How much DH can we fit in a literature department?

It’s an open secret that the social phenomenon called “digital humanities” mostly grew outside the curriculum. Library-based programs like Scholars’ Lab at UVA have played an important role; so have “centers” like MITH (Maryland) and CHNM (George Mason) — not to mention the distributed unconference movement called THATCamp, which started at CHNM. At Stanford, the Literary Lab is a sui generis thing, related to departments of literature but not exactly contained inside them.

The list could go on, but I’m not trying to cover everything — just observing that “DH” didn’t begin by embedding itself in the curricula of humanities departments. It went around them, in improvisational and surprisingly successful ways.

That’s a history to be proud of, but I think it’s also setting us up for predictable frustrations at the moment, as disciplines decide to import “DH” and reframe it in disciplinary terms. (“Seeking a scholar of early modern drama, with a specialization in digital humanities …”)

Of course, digital methods do have consequences for existing disciplines; otherwise they wouldn’t be worth the trouble. In my own discipline of literary study, it’s now easy to point to a long sequence of substantive contributions to literary study that use digital methods to make thesis-driven interventions in literary history and even interpretive theory.

But although the research payoff is clear, the marriage between disciplinary and extradisciplinary institutions may not be so easy. I sense that a lot of friction around this topic is founded in a feeling that it ought to be straightforward to integrate new modes of study in disciplinary curricula and career paths. So when this doesn’t go smoothly, we feel there must be some irritating mistake in existing disciplines, or in the project of DH itself. Something needs to be trimmed to fit.

What I want to say is just this: there’s actually no reason this should be easy. Grafting a complex extradisciplinary project onto existing disciplines may not completely work. That’s not because anyone made a mistake.

Consider my home field of literary study. If digital methods were embodied in a critical “approach,” like psychoanalysis, they would be easy to assimilate. We could identify digital “readings” of familiar texts, add an article to every Norton edition, and be done with it. In some cases that actually works, because digital methods do after all change the way we read familiar texts. But DH also tends to raise foundational questions about the way literary scholarship is organized. Sometimes it valorizes things we once considered “mere editing” or “mere finding aids”; sometimes it shifts the scale of literary study, so that courses organized by period and author no longer make a great deal of sense. Disciplines can be willing to welcome new ideas, and yet (understandably) unwilling to undertake this sort of institutional reorganization.

Training is an even bigger problem. People have argued long and fiercely about the amount of digital training actually required to “do DH,” and I’m not going to resolve that question here. I just want to say that there’s a reason for the argument: it’s a thorny problem. In many cases, humanists are now tackling projects that require training not provided in humanities departments. There are a lot of possible fixes for that — we can make tools easier to use, foster collaboration — but none of those fixes solve the whole problem. Not everything can be externalized as a “tool.” Some digital methods are really new forms of interpretation; packaging them in a GUI would create a problematic black box. Collaboration, likewise, may not remove the need for new forms of training. Expecting computer scientists to do all the coding on a project can be like expecting English professors to do all the spelling.

I think these problems can find solutions, but I’m coming to suspect that the solutions will be messy. Humanities curricula may evolve, but I don’t think the majority of English or History departments are going to embrace rapid structural change — for instance, change of the kind that would be required to support graduate programs in distant reading. These disciplines have already spent a hundred years rejecting rapprochement with social science; why would they change course now? English professors may enjoy reading Moretti, but it’s going to be a long time before they add a course on statistical methods to the major.

Meanwhile, there are other players in this space (at least at large universities): iSchools, Linguistics, Departments of Communications, Colleges of Media. Digital methods are being assimilated rapidly in these places. New media, of course, are already part of media studies, and if a department already requires statistics, methods like topic modeling are less of a stretch. It’s quite possible that the distant reading of literary culture will end up being shared between literature departments and (say) Communications. The reluctance of literary studies to become a social science needn’t prevent social scientists from talking about literature.

I’m saying all this because I think there’s a strong tacit narrative in DH that understands extradisciplinary institutions as a wilderness, in which we have wandered that we may reach the promised land of recognition by familiar disciplinary authority. In some ways that’s healthy. It’s good to have work organized by clear research questions (so we aren’t just digitizing aimlessly), and I’m proud that digital methods are making contributions to the core concerns of literary studies.

But I’m also wary of the normative pressures associated with that narrative, because (if you’ll pardon the extended metaphor) I’m not sure this caravan actually fits in the promised land. I suspect that some parts of the sprawling enterprise called “DH” (in fact, some of the parts I enjoy most) won’t be absorbed easily in the curricula of History or English. That problem may be solved differently at different schools; the nice thing about strong extradisciplinary institutions is that they allow us to work together even if the question of disciplinary identity turns out to be complex.

postscript: This whole post should have footnotes to Bethany Nowviskie every time I use the term “extradisciplinary,” and to Matt Kirschenbaum every time I say “DH” with implicit air quotes.