the digital humanities divide

I've been buried in grant-writing most of this month (hopefully some of it will pay off), so I'm behind on some things I've been meaning to write here. However, last week saw some Twitter consternation over the upcoming Digital Humanities conference with various people expressing their disappointment of not getting in. Of course such disappointment is a part of most conferences, but in this case there is a sense that the rejections reflect some divide within digital humanities where the conference organizers and proposal reviewers might reflect a more limited sense of the field than those who are now proposing. In other words, the field perhaps expanding in unpredicted ways.

The irony of course is that the theme for this year's conference is "Big Tent Digital Humanities." They list the following potential topics (and I quote):

  • research issues, including data mining, information design and modelling, software studies, and humanities research enabled through the digital medium;
  • computer-based research and computer applications in literary, linguistic, cultural and historical studies, including electronic literature, public humanities, and interdisciplinary aspects of modern scholarship. Some examples might be text analysis, corpora, corpus linguistics, language processing, language learning, and endangered languages;
  • the digital arts, architecture, music, film, theater, new media, and related areas;
  • the creation and curation of humanities digital resources;
  • the role of digital humanities in academic curricula;

These are all reasonable areas of research in my view, and I believe they represent what I consider to be a traditional and conservative conception of the digital humanities that can be safely reduced to this question: how can we use digital technologies to do the already-identified work of the humanities?

That said, there are some obvious missing parts. In a recent ADE article answering the question "What is the digital humanites and what's it doing in English departments?", Matthew Kirschenbaum identifies computers and composition as one of five or six longstanding examples of the digital humanities in English. Indeed, the subfield has been around for 30 years, really since the advent of the PC and its appearance as an available tool for writing. However, I don't believe you'll find computers and composition in digital humanities journals or conferences. And this goes both directions, last year on the TechRhet listserv (an email list of rhetoricians who study technology), I asked how people felt about the term "digital humanities," if they identified with it, and how they saw it in relation to our work. From the responses I saw, most computers and composition people don't identify with the term, except perhaps tactically (rhetorically) when they believe saying they do "digital humanities" helps people put their work in a humanistic context.

In fact, I think it is safe to say a fair number of rhetoricians do not identify with the humanities. This has to do with the long history of rhetoric in the humanities and its poor treatment in the 20th century, especially in English departments. In my view, the "crisis" the humanities face today is in no small part due to its misguided belief that it could abandon rhetoric and hence abandon its commitment to public-civic discourse and pedagogy. But that's a discussion for another day.

The other significant part of the digital humanities that is not captured in this call is the humanistic investigation of digital technoculture: no mention of games studies, social media, or mobile technology. In other words, no mention of the significant digital technologies and practices that are transforming human experience on a global scale. No, instead, we're going to talk about writing software to analyze hundreds of out of print literary texts that no one can even name. Admittedly that last sentence may seem derisive, and honestly I don't have a problem with scholars who want to pursue such research. However, I do believe that when we prioritize such projects while not even mentioning any study of the powerful ways that digital technologies are changing the world, then we are collectively missing the mark by a wiiiiide margin.

No doubt there are other conferences that address these other concerns. Computers and Writing is a great conference. There are dozens of games and digital media conferences. I am just perplexed by the digital humanities decision to define themselves in this way. When the 4humanities group seeks to use the digital humanities to advocate for the humanities in general, I think it's first and best argument would be that the humanities can address questions about this digital world that people care about. When HASTAC poses a question like the following:

What would our research, technology design, and thinking look like if we took seriously the momentous opportunities and challenges for learning posed by our digital era?  What happens when we stop privileging traditional ways of organizing knowledge (by fields, disciplines, and majors or minors) and turn attention instead to alternative modes of creating, innovating, and critiquing that better address the interconnected, interactive global nature of knowledge today, both in the classroom and beyond?

Shouldn't the "digital humanities" seek to answer?

When the Horizon Report observes "Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession," and identifies this as the number one critical challenge facing higher education in terms of technology, shouldn't this at least be a topic of discussion for the digital humanities?

Or perhaps humanists, digital and otherwise, would prefer to cede questions of literacy, pedagogy, and contemporary media to other non-humanistic or quasi-humanistic fields. After all there are plenty of well-recognized fields like education and communications that were once clearly in the humanities but now are not. Then there are new fields like games studies, digital media study, professional writing, and so on ready to answer these questions and are probably not concerned with whether or not anyone calls them "humanities."

I do think of myself as a digital humanist. I sit on the steering committee for UB's digital humanities initiative. However to name myself such is to make an argument against the grain. I've been researching and publishing on digital technologies for at least a decade: the Internet, social media, mobile technologies, video games, etc. I have drawn heavily on philosophy, rhetoric, and cultural studies to do this work: Deleuze and post-Deleuzian theory in particular. My work is clearly NOT social scientific: I don't conduct quantitiative studies of any kind, though sometimes I reference such studies. In short, my work is clearly on the subject of digital media and clearly employs humanistic methods.

If my work isn't "digital humanities" what is it? And yet, it is difficult to put it in conversation with the kinds of work characterized by the conference call above. So I think there is a genuine divide and I'm not sure how/if it gets reconciled. 

More on this topic in my next post.