Digital Humanities at U of H

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?

3 Responses to Digital Humanities at U of H

  1. The makeup of the UH reading group Friday was about 10-12 humanists, 2 librarians, and myself, (an IT/Library tweener basically, run the Art History Dept’s image database and have an MLS). Prof. McDaniels and myself were the only Rice people there. It seems to me that Academic Libraries are positioned to become the resource-support providers for digital humanities, but I think that structure will also need to include technologists and yes, computer scientists.
    I see two basic types of production generated by Digital Humanities – research work created by scholars that uses digital tools to analyze materials, and digital publishing projects that present information in an accessible format to the wider community both scholarly and otherwise. These can be major multidisciplinary projects. An example of this kind of project is “Mapping Gothic France” from Vassar and Columbia (http://mappinggothic.org/), described as
    “A joint project from the Media Center for Art History at Columbia University and the Art Department at Vassar College, Mapping Gothic France is a visual exploration of the parallel narratives of Gothic architecture and the formation of France. The site, currently in beta, includes databases of images, texts, charts and historic maps, allowing users to triangulate French political and architectural history geospatially and temporally in addition to offering a narrativized accounting of France’s Gothic structures.” (http://soa.utexas.edu/vrc/blog/2012/04/mapping-gothic-france/)
    Obviously an ambitious project like this requires an entire team to realize and is not entirely a scholarly endeavor. Other aspects of it would involve project management, programming, database management, information architecture, and presentation design. Think of the credits rolling at the end of a movie, with a humanities professor taking the role of writer, director, producer depending on how you look at it.
    – Andrew Taylor, Assoc. Curator, Visual Resources, Dept. Art History

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  3. The computer scientist has a controlled plan. The digital humanist is the user. The user is often unaware of the scientists end-goals which can affect any plan of the user.  However, regardless of any user plan,  the user has less control over their Internet future.
    Yet, hold that thought. I believe the current digital state is about to have a major shift due to lawsuits and regulation  regarding privacy and TOS violations.
    I began using the Internet in the 1980s so I’m not sure what “early days” the reader was referr to. I can tell you there are new and upcoming networks that are entirely different than today’s twitter.  They are very interactive and engaging like the early days of twitter. Utopia Internet still exists, you just have to connect to the right subculture to recreate the past. 
    As a Houstonian, I look at social networks and various platforms like our night club industry. Some do very well but eventually…grand closing. 
    Please pardon any typos…I wrote this on my digital mobile device. *winks*