My New Love Affair: Digital Humanities

Photo courtesy of Indiana University.

I recently attended a workshop on the Digital Humanities given by the new Digital Humanities initiative Catapult here at IUB. I arrived with absolutely zero knowledge about what the field of Digital Humanities is and how it might be useful in my future. I left feeling like Digital Humanities might be a major part of my future as an academic.

I was blown away by what scholars already working in this field have done and the massive amount of potential this field holds for the future of Humanities scholarship. Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I’m fairly technologically challenged, I am much more comfortable reading with an actual book in my hands than on a computer screen, and I don’t yet know how I feel about the digital push of our generation. But I will say without hesitation that some of the Digital Humanities work currently available is incredibly worthwhile. Take the Victorian Women Writers Project here at IUB. Even if this project did nothing else but build a central, easily accessible archive of little known Victorian women writers, it would be worthwhile. But it goes beyond that and allows users to bookmark favorite selections, print full-page hard copies of each work, and browse the collection via a wide variety of categories (genre, year, author, etc.). Other Digital Humanities projects have gone even further in their attempts to provide readers with a digitally authentic (I’m trying out this term as a way to describe something like the scan of an actual manuscript page shown on these websites – it’s always going to be digital, but it does put the reader into contact with the original, authentic, material manuscript in new ways) and interactive reading experience. The Vincent van Gogh Letters project, for instance, provides readers with many different choices for reading and comparison of these texts. You can look at the facsimile of the original letter, read it in type in the original language, or read it in type in the English translation.

I hope I’m not reiterating things you already know, reader, but I wanted to provide a bit of an overview of some of the things these sites are providing for those that are new to the Digital Humanities. I’m incredibly impressed with these projects and really feel like this is a promising future for education and scholarship in the Humanities fields. There are, though, some questions and problems that seem to arise from projects such as these. First, as the workshop leader spoke about some of the choices he made for his own Digital Humanities projects, there was quite clearly an odd and potentially problematic tension between the work machines contribute to these projects and the work humans contribute. For instance, he spoke about choosing topics (essentially keywords) for the “Topic” menu on one of his websites. Choosing a keyword from the topic menu will display a list of all the works on the site that either include the exact word or reference some aspect of that topic. But, the human working on the site has to go through and code each of the moments in the text when these topics occur in order for the right texts to display in a topic search. I’m not suggesting that there’s a problem with providing an option like this for the reader, but it is an interesting moment when a human seems to be called in to do work that a reader perhaps incorrectly will assume that a computer is doing. In other words, there’s room here for bias or subjective perspective to intrude on what many would consider an objective medium (i.e. computers, internet). The topics in something like Dante’s Commedia are endless. A scholar interested in feminist criticism would likely have very different topic choices available for the reader than a scholar interested in religious motifs. Like I said, I’m not sure yet that this is necessarily a problem, but it does seem to suggest possible limits for a Digital Humanities project.

These emerging sites also raise interesting questions in light of the work we’ve been doing in my performance theory class. In a way that nothing else in the field has really managed to do before, Digital Humanities opens up literature and Humanities scholarship to an incredibly wide audience (literally anyone who has access to the internet can view these sites). While it’s a groundbreaking innovation in terms of accessibility, it seems important that because of the openness of these projects, an important consideration should be how we’re “performing” our field. These websites are treasure troves of information, providing the general public with access to documents and texts that may have been completely inaccessible in the past. But they’re also opening up Humanities fields to a wider readership in a much more obtrusive way. Now, if a reader wants to do a basic google search for some background information on Vincent van Gogh, the letters project I mentioned earlier will undoubtedly be on the list of websites returned by the search. What will non-academics think about these websites? How will they come to view the work academics do based on their interaction with Digital Humanities interfaces? How should we be performing our work to an audience that has had very limited interaction with it in the past? Is our goal to make these collections accessible to the general public or are these sites, via their form of presentation and their content, merely another way to contain scholarship within academic circles?

There’s much more to be said on this topic and I’m excited to delve further into questions about what this emerging field allows for and how we can use it as scholars and teachers. I hope to attend more workshops and keep track of new ideas here. If anyone already has a grounded interest or knowledge in this field and has any suggestions for reading or Digital Humanities websites that might be interesting, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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