Debates in the Digital Humanities

By Brown, Terry | Planning for Higher Education, January-March 2013 | Go to article overview

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. Today, I can search an electronic edition of the novel in seconds rather than hours or days. This method of literary analysis, what scholars call "close reading," is enhanced by digitization. Thus, much like Father Busa's concordance of Thomas Aquinas, a number of electronic archives of canonical figures such as William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rosetti have been established in the last decade. In her essay titled "The Humanities, Done Digitally," Kathleen Fitzpatrick refers to the William Blake Archive as exemplary of the archival and editorial projects in the digital humanities that produce "large-scale digital text collections for scholarly study" (p. 13).

But there are far more compelling implications for the way humanities scholars do their work than the convenience of easily searchable texts like Moby-Dick or the complete works of Shakespeare, as worthy as these projects are. In his essay "Canons, Close Reading, and the Evolution of Method," Matthew Wilkens argues that "we need to do less close reading and more of anything and everything else that might help us extract information from and about texts as indicators of larger cultural issues" (p. 251). Wilkens focuses on one method of digital humanities work, text-mining. Using the Wright American Fiction collection, an ongoing project to digitize nearly 3,000 titles of American fiction from 1851 to 1875, Wilkens generated a map of locations mentioned in American novels published in 1851. Wilkens's map demonstrates that American fiction was far more aware of the world beyond the boundaries of the United States than prevailing interpretations of American literature have acknowledged. Wilkens admits that the comprehensive database of titles allowed him to analyze works that he would never have had time to read: "I certainly haven't read many of them, nor am I likely to spend months doing so" (p. 252). But his point is that the text-mining method allows him to analyze canonical fiction along with less frequently read, or marginalized, works.

If the digital humanities is an inclusive "big tent," the theme of a 2011 DH conference at Stanford University, then Gold's volume of essays may be considered one of the stakes in the corner of the big tent. A central concern of the essays in Debates in the Digital Humanities is a self-conscious awareness, a preoccupation perhaps, of itself as defining the field as the "next big thing" (p. ix) in the academy. For years the field of humanities computing remained in the margins of the academy, practiced by a few scholars but not fully recognized. In her excellent essay "Time, Labor, and 'Alternate Careers' in Digital Humanities Knowledge Work," Julia Flanders states that "many early researchers in what was then termed 'humanities computing' were located in liminal and academically precarious institutional spaces such as newly created instructional technology support units and grant-funded research groups" (p. 292). She says that "much energy was devoted--then as now--to discussion of how and whether this domain [of DH] could become a discipline, with its own faculty positions and academic legitimation" (p. 292). Indeed, the early pages of the collection, including the editor's introduction on "The Digital Humanities Moment," provide a convincing argument that the digital humanities have arrived as an academic discipline with its own professional organization; academic journals devoted to the discipline; articulate, influential champions who emerge as stars in the field; endowed chairs; and book series at major academic presses. The publication of Debates in the Digital Humanities itself by the prestigious University of Minnesota Press is an indication of the legitimacy the field has achieved. The book will take its place next to the definitive volumes A Companion to Digital Humanities (Schreibman, Siemens, and Unsworth 2004) and A Companion to Digital Literacy Studies (Siemens and Schreibman 2008), published by Blackwell, as an essential collection of scholarship in the new field.

Another indication of the success of the digital humanities, with significant implications for space planners, is the creation of research centers and laboratories (e.g., the Center for Digital Humanities at UCLA and The Center for New Media and History at George Mason University). In "The Function of Digital Humanities Centers at the Present Time," Neil Fraistat provides an explanation of the criticality of spaces dedicated to the work of the digital humanities: "digital humanities centers are key sites for bridging the daunting gap between new technology and humanities scholars, serving as the crosswalks between cyberinfrastructure and users, where scholars learn how to introduce into their research computational methods, encoding practices, and tools and where users of digital resources can be transformed into producers" (p. 281). It is the resource-intensive nature of the digital humanities, particularly the necessity of research centers and laboratories, that concerns Bryan Alexander and Rebecca Frost Davis in their essay "Should Liberal Arts Colleges Do Digital Humanities? Process and Products in the Small College World."

Every new academic discipline needs a statement of values. Lisa Spiro's "'This is Why We Fight': Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities" proposes a noble and inspiring set of values that are for the most part reflected throughout Debates in the Digital Humanities. Spiro argues, "By creating a core set of values, the digital humanities community may be able to unite to confront challenges such as the lack of open access to information and hidebound policies that limit collaboration and experimentation" (p. 17). Spiro's compelling essay serves as a manifesto for the revolution that the digital humanities presents against the status quo of the academy. The first proposed value, openness, operates throughout the DH academic community through its commitment to open access online journals and digital collections, resources, and archives. "Openness," says Spiro, "supports related values such as transdisciplinarity, collaboration, and democratization of knowledge" (p. 24). This commitment to openness leads to pointed questions and concerns about resources that are closed off or metered behind pay walls. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, remains accessible only to those who have access to a library that can afford the subscription. In the spirit of openness, Debates in the Digital Humanities was created through peer-to-peer open review. Like the Blackwell volumes that are available online as searchable text, Debates in the Digital Humanities has been published both as a printed book and an open-access webtext. Indicative of the labor involved in such a complicated project, the open-access edition appeared in January 2013, 12 months after the print edition, with an "expanded" open-access edition still forthcoming. The expanded edition promises to include a "crowdsourced index," which will be welcome since the print edition does not have an index and the current webtext is not searchable. The expanded webtext will have additional essays and a sophisticated comment feature. As it is, the current webtext fulfills the commitment to openness and provides a beautifully readable and easily navigable 21st-century version of the text.

Unlike traditional humanities scholarship, which typically values the lone scholar in pursuit of the truth, the work of the digital humanities is strongly collaborative by necessity, bringing together humanities faculty, librarians, and information technology experts. Spiro says that "by bringing together people with diverse expertise, collaboration opens up new approaches to tackling a problem, as statistical computing is applied to the study of literature or geospatial tools are used to understand historical data" (p. 25). The collaborative, transdisciplinary nature of DH work is evident in the contributions to Debates in the Digital Humanities. A number of the contributors to the volume are what some call "#altacademics," a term used throughout the volume to refer to non-faculty humanities scholars who do work essential to the digital humanities in places such as museums, libraries, and academic presses as well as humanities associations, institutes, laboratories, and centers. Openness and collaboration depend on collegiality and connectedness, which Spiro proposes as equally important values. Tom Scheinfeldt, in a blog post collected here and referred to throughout the volume, calls the digital humanities a "nice" discipline because of the ethos of collegiality, generous sharing, and amicable cooperation.

In his introduction, Matthew Gold asserts that the digital humanities are indicative of the changing nature of the academy itself, particularly in the way we conduct research and scholarship and the way we teach and learn: "In a moment of crisis, the digital humanities contributes to the sustenance of academic life as we know it, even as (and perhaps because) it upends academic life as we know it" (pp. ix-x.) Given how beleaguered, underfunded, and unappreciated the traditional humanities have been, hurt more than other disciplines by the Great Recession and by a culture that emphasizes the importance of the STEM and business disciplines over the arts and humanities, it is understandable that practitioners and scholars of DH would be tempted to make exuberant claims of exceptionalism for the field: the field is revolutionary, according to one writer. Luke Waltzer is especially eloquent on this matter in his essay "Digital Humanities and the 'Ugly Stepchildren' of American Higher Education." He notes that "the celebration of openness, sharing, and collaboration that prevails within the field is itself an attempt to be the type of change digital humanists want to see in a more progressive university" (p. 340). As a college administrator (and beleaguered humanist) who has wondered what good might come of the current crises in higher education, reading Debates in the Digital Humanities gives me hope that something better is on the horizon if we approach the challenges we face as digital humanists approach their work--working in collaboration in a spirit of openness, innovation, and inclusivity.


Schreibman, S., R. Siemens, and J. Unsworth, eds. 2004. A Companion to Digital Humanities. Oxford: Blackwell. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from the World Wide Web:

Siemens, R., and S. Schreibman, eds. 2008. A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Oxford: Blackwell. Retrieved January 27, 2013, from the World Wide Web:


Terry Brown is senior special assistant in academic and student affairs at the University of Wisconsin System Administration. In July she will begin her appointment as provost and vice president for academic affairs, and professor of English, at the State University of New York Fredonia.

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