What are “Digital Humanities” anyway?

Out in the wide world of the Digital Humaties blogosphere and twitterverse, this is a question that really preoccupied people for a long, long time. And here on the Carleton Campus, it’s still a bit of an open question for a few reasons. First, it’s relatively new. Second, the definition for what we do here at Carleton in terms of digital humanities will differ from what other institutions do because we’ll be driven by the research questions of our humanities folks, the staffing capacities and skills on our campus, and the technical infrastructure of our institution.

For us on this team, the definition matters not only because we are part of this thing called Digital Humanities, but also because it helps us decide what work we take on and what work we turn down. We can’t do all the work on campus, so some definitional boundaries are important. But we also want the flexibility to explore this rapidly changing field, so we don’t want our definitional boundaries to be too rigid. So you can see that the balance can be a bit tricky and that it’ll probably shift over time.

DHAs, this week please do a little online exploration. Google “digital humanities” and follow at least 5 links, then poke around this blog to see what past DHAs have written that may help you get a sense of what Digital Humanities means here at Carleton.

When you’ve explored a bit, leave comments here or write a blog post about what you’ve found. What defines the Digital Humanities? Who is the audience for that answer? Is it a useful question to ask (beyond helping us define our day-to-day job duties)? What distinguishes the Digital Humanities at Carleton? Are there things we seem to concentrate on? Things we haven’t delved into?

We’ll also talk more about what you’ve learned at next week’s Team Meeting.

If you’re not a DHA and you’re reading this, feel free to leave comments! The more ideas the merrier!

6 thoughts on “What are “Digital Humanities” anyway?

  1. Out of curiosity, I searched “digital humanities” using a Chinese engine. The definition I found (and poorly translated) is that “digital humanities is a way of presenting and sharing a wide range of humanities studies using information technologies”. I watched a presentation on statistical analysis of “the Analects of Confucius”. I found it really interesting when those beautiful ancient Chinese characters dancing harmoniously with numbers, sigmas and epsilons. For me, the audience for the answer to “what exactly is digital humanities” could be every one. Sadly, what I’ve noticed on campus is that, there are still many people who don’t know about DH, or don’t know that DH at Carleton exists. We can probably work on spreading the concept of DH a bit more, so that we’ll get more thoughts on current projects or suggestions of possible future projects.

  2. Many of pages that I visited defined the Digital Humanities as the Humanities plus Digital Tools. However, that strikes me as an odd division. Shouldn’t we distinguish academic disciplines by the questions they ask, not the methods that they use to answer them? I think that the digital humanities currently serve the valuable purpose of connecting people with technical and computational skills to researchers in the humanities who lack those skills. Perhaps in the future academic institutions will develop stronger infrastructure to connect these two skill sets and as a result the need for the Digital Humanities will decline.

  3. I think the digital humanities is a very interdisciplinary field. Digital humanities apply digital tools to answer old questions in the humanities or even to ask new ones. It allows us to take different approaches and uncover new information or new ways of understanding information.

  4. Usually, when I tell others about my job, I let them know that I work with a variety of professors in different fields (history, environmental studies, art history) that have their own projects relating to the humanities while requiring digital or technical knowledge on using computer softwares and programs. The greatest thing about the interdisciplinary nature of the digital humanities is that it models the interconnectedness of multiple disciplines when navigating projects and interactions in life – things aren’t always clear-cut, and skills are needed from all aspects, whether you’re approaching 3D modeling of historical workhouses, or remodeling a website for a prairie. Digital humanities allows and encourages the intermingling of important and different fields that won’t happen otherwise in more specialized mediums.

  5. After doing some research, it seems like this question has engendered serious debate amongst the DH community. One side proposes that DH is simply humanists using new technology while the other argues that the advent of digital humanities is akin to the invention of writing—with it comes a completely new form of rhetoric and method of telling stories. I, personally, don’t know where I fall along this debate. I’ve seen first hand how digital technologies can more easily and effectively communicate certain narratives (I’m thinking of a research project I worked on with a professor creating a virtual tour of Carleton). However, whether these narratives were previously unable to be told is up to debate. I guess I would say (based on my limited experience) that digital humanities is humanities using digital technology to more effectively and persuasively stories previously told in print. But that’s my answer right now and I bet I’ll have a different opinion after working as a DHA for more than two weeks.

  6. According to Ben’s research, the sites Qimeng visited fell more into the “using technology” side of that debate, which I find fascinating.

    I myself am torn when I think about DH, and especially the DH projects on our campus. At the very very basic level, I don’t know of any humanists who DON’T use digital tools. It’s just that MS Word is so familiar to everyone that they don’t think of it as a digital tool. And PDFs look like paper pages, so that’s not weird either. From there we move up to things that are in all ways similar to traditional humanities work, but the publication is online only.

    Personally, I find it really interesting when the digital tools allow scholars to explore either new questions or old questions in a new way, or allow for greater interlinking or interactivity in the published form. That’s where I feel the spark is.

    I’m also partial to a good yak (the “hack or yak” debate is a fun one to read about). I’ve always loved theoretical discussions about epistemology and the like. I haven’t really seen that as a driving force on our campus, but it’s good to know about. One of the articles that wasn’t written about DH or for DH folks but I think has a some good resonance for us is a short little piece by dana boyd called
    Six Provocations for Big Data” (presented at In A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, 2011. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1926431). In it dana talked about how access to large datasets has fundamentally changed what people think counts as evidence and what count as good research questions in the areas of the social sciences.

    Also, dana boyd is just cool.

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