For my last blog post for Texts, Maps, Networks: Digital Methods in the Humanities, I’d like to respond to a question I’ve been asked a lot this summer: “What is ‘digital humanities’?” Since those who ask it come from all walks of life—churchy, professory, friendy—I’m going to attempt to go both deep and wide in, well, exactly 400 words. Here goes nothing…
Digital humanities, or DH, is a relatively new approach to humanities scholarship that emphasizes digital tools and methods. In some ways, DH work asks old, basic humanities questions about texts, meaning, ethics, history, religion, and ideas. In other ways, however, digital humanists forge new traditions of being in the academy itself. For instance, Roopika Risam writes, “digital scholarship is often collaborative, digital scholarship is rarely finished, and digital scholarship is frequently ‘public.’”
So think less a lone professor writing a book and more a team of academics posting a project version 1.0 online asking for feedback as they envision version 2.0. Think computer scientists, sociologists, and mathematicians collaborating with a few faculty from English or history. Therefore, digital humanities publications often look different than traditional academic work. Some common DH projects include the use of digital mapping tools, macroanalysis of large data sets, and consideration of network relationships of information and people.
Even with its relative popularity, digital humanities scholars today rarely earn degrees that say “digital humanities.” More and more academics, however, have DH as a secondary area of interest. Strong DH programs exist at Univ. of Nebraska, Stanford, UVA, Northeastern, George Mason, and UCLA. Though some new grant money may exist for digital humanities work today, it should not be thought of as panacea for the ever under-funded humanities.
Let’s be clear: the “digital” in DH often means computer-aided analysis, and shouldn’t be confused with simply studying digital objects with traditional methods. For instance, one could use traditional methods of close reading to analyze 1,000 tweets of a certain individual. That’s not quite digital humanities (though who’s to quibble?). In addition to close reading, a DH project might attempt to visualize those 1,000 tweets, perform a network analysis of the relationship of twitter users, use software to run an analysis of how language is used in the tweets, map where the tweets originated, etc.
Most digital humanists seek not to abandon tradition methods of study, but to expand them with the addition of new digital tools. Despite its allure and value, DH will not be the savior of the humanities—nor should it be—but represents an innovative approach to the always-exciting fields of humanities.
Finally, a few examples: spacial projects at UVA, an online archiving Willa Cather project, a newly developing project using wikileak data, and a huge digital archive of the Boston Marathon bombing. Or, if you’re super interested, read this book.