Debates in the Digital Humanities

By Brown, Terry | Planning for Higher Education, January-March 2013 | Go to article overview
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Debates in the Digital Humanities

Brown, Terry, Planning for Higher Education

Debates in the Digital Humanities

by Matthew K. Gold, ed.

University of Minnesota Press 2012

516 pages

ISBN: 978-0-8166-7795-5 (paperback)


In 2008, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) established the Office of Digital Humanities to provide grant funding for research in the new academic field of the digital humanities, an indication that DH (as practitioners call it) had moved out of the margins of the academy. One of the projects that the NEH has funded is Looking for Whitman: The Poetry of Place in the Life and Work of Walt Whitman, which brings students and faculty in five courses from four universities together in "a multi-campus experiment in digital pedagogy" to study the work of the 19th-century American poet. One of the leaders of this experiment in pedagogy, Matthew Gold, is the editor of the comprehensive collection of essays, Debates in the Digital Humanities. In an essay on Looking for Whitman, Gold states succinctly the implications of the digital humanities: "the radical potential of projects like Looking for Whitman--and perhaps of digital humanities pedagogy more generally--lies in their ability to connect learners in ways that hack around the artificial boundaries of selectivity and elitism that educational institutions have long erected around themselves" (p. 407). The use of the word "hack" in relation to the digital humanities is strategic, connoting subversive, unauthorized action against the status quo, a theme that runs throughout the volume.

If you have never heard of the digital humanities, you will find yourself longing for specific examples like Looking for Whitman as you read the first 200 pages of Debates in the Digital Humanities. The book is organized in six parts, including both essays and blog posts on each topic--defining, theorizing, critiquing, practicing, teaching, and envisioning the future of the digital humanities. "Part I: Defining the Digital Humanities" is more successful in illustrating the challenge of defining the discipline than it is in providing an authoritative definition, leading the reader in circles around the question, "What is DH?" "Let's be honest," states Rafael Alvarado in a reprinted blog post, "there is no definition of digital humanities" (p. 50). Confirming the reader's impression, Alvarado says that DH "has nearly as many definitions as affiliates" (p. 50). In spite of its vagueness, perhaps the most helpful definition is provided by Matthew Kirschenbaum as he quotes from Wikipedia: "The digital humanities is a field of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities" (p. 4). The digital humanities, formerly known as humanities computing, traces its origins to the work of Father Roberto Busa (1913-2011), an Italian Jesuit priest who in 1949 initiated with IBM a 30-year project to digitize the complete works of St. Thomas Aquinas in a searchable database. In the last decade, advances in computing (e.g., wikis, social networking, crowdsourcing, GPS) have created tools that are redefining the research and teaching in history, linguistics, and literary criticism. "Part IV: Practicing the Digital Humanities" and "Part V: Teaching the Digital Humanities" provide compelling illustrations of DH at work and are probably better starting points for outsiders to the field since they include excellent illustrations of the applications of the digital humanities.

One of the results of the digitization of literary texts has been to facilitate the work of the literary critic. When I was an English major in the 1980s, I would have to manually cull through a novel like Melville's Moby-Dick page by page looking for references, for example, to "whiteness," a recurring motif in the novel with thematic significance. Once I had identified key references to whiteness, I would then review each relevant passage carefully in order to interpret Melville's use of the motif and its relation to the larger theme of racial difference, a preoccupation in pre-Civil War America.

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