An in-depth look at the debate over using digital technologies in the humanities
The above cartoon is an apt description of myself after reading several articles about digital humanities for my history class. I waded through various articles that gave detailed information using terms such as cultural analytics, media-theory of composition, computational linguistics, and digital curation. For a moment I thought that I may have accidentally been enrolled in a computer programming course. As I continued reading, I came across several more unfamiliar terms such as culturomics, philology, epistemology and hermeneutics.
After having just received my bachelor’s degree in history this past spring, I considered myself reasonably qualified to enter into the world as an “educated historian.” After reading about digital humanities, I now realize that my safe undergraduate world of Kate Turabian, the JFK Library database, and Patterson Hall was nothing more than the dome that Truman resided in on The Truman Show. I was just made aware that there is a huge world of connected technologies within the discipline I love so much, history. It’s almost like learning for the first time that your beloved has been taking salsa lessons behind your back.
While the actual definition of digital humanities seems to be constantly in flux, the following is a simplified version of the definition that can be found on Wikipedia: “Digital humanities is an area of scholarly activity at the intersection of computing or digital technologies and the disciplines of the humanities.” There can be no doubt that technology, in our society, is here to stay. Perhaps only a few of the academic disciplines could successfully say they are indifferent to an increase in the use of technology in today’s culture. However, the role that technology plays inside certain disciplines is yet to be decided. And apparently, at times, hotly debated.
After a cursory look at the ongoing debate over technology in the humanities, it appears that there are two different camps over the issue. Adam Kirsch, in his article Technology Is Taking Over Our English Departments: The false promise of the digital humanites, sums up both sides rather well. He states on the one hand there are those who believe that digital humanities “can be simply the application of computer technology to traditional scholarly functions, such as the editing of texts.” Then he goes on to say that there are those on the other side who claim that “digital humanities represent a paradigm shift in the way we think about culture itself, spurring a change not just in the medium of humanistic work but also in its very substance.” Kirsch also points out that these are the same individuals stating “either get on board or stand athwart it and get run over.”Whether or not this is true, there are some points of caution that are brought up that should be considered before blindly jumping off the digital diving board into the deep end of the humanities pool. For example: What is the process through which the digital source has been made available? How can digital humanities be applied in pedagogical terms? Is there a selection bias of search engines that influence the literature that is consulted? Is there a lack of racial diversity?
One disconcerting bit of information while reading these articles about digital humanities, is that the humanities in general are in decline in regards to funding, as well as a certain perceived “prestige.” It would be tragic if any discipline at any university changed its methods out of a necessity to meet financial demands. Speaking for the discipline of history, I view it just as important as any STEM class available. Should a push towards more technology into the discipline take place because it is in need of funding? I would hope not. Although I know that universities across the board are struggling. I would hope that the only reason that technology would increase is because it is good for the discipline and enables students to be more successful in studying history.
There is a question that is posed on the Wikipedia page that I believe is the ultimate question that needs to be answered when it comes to digital humanities: How is knowledge transformed when mediated through code and software? It seems to me that if you are researching the Salem Witch Trials, the Lewis and Clarke Expedition, or Jim Crow laws, the history is the history, regardless if technology is used or not. But who am I to say? I still don’t know the definition of hermeneutics.