The Definition Debate

Within the past week, I have been thinking quite a bit about the definition of digital humanities. I try to explain the class to my friends, and I used to struggle to find the word to describe exactly what the mission and idea of the class was. The conversation would mostly end in frustration and me simply saying: “We play on computers and build things.”

When you get down to it, this is not entirely wrong.

Of course, there’s the larger discussion of Web 2.0, our responsibility on the internet, the collection and distribution of knowledge, coding, and so many other things. Maybe the integration of many components is the reason why it’s difficult for people to define it. Maybe it’s because it’s a field that is rapidly expanding and changing with new discoveries.

I believe that it is important to not limit digital humanities to one static definition. It’s important for the community to keep an open mind and let the field develop and grow. It’s easy to get so caught up in what we want things to be, that we don’t always see what they can be. Perhaps the way that we can help define the field without limiting exploration is showing those who ask what digital humanities is, what it is. And letting them play and discover on their on. We could set out the tools for them, the websites to explore, and guide when necessary. But the discovery is all part of it. In education, we teach by modeling, instructing, and letting students practice in groups and then on their own. So that is the way I propose we define it to those who don’t know: let them find out on their own.

Because, at the end of the day, I think that digital humanities is something people need to experience to fully understand. And what a wonderful thing to experience. I have learned more than I thought I would in the past three weeks, and I have become part of a community (shout out to Twitter). It’s similar to any academic community: you can try to define it all you want, but you really need to experience it to understand what it means. One could say that Twitter is a part of what digital humanities is. However, there aren’t words for when you Tweet a question and get a response from someone you’ve never met. It is incredibly exciting and slightly overwhelming. But mostly amazing. And it is all part of the individual practice of discovering digital humanities.

Overall, it is easy to get bogged down by the definition debate that exists in many different fields (see: “feminism,” “postcolonial,” etc.). However, it is important in a rapidly expanding field such as digital humanities to not let the definition of the field consume us. Instead we must look to the future and teach others about digital humanities through letting those new to the field discover the wonders of the community firsthand. Then, hopefully they will be able to help us add to the definition of digital humanities.


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