Book Review: Bridging the Digital and the Humanities

Digital_Humanities

Since I started this blog, I’ve focused on specific things like preservation, visualization, mapping and networking. Now that I’ve gotten a good knowledge base, I thought I’d take a step back and look at the entirety of the Digital Humanities field. Fortunately, there is a lot of good scholarship already on the topic. With such descriptions as “landmark publication” and “perfect summation” of the digital revolution in the humanities, the 2012 book Digital_Humanities immediately caught my eye. Turns out, such plaudits are not hyperbole.

The work provides a thorough account of the field with diverse perspectives, as five people from a variety of backgrounds co-wrote, -edited and -published the book. Of these five, two teach media design, one is an Information Studies professor, one is a Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature professor, and the fifth contributor teaches Romance Languages. Despite teaching at vastly different schools (UCLA, Art Center College of Design and Harvard) and in different fields, all five are heavily active in digital projects. The Authors chose to write from one voice, instead of each having a separate essay or chapter, since “the Digital Humanities remains at its core a profoundly collaborative enterprise” (ix). This collaboration, as we’ll see, is the key to Digital_Humanities.

Not surprisingly, the Authors are very much believers in the power and potential of the field of Digital Humanities (and yes they believe it’s a field and not just a method). According to the Authors, we’re currently at an exciting time in history, where the rise of the internet has allowed the humanities to take on a “vastly expanded creative role in public life” since Digital Humanities “is a global, trans-historical, and transmedia approach to knowledge and meaning-making.” Specifically, the model of digital humanities outlined in the book “moves design—information design, graphics, typography, formal and rhetorical patterning—to the center of the research questions that it poses” (8).  Thus, they conclude that “Digital Humanities has the potential to make a genuine difference” (131).

The concise book has four main chapters. The first chapter, “Humanities to Digital Humanities,” charts the recent history of the humanities, both immediately prior to, and now during, the digital revolution. The Authors argue that while the humanities have been thought to lack modern relevance, digital technologies have the ability to give new meaning. Specifically “with the migration of cultural materials into networked environments,” digital humanistic scholarship is “conspicuously collaborative.” This focus on cooperation “changes the culture of humanities work” by allowing different approaches to old topics, revitalizing the discipline (3). In fact, the Authors’ central thesis to Digital_Humanities is explicitly in the title: it’s the underscore connecting “digital” and “humanities.” For the Authors, the underscore serves as a “vital yoke and shifting signifier, one that presents the two concepts in a productive tension, without either becoming absorbed into the other” (ix).

The second chapter, “Emerging Methods and Genres” serves as a field map to the 15 different practices and methods within the field of the Digital Humanities. These range from Visualizations, to Cultural Analytics, to Large Scale projects, to Mapping to Code Studies and everything in between. Each is described quickly and efficient, yet completely.

The third “The Social Life of the Digital Humanities” discusses how these practices are effecting society. Though the other chapters, especially chapter 2, are more helpful illustrating what the Digital Humanities is, chapter 3 discusses why and how the Digital Humanities is significant. Yet again, this ties back to the collaboration of digital scholarship. Since networks are inherently “social technologies,” Digital Humanities has much different social roles than traditional scholarship. “New modes of knowledge formation in the digital humanities are dynamically linked to communities vastly larger and more diverse than those” of traditional approaches (75), the Authors argue. This ability to completely integrate scholarship with the wider world is what makes the “Digital_Humanities” (yoked together) so powerful.

Lastly, the fourth chapter, “Provocations” speculates on the future of the digital humanities. Specifically, it seeks to answer the basic question: If digital approaches are quickly becoming normal scholarly practices, will there be a point where “Digital Humanities” as a field no longer exists? In other words, will the underscore no longer matter in Digital_Humanities? To this, the Authors respond that the Digital Humanities must critically experiment going forward, and not remain in stasis. “Understood as a critical experimental practice, carried out in the public laboratory of a cultural commons, Digital Humanities is itself a work-in-progress as much as a future promise.” Furthermore, “the future course of the humanities will hinge upon informed and imaginative engagement with the historical forces that are shaping our times, our communities, and ourselves” (120). It goes without saying that digital methods will be the best chance to pursue that engagement.

Two other sections make the book more than just an abstract look at the field. The Authors discuss several fictional case studies of the various practices of Digital Humanities as described in Chapter 2. These case studies–made up so as not to pick “favorites” among current digital scholarship–are written like grant applications. There’s a short summary of the goals, more background on the project, a list of work plan areas, and finally dissemination and assessment of materials produced. These projects range from using mapping and text analysis to locate specific interactions between Europeans and Natives in the New World, to creating a virtual Afghan refugee camp. In addition, in perhaps the most useful seciton for students and professors alike, the Authors sum up the other chapters with a “Short Guide to the Digital Humanities” that has a FAQ and a list of specific areas where Digital Humanities is making an impact.

Overall, the book is instrumental in describing the burgeoning field of Digital Humanities. Though perhaps not quite geared to the general public, it does provide an excellent, in-depth analysis for those particularly interested in learning the ins and outs of Digital Humanities. In fact, I wish I had read it earlier since it is a great complement to my newly acquired knowledge.

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About Zach Klitzman

A History Grad student at American University

7 responses to “Book Review: Bridging the Digital and the Humanities”

  1. jbcapps says :

    Sounds like an interesting read, Zach. You mention that the authors clearly see the Digital Humanities as a field. Do they offer any compelling (new) arguments for those of us who see it as a method?

    • Zach says :

      Great question Joanna, though I’m afraid my answer is going to be a bit of a cop out. The Authors don’t really explicitly address the question of field vs. method. Instead, their attitude throughout the book is a holistic view of the “Digital Humanities” that certainly implies it’s a unified field, and not just a set of tools or approaches.

      It’s also obvious that they think it’s a field since they specifically refer to it as such. For example in the “Short Guide” section, instead of a complex bibliography they have a list of references and resources to check out, saying: “The book’s ideas are informed by a vast network of individuals, projects, and organizations that have built the [Digital Humanities] field as it exists today.”

      I guess the closest they come to explaining this thinking is the collaboration argument. Again, they view Digital Humanities as completely collaborative. Therefore, academics working together from diverse backgrounds are not just using digital tools or methods to advance their work, but they’re actually working together in an altogether new field, the Digital Humanities, in addition to whatever their actual training is in. This collaboration “has built the field of Digital Humanities as it exists today.”

      That said, they probably wouldn’t completely dismiss the idea that digital humanities can be used as a method. For example, if a historian uses mapping in a project, that doesn’t automatically means he’s a digital humanist if that’s the entirety of his use of digital practices. Instead, he has used a method to advance his work.

      Hope that answers your question.

  2. drdankerr says :

    Fantastic review! Do you think I should assign it for future classes? If so, would you have students read it all at once or throughout the semester? Are there chapters you might assign rather than the whole book?

  3. zk9098a says :

    I definitely think it would be helpful to read for class, but probably over the course of the semester.

    The introduction and first chapter provides a good overview of the digital humanities, so that would be beneficial for the first week’s readings. It might be best to assign the specific tools in chapter 2 for the weeks the class will discuss them; but they’re only a few pages each so that might be unnecessary. Chapters 3 probably could be read at any point in the class, but might work best towards the end of the semester once the students have a little bit more knowledge of the field. Chapter 4 might be unnecessary since it will be 3 years old by time you’d assign it next spring, but potentially would work for the last week.

    The case studies certainly are relevant; they easily could be something students would blog about. Lastly, the FAQ/short guide section certainly would be helpful as a resource throughout the semester, though I don’t know if that’d work as required reading, per se.

    So yeah I definitely believe it would provide utility for class. And the best part is that it’s free online via the AU Library portal.

  4. Gavin Frome says :

    Nice. Probably won’t have time to pick it up myself, but I’ll make a note to recommend it to any aspiring digital humanists I may meet down the line. The field is definitely growing and will hopefully occupy a respectable place in the pantheon of university departments in the near future.

  5. Brianne Public History says :

    Zach, the book you chose to review seems very similar to the one I chose to do. Both the contributors to the book you read and the book I read truly believe that digital humanities is a field and not just a tool. With that said, I wonder what responses we might get if we branched out to scholars in the humanities who are not quite so centered in the digital realm? Would they see the work in such a positive, new light?

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