Digital humanities, the

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Digital humanities, the

Digital humanities, the: A scholarly movement that integrates computing and various scholarly disciplines, especially but not exclusively those traditionally associated with the humanities, and thereby enables new forms and methods of scholarship. Although there is much debate about the definition of the digital humanities, proponents generally embrace new media and information technologies; multimedia and project approaches to their subjects; tools such as crowdsourcing, data mining, and image-based computing; an interest in design, tool-building, and curation; a commitment to open access; and collaborative, interdisciplinary work, not only within academia but also with cultural heritage entities such as archives, libraries, and museums. The digital humanities also manifest a propensity toward social critique that likely arises from what the authors of A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities (2012) call “a sense of shared identity and of belonging to a broader research community.”

The development of the digital humanities, or humanities computing as it was called until about 2004, was made possible, generally speaking, by the development of mainframe and personal computers and the World Wide Web and, more specifically, by the development of hypertext and the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). Hypertext, which emerged in the 1960s, is a retrieval network or database system that permits users to access other places within a given document or other documents (or sites) by clicking on a link. The TEI, which was undertaken in 1987 and led to the publication of the TEI Guidelines in 1994, stemmed from the pressing need for a standard coding scheme for electronic humanities texts.

The earliest pioneer of humanities computing was Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit scholar who sought to create a concordance (i.e., an alphabetical, word-based index) to the works of Thomas Aquinas. After enlisting IBM’s assistance in 1949, Busa created the Index Thomisticus, producing a machine-generated concordance of Aquinas’s poetry in 1951 as proof of concept and completing the index in 1980; a searchable, web-based version debuted in 2005. Following Busa’s pioneering work, scholars in the fields of linguistics and stylistics conducted computer studies of digitized, print-based texts, often to determine and identify authorship. For the first time, machine translation of one language into another became not only possible but relatively accurate. Recently, more sophisticated text-analysis tools, such as Text Analyzer and Voyeur, have allowed digital humanists to determine the frequency with which topics arise in large databases (such as Google Books) and to make lists not only of key terms but also of all the locations in which they appear together.

Humanities computing provided scholars with access not only to digitized versions of traditional printed materials but also to databases containing relevant visual and audio texts. Two databases developed during the 1990s, both devoted to the works of multi-media artists, were particularly influential. The first, Jerome J. McGann’s “hypermedia environment” archival edition of The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, planned in 1993 and available over the World Wide Web, is now viewed as foundational. The second, The William Blake Archive, brings together the texts and images of a poet-engraver who often rendered his words pictorially and whose pictures often framed words. Editors Morris Eaves, Robert Essick, and Joseph Viscomi developed the archive in 1996 to “restore historical balance” between the textual and visual sides of Blake’s work “through the syntheses made possible by the electronic medium” and thereby to bring about “the editorial transformation” of Blake scholarship.

The potential difference between digital and traditional humanities scholarship was foreseen by American information technology pioneer Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext in 1963 and later explained: “Let me introduce the word ’hypertext’ to mean a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper” (“A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate” [1965]). Further, the shift from humanities computing to digital humanities, which editors Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemans, and John Unsworth applied in their A Companion to Digital Humanities (2004), put the emphasis on humanities rather than computing. Others soon followed suit, believing that the old term reduced an epistemological paradigm shift to tools and procedures, mere digitization. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick explained in “The Humanities, Done Digitally” (2011), “Digital humanities … grows specifically out of an attempt to make ’humanities computing,’ which sounded as though the emphasis lay on the technology, more palatable to humanists in general.”

Once seen as a niche within humanistic scholarship, the broad potential of the digital humanities became apparent at the 2009 convention of the Modern Language Association of America. William Pannapacker hailed it as “the first ’next big thing’ in a long time” in “The MLA and the Digital Humanities” (2009), and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum called it “big news” in his essay “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” (2010). Digital humanists were beginning to upend longstanding notions not only about learning and teaching but also about the production, representation, and organization of knowledge, thereby raising new questions for philosophical theorists and cultural critics alike. Since then, vast data mining projects have utilized Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications to map and visualize cultural data sets (e.g., word clouds) and to develop maker labs, whether real places or virtual spaces in which scholars can learn to use new technology and equipment and get help with research projects.

The development of humanities computing and its evolution into the digital humanities has been transformational for both scholarly practices and the scholarship produced. First, digital humanists, unlike predecessors whose work was often solitary and dependent upon physical travel, often work collaboratively in groups unified by common interests and are never more than a few keystrokes away from libraries, museums, and archives, no matter how geographically distant. Second, digital humanists’ scholarship is often itself hypertextual, presenting materials in a nonlinear, nonsequential way that allows users to jump within and among linked documents and sites in accordance with their own interests.

Further, the digital humanities are often seen as challenging the status quo, as paradigm-shifting or even revolutionary. For instance, in “The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality” (2012), literary theorist Stanley Fish described the digital humanities as rejecting conventional notions regarding “pre-eminence, authority and disciplinary power.” The automation of content analysis has proved particularly powerful, providing new tools for the detection of bias: bias for and against certain topics, gender and racial bias, and even attitudinal changes reflected over time in the Twitter postings of a vast populace. The detection of bias in favor of research conducted at well-funded universities has also allowed digital humanists to critique the priorities of traditional academic institutions, as reflected in the bias of the tenure system toward scholarly publication in juried journals and university presses and against online publication.

Even as the digital humanities facilitate social and cultural critique, they simultaneously allow for a critique of digital humanities practices. Bearing in mind that the digital humanities movement is one whose practitioners are still predominantly white, male, and relatively affluent, various digital humanists have called attention to diversity issues. For instance, in “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon” (2012), Amy E. Earhart posited the “need to examine the canon that we, as digital humanists, are constructing, a canon that skews toward traditional texts and excludes crucial work by women, people of color, and the GLBTQ community.” Similarly, digital humanists have ventured into the field of disability studies, exposing the biases hard-wired into computers (and detectible in software). As George H. Williams pointed out in “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities” (2012), “many of the otherwise most valuable digital resources are useless for people who are — for example — deaf or hard of hearing, as well as for people who are blind, have low vision, or have difficulty distinguishing particular colors.” The propensity toward social critique that includes self-critique is surely grounded in the “sense of shared identity and of belonging to a broader research community” that arises when people work together on projects being carried out at a range of institutions otherwise separated by geographic, political, and cultural differences.