Digital Humanities and Me

I found myself unsure of exactly what to expect in this course, since I couldn’t wrap my head around what digital humanities really means. Luckily, it seems that I’m in good company. Both Matthew G. Kirschenbaum in his article “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?” and Kenneth M. Price and Ray Siemens in their Introduction to Literary Studies in the Digital Age attempt definitions for digital humanities, and even those proffered definitions seem to be disputed in some circles, which became evident as I began to dive into the LARB interviews. The header to the interviews posits that “‘digital humanities’ seems astoundingly inappropriate for an area of study that includes, on one hand, computational research, digital reading and writing platforms, digital pedagogy, open-access publishing, augmented texts, and literary databases, and on the other, media archeology and theories of networks, gaming, and wares both hard and soft.” This seems fair to say about a field that is growing by the day and is encompassing so many different disciplines. It’s tough to define something that contains seemingly infinite possibilities. However, the ideas expressed in the readings that I completed this week about digital humanities certainly supported, challenged, and enhanced my ideas of how to approach English studies and pedagogy.

In general, I like to consider myself technologically-inclined. I regularly incorporate emerging technologies into my classrooms: Facebook, Twitter, Prezi, etc. To that end, a lot of what I read supported my vague ideas about digital humanities.

In Alan Liu’s chapter in Literary Studies in the Digital Age, “From Reading to Social Computing,” he suggests that the rise of the Web reflects the changes in the way we read. As literary theory was gaining popularity in the areas of reader-response and deconstructionism, both of which rely on the reader for interpretation, so the Internet was increasingly allowing readers to respond to texts. Thus, digital humanities naturally grew from the fields of theory that were already being cultivated. One can say, then, that perhaps the Internet didn’t change the way we read, but we changed the way we use the Internet. We have this amazing resource at our fingertips, and it only makes sense that we utilize it to the best of our abilities, pushing boundaries at times.

Liu goes on to explain, “[T]he stake for literary studies in the digital age is not first of all technological. It is to follow the living language of human thought, hope, love, desire—hate, too—wherever it goes and wherever it has the capacity to be literary, even if the form, style, or grammar of such literariness does not always conform to canonical standards” (Liu para 26). Thus, if we spend an increasing amount of time on the Internet and computer, our careers, passions, and hobbies should be changed to take on that form. And whatever “reading” is for you, a career, a passion, or a hobby, there is an Internet- or computer-based option to pursue it. It only makes sense that those things we hold most highly would take on whatever form of communication is popular.

However, there were certainly things I read that challenged my thoughts about English studies and pedagogy, and some of it makes me a bit uneasy about the change. The sheer breadth of information is unsettling. Coming from someone who very much enjoys checking things off and deeming them “complete,” I am beginning to understand that an interactive text online can really never be complete. For example, when reading a few chapters from Literary Studies in the Digital Age, I was also reading the comments that users have left for each paragraph. So, I’m not just reading paragraph 24, but also the three user-submitted comments on paragraph 24. Even if I were to read all the paragraphs and every comment, it is likely that more comments will be made in the future. My question, and concern, is how to keep up with it all? This again links back to the idea we spoke about in class of the disappearance of mastery. One can read the canon, as it has been commonly accepted, and say, “Yes, I have mastered the canon.” But now that the idea of a few texts being representative of a whole genre or time period is being challenged, the mastery is gone. Since digital humanities naturally calls for a constant re-examination of texts and literature and theory, nothing is standard or stable. Thus, there is nothing to point to or “check off” and say, “Done!” This is something that people will need to get used to as the field continues to grow.

The influence and importance of digital media in the classroom is also operating on the assumption that our students are computer-literate. Many, most even, may well be, but not all students have age or money on their side; I see many students who grew up before the “tech age” or who do not have a computer in their houses. Do English instructors then have a responsibility to teach our students how to use technology? If so, that infringes on precious class time and eats up a good portion of instruction. As English teachers, we assume that all our college-level students can read and write to some degree—and even that is challenged at times. But to now assume that they are computer-literate … is it asking too much? Alexander Galloway points this out in his LARB interview when he says, “We have a two-culture problem: the humanities and the sciences have been connected and disconnected in various ways for a long time, and it is a lot of demand of a student (or anyone) to say ‘be good in both of these areas.'” I ran into these issues with my own class a couple of years ago when we integrated Twitter into the classroom. Many students did not have a Twitter, and some did not have a smartphone or regularly check social media. It was a challenge to get everyone on the same page.

And more than just being able to use the computer, digital humanities may necessitate the knowledge to manipulate the program or data. This is a question that Melissa Dinsman poses to her interviewees at LARB:  “Do you think full engagement with the digital humanities requires programming skills, and if so, should programming become a requirement for humanities students?” Like the definition of digital humanities, it seems difficult to pin-point a “right” answer to the question. Richard Grusin, for example, suggests that it may be a good idea to learn to program, or script: “if, in fact, to solve that problem or to accomplish whatever that research agenda is you need certain skills, then I think you should get those skills.” Jessica Marie Johnson, on the other hand, does not feel that these are necessary skills in the field of digital humanities. Useful, yes, but not necessary. But Laura Mandell states it most definitively when she says, “I do think people need to have experience, if not with coding, then with infrastructure development, with making things work.” Mandell explains, “I teach XML in my sophomore writing class.” This requirement makes the field of digital humanities that much more polarizing and harder to break into. And of course it begs the question of which discipline it is then most at home in: information technology or the humanities? Not everyone has the knowledge or time to teach XML in their writing classes. Furthermore, Jessica Marie Johnson, in her interview, encourages instructors to think outside of the hard-copy, printed paper that is so often required for a grade. That, too, will take a restructuring that won’t happen overnight. Instructors are also at times unfamiliar with these emerging technologies. Does the burden, then, fall on the university to train the instructors, which will then trickle down to the students?

But there is more than just a specific benchmark of technological knowledge that is required. Once we have gathered our data, we need to know what to do with it. Digital humanities is exceptional in that it can take the textual and make it visual. In fact, the opening image on my blog is a word cloud that was generated when I plugged Kirschenbaum’s article into an online generator. But more than just looking pretty or giving us a general idea of what an article focuses on, digital humanists need to know what to do with all of this information. Laura Mandell says, “Visualization is a way to amplify cognition, but it is not easy to do. We need to figure out not only how to visualize our data, but also how to read it. We know how to read texts, but we don’t know how to read statistics or data visualizations and I think some of the ways in which data mining results are being read—even at the Stanford Literary Lab—are not correct. There are whole fields in statistics and visual studies that we need to take advantage of. We need to get involved in learning these disciplines in order to understand what we see.” Therefore, there is a long road ahead of us as we try to figure out what this all means and how we can use it to the best of our—and its—capabilities.

Overall, though, I feel that there is no doubt that digital humanities will enhance English studies and pedagogy. It is clear that the focus of digital humanities is on collaboration, which can only lead to a better product. Peer review is not a new concept, and it is, in fact, a tool we use to measure the usefulness of a text: has it been peer reviewed and accepted? Even in composition classes, we focus on the importance of peer review for our papers. We stress again and again that two sets of eyes are better than one—well, what about hundreds of sets of eyes? Price and Siemens write about the open peer review process that was launched by Shakespeare Quarterly. Shakespeare Quarterly posted online a number of articles that it was considering for publication, eliciting the public to view these articles and suggest revisions. This is just one small example of the many ways that the Internet is being used as a method of collaboration and partnership.

So while a PhD in English may be particularly adept at analyzing the symbolism of the character names in Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” for example, a psychologist or anthropologist might know more about cult mentality in small towns. Or a priest might be able to help up better understand the significance of the three-legged stool. Literature is a field with a wealth of information and breadth of inquiry, such that—once again—mastery is becoming obsolete. The collaboration that is organic to the digital humanities may be one answer to this.

I regularly use Google Docs with my students, which allows me to make suggestions and comments in real-time, while they can go ahead and address those issues or ask me a question. It’s wonderfully useful, and I look forward to figuring out better ways to help students learn in the future. Digital humanities will also help both me and my students look at literature differently. It is a way to bring literature into the 21st century and beyond. Literature comes out of the stuffy library and into a dynamic and collaborate environment. “Digital literary studies is characterized not by the guardedness so often seen in the academy, but by a culture of sharing and exchange” (Price and Siemens para 17). It is more accessible, more user-friendly, and more interactive than ever before, which both students and instructors can appreciate.

Liu explains a LiveJournal project that he assigned his students in 2008. Students were required to create blogs for each character of The Canterbury Tales and interact with one another as if they were those characters. The discovery was that “the framework of social interaction and discourse that Chaucer created has a remarkable affinity to today’s blogosphere—even to the point that the rudeness, ‘flames,’ baitings from ‘trolls,’ and other apparent debasements and provocations of language typifying the extremes of the blogosphere can be understood to be Chaucerian in ethos” (para 43). Thus, perhaps technology is not entirely new or out of the literary realm. Perhaps it is over 500 years in the making.

Works Cited

Galloway, Melissa Dinsman interviews, Alexander R. “The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Alexander Galloway.” Los Angeles Review of Books. Web. 5 Sept. 2016.

Grusin, Melissa Dinsman interviews Richard. “The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Richard Grusin.” Los Angeles Review of Books. Web. 5 Sept. 2016.

Johnson, Melissa Dinsman interviews Jessica Marie. “The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Jessica Marie Johnson.” Los Angeles Review of Books. Web. 5 Sept. 2016.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin (2010): 55–61. CrossRef. Web.

Liu, Alan. “From Reading to Social Computing.” Literary Studies in the Digital Age. Ed. Kenneth M. Price and Ray Siemens. Modern Language Association of America, 2013. CrossRef. Web. 4 Sept. 2016.

Price, Kenneth M., and Ray Siemens. “Introduction.” Literary Studies in the Digital Age. Ed. Kenneth M. Price and Ray Siemens. Modern Language Association of America, 2013. CrossRef. Web. 3 Sept. 2016.

“The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Laura Mandell – Los Angeles Review of Books.” Web. 5 Sept. 2016.



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