What no one tells you about the digital humanities.

There are already several great posts out there that exhaustively list resources and starting points for people getting into DH (a lot of them are by Lisa Spiro, who is good at it).

Opportunities are not always well signposted.

This will be a shorter list. I’m still new enough at this to remember what surprised me in the early going, and there were two areas where my previous experience in the academy failed to prepare me for the fluid nature of this field.

1) I had no idea, going into this, just how active a scholarly field could be online. Things are changing rapidly — copyright lawsuits, new tools, new ideas. To find out what’s happening, I think it’s actually vital to lurk on Twitter. Before I got on Twitter, I was flying blind, and didn’t even realize it. Start by following Brett Bobley, head of the Office of Digital Humanities at the NEH. Then follow everyone else.

2) The technical aspect of the field is important — too important, in many cases, to be delegated. You need to get your hands dirty. But the technical aspect is also much less of an obstacle than I originally assumed. There’s an amazing amount of information on the web, and you can teach yourself to do almost anything in a couple of weekends.* Realizing that you can is half the battle. For a pep talk / inspiring example, try this great narrative by Tim Sherratt.

That’s it. If you want more information, see the links to Lisa Spiro and DiRT at the top of this post. Lisa is right, by the way, that the place to start is with a particular problem you want to solve. Don’t dutifully acquire skills that you think you’re supposed to have for later use. Just go solve that problem!

* ps: Technical obstacles are minor even if you want to work with “big data.” We’re at a point now where you can harvest your own big data — big, at least, by humanistic standards. Hardware limitations are not quite irrelevant, but you won’t hit them for the first year or so, though you may listen anxiously while that drive grinds much more than you’re used to …

On transitive and intransitive uses of the verb “theorize.”

I’m a relative newcomer to digital humanities; I’ve been doing this for about a year now. The content of the field has been interesting, but in some ways even more interesting is the way it has transformed my perception of the academy as a social structure. There are clearly going to be debates over the next few years between more and less digitized humanists, and debate is probably a good thing for everyone. But the debate can be much more illuminating if we acknowledge up front that it’s also a tension between two different forms of social organization.

Here’s what happens when that dimension of the issue goes unacknowledged: a tenured or tenure-track faculty member will give a talk or write a blog post about the digital humanities, saying essentially “you’ve got some great tools there, but before they can really matter, their social implications need to be theorized more self-consciously.” Said professor is then surprised when the librarians, or academic professionals, or grad students, who have in many cases designed and built those tools reply with a wry look.

The reason for this, as Miriam Posner recently tweeted, is that “theory has been the province of scholars,” while “the work of DH has been done by staff.” So when you say “those tools need to be theorized,” you are in effect saying “those tools need to be appropriated or regulated by someone like me.” That’s, so to speak, the social implication.

I hasten to add that I’ve got nothing against theories. I wouldn’t mind constructing a few myself. Literary theory, social theory, statistical theory — they’re all fun. But when the word “Theory” is used without adjective or explication, it does in my view deserve a wry look. When you take away all the adjectives, what’s left is essentially a status marker.

So let’s not play that game. Nothing “needs to be theorized” in a vague transitive way; academics who use phrases like that need to realize what they’re saying. DH is an intensely interdisciplinary field that already juggles several different kinds of theory, and actively reflects on the social significance of its endeavors (e.g. in transforming scholarly communication). It is also, among other things, an insurgent challenge to academic hierarchy, organized and led by people who often hold staff positions — which means that the nature of the boundary between practice and theory is precisely one of the questions it seeks to contest.

But as long as everyone understands that “theory” is not a determinate object belonging to a particular team, then I say, the more critique, debate, and intellectual exchange the better. For instance, I quite enjoyed Natalia Cecire’s recent blog post on ways DH could frame its engagement with literary theory more ambitiously. I don’t know whether it’s a good idea to have a “theory THATcamp”; I haven’t been to THATcamp, and don’t know whether its strengths (which seem to lie in collaboration) are compatible with that much yacking. But I think Cecire is absolutely right to insist that DH can and should change the way the humanities are practiced. Because digital approaches make it possible to ask and answer different kinds of questions, there’s going to be a reciprocal interaction between humanistic goals and digital methods, not, as Cecire puts it, a “merely paratactic, additive concatenation.” We’re going to need to theorize about methods and goals at the same time. Together. Intransitively.

[Sun, Oct 23, 2011 — This post is slightly revised from the original version, mostly for clarity.]

It’s okay not to solve “the crisis of the humanities.”

I read Cathy Davidson’s latest piece in Academe with pleasure and admiration. She’s right that humanists need to think about the social function of our work, and right that this will require self-criticism. Moreover, Davidson’s work with HASTAC seems to me a model of the sort of innovation we need now.

However, Davidson says such kind things about the digital humanities that someone needs to pour in a few grains of salt. And since I’m a digital humanist, it might as well be me.

To reimagine a global humanism with relevance to the contemporary world means understanding, using, and contributing to new computational tools and methods. … Even a few examples show how being open to digital possibilities changes paradigms and brings new ways of reimagining the humanities into the world.

Reading this, I find myself blushing and stammering. And what I’m stammering is: “slow down a sec, because I’m not sure how central any of this is really going to be to our pedagogical mission.”

I’m going to teach a graduate course on digital humanities next semester, because I’m confident that information technology will change (actually, already has changed) the research end of our discipline. But I’m not yet sure about the implications at the undergraduate level. Maybe ten years from now I’ll be teaching text mining to undergrads … but then again, maybe the things undergraduates need most from an English course will still be historical perspective, close reading, a willingness to revise, and a habit of considering objections to their own thesis.

I’m sure that text mining belongs in undergraduate education somewhere. It raises fascinating social and linguistic puzzles. But I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to fit all the puzzles raised by technological change into the undergrad English major. It’s possible that English departments will want to stay focused on an older mission, leaving these new challenges to be scooped up by Linguistics or Computer Science. If that happens, it’s okay with me. It’s not particularly crucial that all the projects I care about be combined in a single department.

I’m dwelling on this because I feel humanists spend way too much time these days arguing about “what we need to do in order to keep the discipline from shrinking.” Sometimes the answer offered is a) return to our core competence, and sometimes the answer is b) boldly take on some new mission. But really I want to answer c) it is not our job to keep the discipline from shrinking, and we shouldn’t do anything purely for that reason. Our job is to make sure that we keep passing on the critical skills that the humanities develop best, at the same time as we explore new intellectual challenges.

Maybe those new challenges require us to expand. Or maybe it turns out that new challenges are relevant mostly at the graduate level, whereas at the undergraduate level we already have our hands full teaching students social history, close reading, and revision. And maybe that means that departments of English do end up shrinking relative to Communications or CompSci. If so, I hope it doesn’t happen rapidly, because I care about the fortunes of particular graduate students. But in the long term, it would not be a tragedy. Ideas matter. Departmental boundaries don’t. Intellectual history is not a contest to see who can retain the most faculty.

UPDATE Dec. 30 2011: I have to admit that my mind is in the process of being changed about this. After participating in a NITLE-sponsored seminar about teaching digital humanities at the undergraduate level, I’m much less hesitant than I was in September. Ryan Cordell, Brian Croxall, and Jeff McClurken presented really impressive digital-humanities courses that were also deeply grounded in the context of a specific discipline. Recording available at the link above.

Why everyone should welcome the coming controversy over digital humanities.

Over the next several years, I predict that we’re going to hear a lot of arguments about what the digital humanities can’t do. They can’t help us distinguish insightful and innovative works from merely typical productions of the press. They can’t help us make aesthetic judgments. They can’t help students develop a sense of what really matters about their individual lives, or about history.

Personally, I’m going to be thrilled. First of all, because Blake was right about many things, but above all about the humanities, when he wrote “Opposition is true Friendship.” The best way to get people to pay attention to the humanities is for us to have a big, lively argument about things that matter — indeed, I would go so far as to say that no humanistic project matters much until it gets attacked.

And critics of the digital humanities will be pointing to things that really do matter. We ought to be evaluating authors and works, and challenging students to make similar kinds of judgments. We ought to be insisting that students connect the humanities to their own lives, and develop a broader feeling for the comic and tragic dimensions of human history.

William Blake, "Newton," 1795

Of course, it’s not as though we’re doing much of that now. But if humanists’ resistance to the digitization of our profession causes us to take old bromides about the humanities more seriously, and give them real weight in the way we evaluate our work — then I’m all for it. I’ll sign up, in full seriousness, as a fan of the coming reaction against the digital humanities, which might even turn out to be more important than digital humanism itself.

I wouldn’t, after all, want every humanist to become a “digital humanist.” I believe there’s a lot we can learn from new modes of analysis, networking, and visualization, but I don’t believe the potential is infinite, or that new approaches ineluctably supplant old ones. The New York Times may have described data-intensive methods as an alternative to “theory,” but surely we’ve been trained to recognize a false dichotomy? “Theory” used to think it was an alternative to “humanism,” and that was wrong too.

I also predict that the furor will subside, in a decade or so, when scholars start to understand how new modes of analysis help them do things they presently want to do, but can’t. I’ve been thinking a lot about Benjamin Schmidt’s point that search engines are already a statistically sophisticated technology for assisted reading. Of course humanists use search engines to mine data every day, without needing to define a tf-idf score, and without getting so annoyed that they exclaim “Search engines will never help us properly appreciate an individual author’s sensibility!”

That’s the future I anticipate for the digital humanities. I don’t think we’re going to be making a lot of arguments that explicitly foreground a quantitative methodology. We’ll make a few. But more often text mining, or visualization, will function as heuristics that help us find and recognize significant patterns, which we explore in traditional humanistic ways. Once a heuristic like that is freely available and its uses are widely understood, you don’t need to make a big show of using it, any more than we now make a point of saying “I found these obscure sources by performing a clever keyword search on ECCO.” But it may still be true that the heuristic is permitting us to pursue different kinds of arguments, just as search engines are now probably permitting us to practice a different sort of historicism.

But once this becomes clear, we’ll start to agree with each other. Things will become boring again, and The New York Times will stop paying attention to us. So I plan to enjoy the argument while it lasts.