Digital Humanities: The Most Exciting Field You’ve Never Heard of
Its presence at the Modern Language Association convention showed just how prevalent the field is becoming.
Chances are you’ve never heard of the digital humanities — unless you happen to work on a college or university campus. For everyone else, I’ll risk censure and offer the pithiest definition I can muster: Digital humanities is an interdisciplinary field in which scholars and educators bring computational tools and methods to humanistic inquiry. (For a more thorough definition, I recommend curious readers visit Debates in the Digital Humanities.)
Fairly or unfairly, critics have charged digital humanities with navel-gazing. To an extent, that critique is both warranted and expected given the field’s relative nascence. American studies, for example, underwent a similar introspection, and today that field boasts departments, scholarly associations, journals, conferences, and summer institutes.
When I attended last weekend’s annual Modern Language Association convention, I wasn’t sure if digital humanities would have moved beyond the abstractions of field formation. Certainly, there were more panels than I could possibly attend. Searching the program for “digital humanities” returned no fewer than 41 panels, about 5 percent of the conference proceedings.
To put that number in context, in a convention dedicated to language and literature, the digital humanities inspired more panels than Geoffrey Chaucer, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, William Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whitman combined. But had DH grown up? Or would practitioners continue to call for incubators — digital humanities centers — that limit participation of students and faculty at small liberal arts colleges and community colleges?
I was heartened to see a lively mix of theoretical and practical panels. Perhaps most reassuring, I found panelists honestly engaging with how to downsize digital humanities and integrate digital teaching practices and archival research without vast institutional resources or support.
Downsizing Digital Humanities
Several panelists at the Minimal Digital Humanities panel spoke to the need for a downsized digital humanities. In a longer piece, I would mention each of the excellent papers (which are available online), but in the interest of brevity, I’ll focus on one talk that addressed what has been a blind spot in the field: community colleges.
Anne McGrail, an English faculty member at Lane Community College, spoke directly to the challenges of practicing digital humanities at community colleges.
“At open-access, under-resourced institutions such as the community college where I teach, minimal digital humanities has been the only kind possible,” McGrail explained. “Delayed and uneven development have characterized community college digital humanities, which is unfortunate given that digital projects offer empowering tools for students to represent their communities and to challenge inequalities.”
Some of that unevenness is a product of the community college’s open-access mission. Heavy teaching loads and limited mentoring mean that the faculty who might otherwise experiment with digital humanities lack the time, energy, or incentive structure to keep pace. Moreover, community college students, who are more likely to be working-class, non-white, or first-generation students, are less likely to take risks on technological experimentation. As McGrail explained it, these students are already taking a risk to go to college. The idea of failing upward is a middle-class assumption, whereas, for the working-class, failure is a sign of not belonging.
McGrail advocated for outreach in a form that support community colleges’ teaching missions: curricular design. While DH has been historically slow to embrace community colleges, she heralded this “minimal moment” as a sign of the field’s maturation, and an opportunity for practitioners to engage at a practical, local level.
Several panels answered McGrail’s call for teaching-centric digital humanities, especially Curating Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities, a roundtable in which participants discussed concrete examples of digitally inflected teaching.
Rebecca Frost Davis, director of instructional and emerging technology at St. Edward’s University, argued that moving humanities teaching practices from solitary classrooms into participatory networks increases student engagement and extends the reach of humanistic inquiry. She described the General Education Maps and Markers initiative, for which she served on a digital working group, that found students gain a sense of commonality when they learn and act through networks. (The complete recommendations are available in a whitepaper.)
Matthew Gold, associate professor of English and digital humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center, suggested that open publishing systems can also enable humanities teachers to join new publication workflows. (Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities, which curates pedagogical keywords and related teaching materials such as syllabi, prompts, and, exercises, models this ethos through an open peer-review process.)
“Teaching in public leads us to new forms of publication,” Gold said. That is, when educators share their pedagogy, it serves the interest of students — who benefit from the circulation of educational best practices — and it also changes the way scholars think about their teaching. “As scholars share their work publicly, they start to think their pedagogy as scholarship,” he said. Practically, Gold encouraged faculty to share materials on platforms like the MLA CORE repository, Open Syllabus Project, or even GitHub.
Gold also touched upon benefits and dangers of teaching on open platforms such as the CUNY Academic Commons. While online platforms can help students envision writing for a wider public, he cautioned that openness can also make students vulnerable, recommending that faculty think carefully about student privacy and data security.
Lauren Coats, associate professor of English and director of the Digital Scholarship Lab at Louisiana State University, also focused on students in her description of an archival-centric pedagogy. In seeking to encourage students to evaluate the materiality of textual artifacts and to grapple with the relationship of form and content, Coats discussed how she asks students to use print and digital archives in tandem. She described an assignment in which students examine Frederick Douglass’ newspaper and compare the historic original to an online surrogate from a database. For a final project, Coates asks her students to curate, create, or rearrange an archive or build a digital exhibition in Omeka. Through hands-on work, students confront the intellectual consequences of curation — an object’s archival fate determines if and how future users will encounter it, know about it, or use it.
As Coats’s presentation underscores, online repositories are central to digital pedagogy. It’s easy to assume they’ve been willed into existence, when, in fact, they demand deep and sustained institutional investment, as I’ve discussed in a recent column about the DPLA-LOC partnership.
Moreover, once those repositories are available, they require continuous caretaking. In a panel about scholarly editions, Ray Siemens described open-access resources as “free as in puppies, not as in beer.” That is, digital projects are a commitment, and their caretakers can expect more than a few accidents along the way. Nevertheless, when these digital projects are available, they’re invaluable to students and educators. The nineteenth century, in particular, enjoys a veritable embarrassment of archival riches, as illuminated in the Digital Pedagogy and Nineteenth-Century American Literature panel.
Catherine Waitinas, associate professor of English Cal Poly State University, described how she’s used the Whitman Archive to introduce students to Walt Whitman’s less canonical poetry and to underscore how his work evolved through editions. The challenge for students is that much of that archival material is in manuscript form, which challenges them to decipher Whitman’s hand despite the fact that many students no longer even learn cursive. While the project includes a handwriting tool — and many others — each feature has a learning curve. Waitinas’ response has been to ask students to teach students. She’s created a video assignment through which students create instructional videos for using the Whitman Archive, several of which are available on YouTube. By circulating videos in advance of meetings, Waitinas frees up class time for close-reading. This flipped classroom wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of previous cohorts.
Finally, associate professor of English at Lehigh University Edward Whitley discussed how the idea of the archive can be used to link historical periods and media forms. While Harriet Beecher Stowe is typically read as a sentimental novelist, Whitley asks students to approach her as a curator, to reconceive Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a “curated archive of responses to slavery.” After students evaluate the methods through which Stowe collected and synthesized abolitionist texts, Whitley asks them to evaluate how activists employ similar methods using digital media.
“In the context of Stowe’s novel, students consider how social activists involved in social media campaigns like #blacklivesmatter and #yesallwomen likewise sort, catalogue, organize, select, and reject the documentary record of social injustice appearing online in real-time,” Whitely said.
Students aren’t studying an historical period (abolitionism) or media form (Twitter), so much as they are deconstructing the process through which texts are created, structured, shared, stored, and mobilized to enact social change. Whitely has effectively created a crash course in media literacy inside a literature seminar. I doubt I could pull it off. However, in an era of siloed social-media channels and profligate and unverifiable news stories, media literacy is essential for responsible civic participation, and it’s heartening to see Whitely and other scholars and educators at MLA rising to that challenge.
Read more: “5 Digital Mapping Projects That Visualize History”
Originally published at //www.pcmag.com/commentary/350984/digital-humanities-the-most-exciting-field-youve-never-hea.