#TechTuesday | What on Google Earth are Digital Humanities? (Part 1)

Aleen is the Digital Heritage Specialist for Language in Lyrics.

By Aleen Leigh Stanton

Welcome back to #TechTuesday. In this second post in the Kitchen Table series, we are going to explore something we only mentioned in passing last time: digital humanities. Let’s gather round the (digital) kitchen table for another discussion and see if we can figure this out together.

First, why are we even talking about digital humanities? You might be wondering, what does that have to do with Gaelic songs? Well, Language in Lyrics is one example of a digital humanities project. I mentioned this last time, but now I have more time to explain.

Part of my job over the last few months has been big-picture thinking and researching the world of digital humanities, and our little corner of that world with Language in Lyrics.

In order to do that, I had to figure out exactly how to define digital humanities, and decide our place, as Language in Lyrics, within it.

You’re going to see pretty soon that much ink has been spilled over how to define digital humanities, and this blogpost is not ground-breaking in its exploration of it. I’m not saying anything new here, but instead trying to organize all the information I’ve found through my research all in one place so you can get a sense of the lay of the land. It was a lot of reading, a lot of Googling, and a lot of note-taking – I’ve done it so you don’t have to!

In order to understand the Language in Lyrics project, along with its goals, aims, and challenges, we have to understand digital humanities. But, what are we talking about when we talk about “digital humanities”? What does that term actually mean?

Defining digital humanities

The simple answer: it can mean a lot of different things. Sorry, was that a cop-out? It’s true! Digital humanities projects can take almost any form – indexes, digitization projects, online databases, literary or textual analysis, online maps/GIS, oral history, among many others. Digital humanities projects often “crunch the numbers” for analysis using datasets or digitization, and then share the results online in some kind of user-friendly and accessible content. Big data in little bytes. (Couldn’t resist).

Crowd-sourcing a definition

The question I asked in the title of this blogpost is not a new one. Many have tried to define the nebulous field of digital humanities, and even tried to figure out whether it should be grammatically singular or plural (I know). And because it’s digital humanities, of course some clever person has created a website called whatisdigitalhumanities.com, which loads a new crowd-sourced definition of digital humanities every time you refresh the page. If you’d like to see what all those responses look like blended together, it would be something like this (after all, word clouds seem to be the gateway drug of digital humanities):

A “tourist map” take on digital humanities

But crowd-sourcing isn’t the only way to define the field, of course. Another way would be looking to The Digital Humanities Literacy Guidebook. It’s a brand-new online resource from Carnegie Mellon University that you can explore to learn more about the field. The website is a self-described “slim guidebook” and “tourist map” to the digital humanities.

They take the position that digital humanities . . .

“. . . simultaneously describes a community of practice, a research program, a set of methods, a constellation of publication venues, and a collective ethos that have all stubbornly defied definition since the term first came into use.”

(From What are the Digital Humanities?)

A bit of a dodge, but that’s ok. I know how they feel.

Overall, the Handbook is a very pretty website, and it’s quite fun to click around it. Go check out their Topics page, Project Videos page, and information they’ve collated about grants, job boards, online courses and textbooks, degree programs, and DH community organizations. It’s a great starting point.

Some actual textbook definitions

Because, you know, sometimes the old-fashioned route can be good too! But there’s a twist. Again, since it’s digital humanities, scholars have made the entire Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities free to read online. Also available to read online is Debates in the Digital Humanities, an edited series published biannually which explores current issues in the field. If you want a traditional library deep-dive, this route is for you.

The academics weigh in

In case you’re still curious and want a more academic take on the definition, Matthew Kirschenbaum’s article in the ADE Bulletin (associated with the Modern Language Association) provides an in-depth dive into all the various iterations of the field.

You may notice, interestingly, that Kirschenbaum never actually defines digital humanities on his own terms. Instead, he simply points out that “what is digital humanities” is already its own genre. Digital humanities is nothing if not open for interpretation.

William Pannapacker takes a similarly open approach. His series of blogposts/articles between 2008-2013 for the Chronicle of Higher Education provide a good introduction to the lay of the land in layperson language: Summer Camp for Digital Humanities, Digital Humanities Triumphant?, Big Tent Digital Humanities: A View From the Edge Part 1, Big Tent Digital Humanities: A View From the Edge Part 2, and Cultivating Partnerships in the Digital Humanities. Pannapacker populates his blogposts with colourful characters (academics in cargo pants) and wry, outsider observations (comparing DH conferences to the glittering awe of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition). But only once does he try to define digital humanities:

“Some uncertainty persists about what characterizes the field besides a spirit of cooperation and an eclectic group of people who identify themselves with it . . . Essentially, the digital humanities seem to be a collective effort to use information technology to improve our understanding of the human experience.”

William Pannapacker, The Chronicle of Higher Education

I like this definition – it’s clear and straight to the point. Just what we need.

And, come to think of it, that could describe exactly what we’re doing with Language in Lyrics. We’re trying to construct a Gaelic song database in order to better understand our experience as Gaels, through language and music.

Continuing Debate

Ok, so I think we have a definition of digital humanities now – or at least a few to choose from! But another question remains: has the digital humanities entered the mainstream yet?

The field of digital humanities has been growing over the last two decades, but mainstream acceptance is elusive. In his article in the 2019 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities, Ted Underwood called it a “semi-normal” thing, but that hanging qualifier – “semi” – persisted. Digital humanities continues to be considered somewhat of an up-and-coming or outsider discipline. For example, the Chronicle of High Education is still publishing polarized articles about it, including a series in Spring 2019 called the “Digital Humanities Wars” about the merits of the discipline. Why this debate?

But let’s hit the pause button for now. I don’t know about you guys, but my head is just exploding right now. We’re going to need fresh eyes to tackle the tangled threads of the digital humanities debate.

We’ll explore this debate, as well as some concrete examples of digital humanities projects, in the next #TechTuesday post. We’ll also bring all these threads together and explain the ultimate significance of all of this background digital humanities context for Language in Lyrics. See you next time around the kitchen table.

Le beannachd,


Aleen


Nonrequired further reading:

Carnegie Mellon University. The Digital Humanities Literacy Guidebook. https://cmu-lib.github.io/dhlg/.

Chronicle of Higher Education. The Digital Humanities Wars series. The Chronicle Review. March 2019. https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Digital-Humanities-Debacle/245986.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “The Humanities, Done Digitally.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 May 2011. https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Done-Digitally/127382.

Gold, Matthew K. and Lauren F. Klein. Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019). https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/projects/debates-in-the-digital-humanities-2019.

Heppler, Jason. What Is Digital Humanities? https://whatisdigitalhumanities.com.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What is Digital Humanities and What is it Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin. Number 150, 2010. https://mkirschenbaum.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/kirschenbaum_ade150.pdf.

Pannapacker, William. “Summer Camp for Digital Humanities.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 27 June 2008. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Summer-Camp-for-Digital/45865.

Pannapacker, William. “Digital Humanities Triumphant?” Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 January 2011. https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/pannapacker-at-mla-digital-humanities-triumphant/30915.

Pannapacker, William. “Big Tent Digital Humanities: A View from the Edge Part 1.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 31 July 2011. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Big-Tent-Digital-Humanities/128434.

Pannapacker, William. “Big Tent Digital Humanities: A View from the Edge Part 2.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 18 September 2011. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Big-Tent-Digital-Humanities-a/129036/.

Pannapacker, William. “Cultivating Partnerships in the Digital Humanities.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 13 May 2013. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Cultivating-Partnerships-in/139161/.

Schreibman, Susan, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, eds. A Companion to Digital Humanities (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/.

Underwood, Ted. “Digital Humanities as a Semi-Normal Thing.” Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019). https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/projects/debates-in-the-digital-humanities-2019.