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A Digital Humanities Rant

I've been looking through digital humanities conference programmes lately (DH2008 and SDH/SEMI 2008 to be precise), and I'm a bit frustrated. It's an old frustration I've had with the digital humanities, in that there's far too much of a focus on the 'digital' and not enough on the 'humanities'.

I started my MA in Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta in 2003. It sounded like an interesting program (and, thanks to my profs it was) at the time. I quickly learned, however, that one of the things computing humanists are most interested in is text analysis. Word counts, concordances, keywords in context, tagging... everyone's focused on what we can do when we mix up words and silicon. We spent a fair amount of time learning about technologies: XML, statistics programs, GIS, text analysis portals, and the like.

It's just as apparent today how deeply the digital humanities field is mired in text analysis and text visualization. Looking at the SDH/SEMI program, the bulk of the papers cover these two fields, and DH2008 is almost solely dedicated to the topic. The programs are full of titles like "The Margins of an Infinite Page: Paratext Display in Digital Online Editions", "The pragmatics of a thesaurus-based multilingual information retrieval system", and "Feature Creep: Evaluating feature sets for text mining literary corpora".

What isn't getting as much time in coverage is what all this focus on text analysis and visualization is doing to us as scholars. Nor are we spending sufficient time on digital literatures and digital culture; it seems like it's all about what tools we can build and how much funding we can get for them.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying there isn't a place for text analysis and visualization. There has absolutely been some great work done in that space, including that done by my good friend Dr. Stan Ruecker. Even K is doing some work with the Monk Project's text analysis and visualization tools that are going to inform her own research. But I think that text analysis and visualization has had its day in the sun and should move over for the humanists in the digital humanities. There's signs that this might be happening, that the humanists in the group are pushing their way into conferences. The paper K and I are presenting at DH2008 is one of these, as is Sandra Buchmueller, Gesche Joost, and Rosan Chow's paper "The impact of digital interfaces on virtual gender images". But we're not there yet. Taking DH2008 as an example, there are 88 papers and panels in all. 75 of these are centered around building or using tools, while 13 are centered around more fuzzy topics, such as how those tools are affecting digital scholarship. There are only two papers (of the 13) that deal with actual humanities topics: the one K and I are giving (how interface and infrastructure are used to develop identity in bloggers, and how interface affects virtual gender identity).

It's not that there isn't good work being done on the Humanities side of Digital Humanities; Jill Walker and danah boyd are but two examples of what we can achieve. I think it's just that the text analysis folks have ruled the roost for too long and have defined digital humanities to suit their own research needs. We need to start rocking the boat, shaking the tree - whatever epithet works best for you - and start pushing our own research interests. There is a lot of work to be done in studying digital culture and literature, and it isn't going to get done through metadata or cluster diagrams alone.

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4 Comments

Hi. Thanks for this. I write about the humanities for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and I've been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of the digital and the humanities components of digital humanities. So it was great to come across your rant--which is a very thoughtful one.

I'd be curious to see a copy of the paper you gave at DH2008 if you feel like sharing it. Are you teaching somewhere at the moment?

Thanks for the comment Jennifer - it's good to know I'm not ranting into the wind, as it were. As I said in the rant, I think it's high time we start pushing the issue and get some humanism back into the digital humanities. Given that I'm not an instructor (I provide web development and project coordination for the research faculty at Athabasca University, and I am continuing my MA research independently) I can't start influencing students, so I guess that rant will have to do for now, unless there's a Notes & Queries equivalent for the digital humanities.

I'll be giving my paper in Finland on June 28th, and will post a PDF of the slides to my website some time after that. The talk is based on the first chapter of my MA thesis, which will also go to the site around that time. I posted the introductory chapter earlier; if you're interested, you can read it here.

This is the kind of discussion for which we have set up "Issues in Humanities Computing" on the Digital Humanities Quarterly website. If you want to organize your rant in a slightly more structured form, we would be happy to consider it for publication, which would guarantee you a worldwide, permanent audience and perhaps start some useful dialog on this fundamental issue.

Thanks Joe - I'd be honoured. I'll send something after the conference, and perhaps I'll bump into you there.

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