Hold Door --
19
Apr
2015

A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You

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Adeline Koh will be teaching the Identity track for Digital Pedagogy Lab in August 2015. To find out more about her track and to enroll, visit Digital Pedagogy Lab’s main page.


I am often asked about the digital humanities and how it can update, make relevant, and provide funding for many a beleaguered humanities department. Some faculty at underfunded institutions imagine DH is going to revitalize their discipline — it’s going to magically interest undergraduates, give faculty research funding, and exponentially increase enrollment.

Well, the reality is this: what has until recently been commonly understood as real “Digital Humanities” is already belated and is not going to save humanities departments from ever bigger budget cuts and potential dissolution.

Yes, of course, everyone will tell you that there are multiple debates over what actually defines Digital Humanities as a field, whether it is a field or not, yadda yadda yadda. But the projects which have until very recently dominated the federal digital humanities grants — the NEH grants, the ACLS grants, among others — are by default, the definition of the field, or the “best” the field has to offer. This means that until very recently and with few exceptions, the list of awardees rarely includes digital work that focuses more on culture than computation, projects that focus on digital pedagogy, or digital recovery efforts for works by people of color.

If you look through the projects that have been funded in the last decade you’re going to see a lot of repeated themes. Heck, even when you look at the roster for who is being invited to give DH talks and what they are talking about, you see many of the same names and the same topics. You’re going to see a lot of emphasis on tools. A lot of emphasis on big data analysis. A lot of emphasis on computation, and the power of computation. What aren’t you going to see as much of? Emphasis on why computing, the conditions under which computing is manufactured, a cultural analysis of the ideologies of computing. Why is that?

Because “digital humanities” is currently defined in many existing works as coming out of a field previously known as “humanities computing.” This field is cast as the primary antecedent for what is now called the digital humanities, immortalized by the publication of the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities, in which the term switched from “humanities computing” to “Digital Humanities,” the use of DH in forming the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations as an umbrella global organization, and the development and naming of the NEH ODH branch. “Humanities computing” projects have primarily focused on digitization of canonical texts, text encoding and markup, the creation of tools to facilitate humanities research, and more recently, “big data” and ways to study it, such as “topic modeling.” Uniformly, advocates of DH as humanities computing have argued that DH is, in the words of Matt Kirschenbaum, “more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies.”

This focus on methodology is important, because throughout the majority of Humanities Computing projects, the social, political and economic underpinnings, effects and consequences of methodology are rarely examined. Too many in this field prize method without excavating the theoretical underpinnings and social consequences of method. In other words, Humanities Computing has focused on using computational tools to further humanities research, and not to study the effects of computation as a humanities question.

But “digital humanities” in the guise of “humanities computing,” “big data,” “topic modelling,” “object oriented ontology” is not going to save the humanities from the chopping block. It’s only going to push the humanities further over the precipice. Because these methods alone make up a field which is simply a handmaiden to STEM. Think about this: Why would you turn to a pseudo-STEM field that uses STEM methods to answer your questions, rather than to STEM directly? Indeed, when I brought up “critical making” — what some consider to be the perfect marriage of “yack” and “hack” — with my engineer spouse, he commented, “Isn’t engineering already ‘critical making’?” The editorial preface to an article on critical making by Matt Ratto describes critical making as “processes of material and conceptual exploration and creation of novel understandings by the makers themselves.” After mulling over my husband’s remark, I realized that engineering is indeed already practicing critical making as its DH practitioners often prescribe it — arguably better than they are. But in relation to the humanities, engineering does not integrally inspect critical identity categories, access and privilege in the process of making, issues that designate what the humanities considers to be “critical.”

Another thing: if you want to start a DH program to save your probably very underfunded humanities department from extinction, trying to practice DH the way resource-rich, research-oriented institutions do might be prohibitively expensive. Big data analysis, 3-D printing, tool-building: these are expensive endeavors to undertake, even on a small scale. Because of their mission and resources, the majority of non-wealthy, non-R1 institutions are going to concentrate on smaller scale projects involving undergraduate students. These are not normally the sorts of projects that receive federal funding for DH.

So this is what I want to say. If you want to save humanities departments, champion the new wave of digital humanities: one which has humanistic questions at its core. Because the humanities, centrally, is the study of how people process and document human cultures and ideas, and is fundamentally about asking critical questions of the methods used to document and process. And because these questions can and should be dealt with by people in departments who care about research with undergraduates, by people without the resources to develop the latest and greatest cutting edge digital humanities tool (which, quite frankly, will be enveloped by commercial industries in the blink of an eye.)

So instead of pouring more money into tool building or the latest and greatest 3D printer, let’s not limit the history of the digital humanities to humanities computing as a single origin point. Let’s consider “sister fields” to the digital humanities as actually foundational to the digital humanities. Consider work with undergraduates and digital pedagogy (Rebecca Frost Davis, Kathryn Tomasek, Katherine D. Harris, Angel David Nieves, Janet Simons, Jesse Stommel, Sean Michael Morris) as foundational to the field. Consider the work of scholars who engage media studies as foundational — especially as they deeply engage with questions of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, ability and the digital (Lisa Nakamura, Anna Everett, Alondra Nelson, Tara McPherson, Elizabeth Losh, Alexandra Juhasz, Wendy Chun, Cathy Davidson, Fiona Barnett, David Theo Goldberg, David Golumbia, Martha Nell Smith, Cheryl E. Ball, Edmond Chang, Anastasia Salter, Carly Kocurek, Jessie Daniels, Amy Earhart, Anne Cong-Huyen, Alexis Lothian, Radhika Gajjala, Carol Stabile, Nishant Shah, Michelle Moravec, Monica Mercado, Simone Browne, Moya Bailey, Brittney Cooper & the Crunk Collective, etc). Consider Sandra Harding and the postcolonial and feminist work of Science and Technology studies foundational to the field. Consider HASTAC, FemTechNet and FemBot foundational initiatives, none of whom have ever received NEH funding for their operations, but have been instrumental to the recent shift in federal digital humanities awards towards the “H” in DH rather than the “D.”

The insistent focus on computing and methodology in the humanities without incisive, introspective examination of their social implications is devaluing the humanities. We shouldn’t be pouring federal money into building tools without making the ideological structure of the process explicit and their social effects and presuppositions open to inspection; we shouldn’t be funding the digitization of canonical (read: white, often male) authors without the simultaneous digitization of works by people of color, especially women of color. To do both is to betray some of the most important lessons which the humanities has learned with the rise of women, gender and sexuality studies, race, ethnic and postcolonial studies and disability studies.

Instead, let’s reconsider what “core” digital humanities means. Let’s redefine what we mean by the “best,” most critical and seminal digital humanities research. Let’s open digital humanities research to people who don’t have the time and resources to learn a programming language like R, but are happy to use Wordle as an entry into literary texts as data. Let’s consider pedagogy central to DH. Let’s consider class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality primary to and constitutional of the digital humanities, not simply the “diversity box” of political correctness. Let’s remember the fringe fields and movements who did this in the past, but did not receive widespread support and funding, as part of the central history of DH. Only when we completely reconfigure and recenter the humanities in DH will we be able to talk about using the field to “save” humanities departments from extinction.


Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. Adeline Koh would like to thank the reviewers of this piece — Sean Michael Morris, Cathy Davidson, Jesse Stommel, Meg Worley, Annemarie Perez and Dorothy Kim — all of whose comments tremendously improved the content of this essay.

[Photo, “DH“, by Quinn Dombrowski licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.]

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