Sunday, January 9, 2011

On The Outside Looking In on the Digital Humanities

*I wrote this about a month ago and it was meant for the University of Venus. But given the "debate" going on at this year's MLA Conference (specifically the panel #openprof and #newtools, and in particular the post on the Chronicle Brainstorm blog), I thought I would share my own perspective as an "outside" looking in (and trying to figure out how I fit in).

When I started my PhD, there was a new program just getting started, called Humanities Computing. Students in the program pursued Masters degrees, taking a mixture of HuCo (as it was called) classes and classes from their “home” humanities department. There were a few students in Comparative Literature who were pursuing a Masters in HuCo. The rest of us had come from traditional literature departments, and we viewed our HuCo classmates with curiosity. What, exactly, are you doing?

One student analyzed a short story according to how many times certain words occurred in the story and at what points. He proudly showed us the graphs he plotted and showed that the graph exactly pinpointed the climax of the story. We all nodded impressively, but wondered to ourselves if you couldn’t figure it out with a good close reading. We also wondered how this could possibly compare to the complex theoretical readings we were doing, which was obviously more intellectually strenuous.

One thing stuck with me, though. When I asked the HuCo student what he could do with his degree, he told me that he had already received a number of lucrative job offered. The technological and analytical skills he was acquiring was in high demand. So much for our intellectual superiority.

There has been an explosion in interest in the digital humanities. Say what you will about the decline in traditional print media, but it still stands to reason that when the old Grey Lady, the New York Times, features something, it means it has hit the mainstream. And so it would seem that the digital humanities have hit the big time, such as it is. (And yes, I do see the irony in this).

Despite my initial condescension towards (one) idea of what digital humanities is, my own dissertation benefited from the increased digital availability of electronic archival resources. I would never had known about the various archives I visited, in which I found never-before analyzed letters and drafts, had it not been for the electronic availability of searchable archive databases (and Google). And, while I loved going through the old letters and manuscripts, if the materials had been completely digitized, I would have been able to avoid taking out a $10,000 line-of-credit in order to pay for the travel to the archives so I could complete my research.

But some skepticism still remains. Recently, a video made the rounds, questioning the sanity of any student who would look to do a PhD in Political Science. The student wants to study politics; the professor warns that the student will spend his days doing “regression discontinuity.”  My husband has a PhD in Political Science and I know first-hand the pressure he faced to do more quantitative research, rather than the qualitative work that he loves. I worry that this is the direction that the digital humanities will take all of the humanities.

I love the idea of making documents (aka data) of all kinds more accessible to interested parties (and not just “scholars”), as well as discovering more innovative ways of presenting the data. But I hope that we haven’t moved into a “post-theoretical age” in that we go back to a time where simply making an observation was good enough, even with the help of a computer.  We still need the theorists to help us interpret the increasing amount of “data” we are able to access and reorganize.  As was asked here on Inside Higher Ed, where are the humanities in the digital humanities?

Finally, I worry that there will be an even larger generation of “lost scholars” than there already is. We know the number of tenure-track jobs in the humanities is dwindling. What happens to academics whose traditional academic training has left them entirely ill equipped to compete for the new (if still tiny) number of jobs that are available. Do we go and get another PhD?  Try to radically reframe our research interests to fit a rapidly evolving field? Or just give up?

For me, I have the luxury of being able to try to adapt. Can I create a website/database that allows readers and researchers to more fully explore the inter- and intra-textual references that an author has across their writing and other artistic output, one that is crowdsoured? I have no idea. I am still on the outside of the digital humanities, trying to hack my way in (haha). But I have some stability in order to explore the theoretical questions and technical aspects of the project. What of the adjunct teaching an overload of classes at multiple institutions? I hope there’s space for all of us at the increasingly small table. 

1 comment:

  1. There might be more than one table. And we can bring our own chairs.

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