual property issues involved is also well worth reading.

On the pedagogical side, scholars such as Cathy N. Davidson have argued that digital tools are vital for needed reforms in humanities education. A 2010 report from the Obama administration calls for the intelligent use of technology in the classroom at the K-12 level. Related to these pedagogical discussions is the move in some quarters toward the delivery of more college-level content at long distances via the Massive Open Online Course. Because of its possible impact on the economics of universities this topic has been widely discussed. Technological futurist and academic Clay Shirky is among those who believe that information technology will effectively do away with the traditional large college lecture course. The argument that MOOCs represent an addition to, rather than a replacement for, what colleges and universities do is well-put by Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia.

Digital Humanities in the institutional setting of the Liberal Arts College has been thoughtfully surveyed by Bryan Alexander and Rebecca Davis, both of NITLE, including some sobering comments about difficulties and obstacles: “Should Liberal Arts College Do Digital Humanities?” in Matthew K. Gold, ed., Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), pp. 368–389.

Rebecca Davis provides a useful glossary of DH jargon.

Notable journals of digital humanities include Digital Humanities Quarterly and Journal of Digital Humanities.

Chris Francese, January 29, 2013

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