How everyone gets to claim they do DH.

h/t @frankridgway – who now, performatively, does DH

When I saw the meme to the right come across my facebook newsfeed — and then get widely shared! — I realized that the field of digital humanities is confronting a PR crisis. In literary studies, a lot of job postings are suddenly requesting interest or experience in DH. This requirement was not advertised when people began their dissertations, and candidates are understandably ticked off by the late-breaking news.

I know where they’re coming from, since I’ve spent much of the past twenty years having to pretend that my work was relevant to a wide variety of theoretical questions I wasn’t all that passionate about. Especially in job interviews. Did my work engage de Man’s well-known essays on the topic? “Bien sûr.” Had I considered postcolonial angles? “Of course. It would be unethical not to.” And so on. There’s nothing scandalous about this sort of pretense. Not every theme can be central to every project, but it’s still fair to ask people how their projects might engage a range of contemporary debates.

The problem we’re confronting now in DH is that people don’t feel free to claim a passing acquaintance with our field. If they’re asked about Marxist theory, they can bullshit by saying “Althusser, Williams, blah blah blah.” But if they’re asked about DH, they feel they have to say “no, I really don’t do DH.” Which sounds bracingly straightforward. Except, in my opinion, bracingly straightforward is bad for everyone’s health. It locks deserving candidates out of jobs they might end up excelling in, and conversely, locks DH itself out of the mainstream of departmental conversation.

I want to give grad students permission to intelligently bullshit their way through questions about DH just as they would any other question. For certain jobs — to be sure — that’s not going to fly. At Nebraska or Maryland or George Mason or McGill, they may want someone who can reverse the polarity on the Drupal generator, and a general acquaintance with DH discourse won’t be enough. But at many other institutions (including, cough, many elite ones) they’re just getting their toes wet, and may merely be looking for someone informed about the field and interested in learning more about it. In that case “intelligent, informed BS” is basically what’s desired.

What makes this tricky is that DH — unlike some other theoretical movements — does have a strong practical dimension. And that tends to harden boundaries. It makes grad students (and senior faculty) feel that no amount of information about DH will ever be useful to them. “If I don’t have time to build a web page from scratch, I’m never going to count as a digital humanist, so why should I go to reading groups or surf blogs?”

“Don’t be a square …”

Naturally, I do want to encourage people to pick up some technical skills. They’re fun. But I think it’s also really important for the health of the field that DH should develop the same sort of penumbra of affiliation that every other scholarly movement has developed. It needs to be possible to intelligently shoot the breeze about DH even if you don’t “do” it.

There are a lot of ways to develop that kind of familiarity, from reading Matt Gold’s Debates in Digital Humanities, to surfing blogs, to blogging for yourself, to Lisa Spiro’s list of starting places in DH, to following people on Twitter, to thinking about digital pedagogy with NITLE, to affiliation with groups like HASTAC or NINES or 18th Connect. (Please add more suggestions in comments!) Those of us who are working on digital research projects should make it a priority to draw in local collaborators and/or research assistants. Even if grad students don’t have time to develop their own digital research project from the ground up, they can acquire some familiarity with the field. Finally, in my book, informed critique of DH also counts as a way of “doing DH.” When interviewers ask you whether you do DH, the answer can be “yes, and I’m specifically concerned about the field’s failure to address X.”

Bottom line: grad students shouldn’t feel that they’re being asked to assume a position as “digital” or “analog” humanists, any more than they’re being asked to declare themselves “for” or “against” close reading and feminism. DH is not an identity category; it’s a project that your work might engage, indirectly, in a variety of ways.