Yesterday I drove over to the University of Houston for the first meeting of a Digital Humanities Reading Group there. The articles under discussion were:
- Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” (online)
- Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “The Humanities, Done Digitally” (online)
- Rafael Alvarado, “The Digital Humanities Situation” (online
All three articles were drawn from an anthology called Debates in the Digital Humanities, and they prompted some very interesting discussion.
Much of the conversation at the outset resolved around the question: “What is the Digital Humanities?” Do we even need to define it? Most of those in attendance agreed in favoring a “big tent” definition capacious enough to include even the “medievalist with a website” (an example mentioned in Fitzpatrick’s article). But we also discussed good reasons for coming up with a more rigorous definition of the term “digital humanities.”
Some of most important reasons mentioned were pragmatic; in an academic environment where resources are often scarce, being able to explain what differentiates a field from others can be important for funding, tenure and promotion, and so on. Conversely, one needs to be able to explain how an interdisciplinary field like digital humanities connects several fields together; one reading group member drew an analogy between digital humanities and “cognitive science” as two interdisciplinary fields of inquiry that sometimes struggle to explain what methods, content, and goals bind them together.
At the same time, the articles also raised some questions that don’t immediately relate to the academic status of digital humanities. Questions like, “what makes a digital humanist different from a computer scientist,” as one of the members of the U of H reading group put it. Since digitizing texts automatically changes the context in which those texts appear, even if the content is identical, how should humanists approach a digital object—merely as a convenient tool? Or also, as Alvarado suggests, as a “text” and a “metaphor”?
Finally, we spent some time talking about what surprised us in these readings. One reader mentioned being surprised by a lack of the triumphalist or utopian rhetoric about the Internet that seemed common in the early days of the web, an observation which comports with Stephen Ramsay’s sense that the Debates in the Digital Humanities is characterized more by a sense of anxiety than hope. What about you? Does anything about the articles we discussed, or the discussion that followed, surprise you?