What is Digital Humanities?

The coalescence of Digital Humanities as a field, a discipline, even (at some institutions) a degree-granting department has been a hot topic lately. Inevitably, a few questions float to the top: What will be our standards, and who will decide them? How can we implement peer-review structures into our project work? What is our canon?

And, perhaps the question I hear most often, even from colleagues in the field: What is Digital Humanities, anyway?

The ACLS report that Madeleine talked about in the previous post was a first step towards developing a cyberinfrastructure that allows collaboration among scholars across the humanities; over the past year, projects like Bamboo, in which HyperStudio is involved, have followed up with a series of workshops that encourage scholars to think through these questions in a sustained and rigorous way. All of this buzz around has sparked some thoughtful commentary on what this all means, and where we’re going. I’d like to gather some recent favorites:

For me, a key sign of the DH’s emergence came when the NEH transformed the Digital Humanities Initiative into the Office of Digital Humanities (ODH), signaling the significance of the “digital” to humanities scholarship.  After the office was established, Inside Higher Ed noted in “Rise of the Digital NEH” that what had been a “grassroots movement” was attracting funding and developing “organizational structure.”  Establishing the ODH gave credibility to an emerging field (discipline? methodology?).

  • Matthew Kirschenbaum has written an excellent and very thoughtful article for the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Hello Worlds: Why humanities students should learn to program.” While not explicitly addressing the project work of digital humanities, he gets at the heart of why computing matters for humanities.

It used to be that we in English departments were fond of saying there was nothing outside of the text. Increasingly, though, texts take the form of worlds as much as words. Worlds are emerging as the consummate genre of the new century, whether it’s the virtual worlds of Second Life or World of Warcraft or the more specialized venues seen in high-end simulation and visualization environments. Virtual worlds will be to the new century what cinema was to the last one and the novel to the century before that.

Importantly, “world” here means something very much like model, a selective and premeditated representation of reality, where some elements of the real are emphasized and exaggerated, others are distorted and caricatured, still others are absent altogether. Virtual worlds are interactive, manipulable, extensible; they are not necessarily games, though they may support and contain games alongside other systems. Virtual worlds are sites of exploration, simulation, play. We will want many virtual worlds, not few, because reality can be sliced and sampled in an infinite variety of ways.

  • Robert Darnton has recently another article on “Google & the Future of Books” in light of the recent settlement between Google and publishers. As he points out, Google took the initiative in digitizing our world’s collections; but it also maintains a somewhat frightening monopoly.

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One Response to “What is Digital Humanities?”

  1. ekspekt Says:

    interesting post, will come back here, bookmarked your site

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