Defining DH: There’s Never One Right Answer Anyway

I believe that people, in general, like to define ideas, concepts, etc. When we define these things, it can help us to begin to understand them. We can talk about them. We can study them. The definition of Digital Humanities may not be a concern for those who are currently participating in the discipline; however, for the people who may be interested in Digital Humanities, the definition or lack there of could be so important.

Having to define Digital Humanities was a problem that I ran into when I told people I was taking this class. Everyone I told seemed really interested and wanted to know more about it. The problem was that I wasn’t really sure how to explain it; I barely had an idea of what the class would be like myself. I love technology, and I love reading and studying literature. I knew that they are combined some way in Digital Humanities, but I wasn’t sure what that looked like. I was invested enough to pursue it further, but I wonder how many people don’t pursue studying DH because they don’t know what it is.

There is the worry of limiting exploration of DH by defining it; however, I’d argue that it may be important to try to define it anyways. The definition of DH doesn’t have to be concrete and static. It can be a dynamic, fluid definition that allows for change and adaptation. We’re English majors; we don’t prescribe to the idea of one right answer anyways. There isn’t one way to read a novel. Why would there be only one way to define the discipline of DH. It is a field of study that is still  growing and shifting. That is the beauty in it. Everyone who participates in DH has the capability and possibility to shape the study of it all.

After gaining some more experience and background information about DH, I think I would define DH as the intersection of technology and humanities studies. DH asks the question: how can we use the tools and uniqueness of technology to expand our studies of humanities? DH pushes us to think of new and unique ways to present arguments and share research. The study of DH allows for more access to academic work and even more fun with it. The tools and projects that digital humanists are making bring humanities studies into the technological world. It allows for the possibility to expand the study of literature beyond the reading and writing that is currently the focus. Don’t get me wrong, the reading and writing are still so important; however, DH creates a space for the humanities disciplines to grow.

The space that DH creates is one that excites me. The more I learn about it the more excited I get. It would be a shame if someone was turned away from DH because they couldn’t find a good definition of it. While the fear of limiting the expansion of DH by defining it is valid, I think the bigger concern would be limiting the people who participate in DH by not offering at least some stable ground to stand on.

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“Migrating to Google”

I just got an email from my former institution’s IT department notifying me that all files stored in their cloud storage platform would be migrating to Google Drive over Spring Break. Just as the birds migrate to warmer climes, so do my files move to a more user-friendly and familiar platform. Home terrain. Comfort zone. Frustration free. Ah, Google.

I wonder what files of mine still exist on that institutional storage platform, as I long ago lost the login information and never bothered to reclaim it. I wonder too about those digital traces that I’ve left elsewhere, at another university several thousand miles away. Like the imprint of the self left on the skin of the city by the psychogeographer, urban wanderer, Woolfian seeker of pencils, a deCerteau-ian trace, I’ve left indentations in the digital fabric. The migration notification sparked me to think about how a move from a clunky, password protected, educational platform, upon which I’ve left files I don’t much worry over, to a streamlined, accessible platform where I’ve already got a presence, signals not only the importance of critically engaging with the intersections between the digital and human experiences of it, but also an implicit desire to de-silo the digital world, especially the world of the university. This seems like a really good thing. But, it also begs this question: if we all migrate to Google, learn and use its tools, build things with its platforms and resources, what does that imply about the future of our digital choices or lack thereof? Does de-siloing the flow of information within a university and into the world at large make sense? In broader terms, will migrating to Google mean losing an autonomous, creative, and independent focus on developing tools for DH research and pedagogy? What do the developers think?

It seems now is a pretty good time for digital humanists to return to some of the questions David M. Berry writes about in his 2011 essay, “The Computational Turn: Thinking about the Digital Humanities.” He suggests that a third wave of digital humanities might engage with getting truly collaborative and dismantling the hierarchy of knowledge dissemination and acquisition provided by the brick and mortar university. This new mode of thinking through the way information is remixed and remediated within born-digital environments should provide us (the humans) an opportunity to slow down and make space for pedagogical change and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Berry writes:

[R]easoning could shift to a more conceptual or communicative method of reasoning, for example, by bringing together comparative and communicative analysis from different disciplinary perspectives, and by knowing how to use technology to achieve a usable result – a rolling process of reflexive thinking and collaborative rethinking. Relying on technology in a more radically decentred way, depending on technical devices to fill in the blanks in our minds and to connect knowledge in new ways, would change our understanding of knowledge, wisdom and intelligence itself. (10)

How do we reconcile “de-centering” and “de-siloing”? As we continue to immerse ourselves both in creating born-digital content and thinking about how it alters our learning and collaborative possibilities on an every day level, let’s also be mindful about how we can engage the digital humanities to rethink persistent categories within, assumptions about, traditions, and expectations of higher learning.

Google University, anyone?