Digital Humanities: A Field for Everyone

By Nicole Barkwill

When I took my position as an Undergraduate Research Assistant for the summer, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The project I had originally applied for had been combined with another, and it wasn’t until my first day on the job that I had ever heard the words “Digital Humanities”. I knew I would be using some digital tools, but to be working in an entirely new field terrified me. I remember getting an email about a text encoding workshop a few weeks before starting the job and thinking, “this isn’t what I signed up for!” Although my introduction to DH was a bit stressful, I’m beyond thankful for the opportunities that being a URA in this field has given me, including being able to attend this year’s Congress at Ryerson.

The thought of attending my first conference as an undergrad was nerve-wracking, especially considering that I’d only had one month of experience in Digital Humanities. I was worried that I would seem clueless, but after listening to some of the CSDH/SCHN papers, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Not to say that everyone there was clueless, but rather, everyone was in the process of learning something new. In DH there is no standardized method of research. Instead, you have the freedom to pick what works for you, whether that be Voyant, Python, the Command Line, or MySQL which are only a few of the tools available.

I was surprised to see exactly how collaborative of a field DH was. Getting to attend the Graduate Mentorship Lunch was an incredible experience. I had been worried about what to say, but the professors showed genuine interest in the work I was doing. I was able to speak with Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Jason Boyd, and Maureen Engel, who seemed to really appreciate the fact that I had taken an interest in the field only halfway through my undergrad. They were beyond encouraging, which was something I didn’t notice when I ran into members of other associations. Two months ago, I would have never entertained the thought of a Masters program, even in my current discipline of history, but being able to speak to people in the field opened my eyes to so many opportunities in the DH world. It only took an hour-long lunch for these people to make me reconsider my entire career path.

I also enjoyed the Graduate Students’ panel because it showed how valued students are in DH. Not only are professors more willing to collaborate with students, but there seems to be a greater push for student dedicated workspaces. Students Chelsea Miya and Maryse Ndilu Kiese spoke about how this would not only give students more access to DH tools and repositories, but it would provide more opportunities for student run projects. Guelph’s THINC Lab and Ryerson’s ARC are some examples of research spaces that help with student-led research. Chelsea Gardner and Lisa Tweten spoke about about their project, From Stone to Screen, which is an entirely student run project that relies on volunteers. They have been using tools like WordPress and Photoshop to digitize and catalog ancient artifacts, proving that not only are students capable of producing important and innovative research on their own, but also that they can do so without having to learn to use incredibly complex tools.

DH is a flexible field, which is something I really appreciate. It does not force you to stick to a certain discipline and it allows for new methods of research. The field is constantly evolving which is something you don’t always see in the humanities. I attended a panel with the Canadian Historical Association where Peter Goddard’s paper on Discourses of Poverty, a project that relies quite heavily on digital tools, was the only one of it’s kind. Other papers that were presented were traditional history essays, with most of the research completed by a single historian. Alternatively, Discourses of Poverty is a collaborative project where the work I do with fellow Research Assistants has the potential to make an impact, and I am proud to be a part of it.

DH is different in the sense that it values the process of making mistakes and learning from our failures. Sometimes it can be stressful to work on a project and be unsure of how things may turn out, but you can be sure that you will always take away practical knowledge and experience, and I think this is why the field continues to grow. It takes time to develop research, and every part of the experience can be valuable. I believe that Lorraine Janzen Kooistra said it best in her opening keynote for CSDH/SCHN, “If you build it, they will come, but you don’t always know what you’re building until it’s done.”

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