DH – 804 – Digital Humanities

For the remainder of the summer, I’ll be using this space to document and discuss my reactions to the readings we’ll be doing in our Digital History minor field reading at GMU. Given that the readings are meant to prepare us for our work in DH, I’ll be focusing many of my comments on wrestling with and formulating my own arguments and sensibilities regarding work in the field and looking ahead to my research and dissertation work. This should not be taken as a complete or comprehensive encounter with these works but rather my own process of coming to terms with DH as a field and situating myself within it. Generally, the goal is to create a post prior to each meeting as a means of organizing my thoughts and preparing for a fruitful discussion.

That minor caveat aside, the works we examined this week were clustered around the subject of Digital Humanities, Past, Present and Future.  The title seems a bit ambitious, but overall the readings were rather timely given the recent posts by Stephen Robertson and Scott Paul McGinnis on DH Now. It would seem that this week we are naming the elephant in the room: What does it mean to practice Digital Humanities and how does Digital History fit within (or outside of) Digital Humanities?

After reading these works I find myself with largely the same questions in mind.

This week we’ve focused on several broad texts; Understanding Digital Humanities by Barry et al, Digital­­_Humanities by Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, Presner and Schnapp, and Debates in the Digital Humanities by Matthew Gold, et al as well as smaller, more focused works by Fred Gibbs and Trevor Owens (“Building Better Digital Humanities Tools”), Stephen Ramsey (Reading Machines), John Unsworth, (“Scholarly Primitives”), G. Hall (“Toward a Post-Digital Humanities”), and Andrew Prescott (“Consumers, Creators or Commentators?”).

Putting these texts in conversation really highlighted the subjects that receive significant emphasis in DH discourse. Generally each of the works offered a definition of Digital Humanities that placed it in the context of a larger history of humanities computing and struggled to articulate the role of DH in generating scholarship. Many demonstrated an anxiety about digital publishing. They demonstrated concern with getting ‘credit’ for digital work and contended with the notion of ‘publish or perish’ that is enacted in the academic workplace.

I found each of these subjects interesting, but given my current concerns (the structure and direction of my dissertation) I find myself still struggling to articulate or conceptualize my place within the field (and leaning closer to Prescott’s critique- that we focus our energy on internal debates when we should be informing theory). The central question, the one that will underlie my thinking on the readings in this course, is the same question I’ve been asked, repeatedly, by former advisors and historians: why digital history? With the option of going down a traditional history path, why have I thrown myself into the digital?

Climbing into the “big tent” of DH for my answer, I’m finding myself attracted to work by McPherson, Losh, Edwards, and Williams (in Gold, et al) which highlight for me the multiple communities within which my work will operate. The transformative, iterative and accessible nature of DH work provides for new and innovative activities regarding production and presentation of scholarship- methods which could transform the way in which deaf history is envisioned. In many ways, I’m inspired by Parry’s assertion that DH represents an understanding of new modes of scholarship, as a field that represents change, not only in tools but in the nature of scholarship itself. Burdick, et al make a similar point, “…Digital Humanties activity seeks to revitalize liberal arts traditions in the electronically inflected language of the 21st century: a language in which… text is increasingly wedded to still and moving images as well as to sound …” (122).

Deaf Studies scholars have posited a similar shift in literary theory and analysis regarding American Sign Language literature (Bauman, et al). The emergence of video technologies that record and preserve signed performances has resulted in significant shift in the discussion and analysis of ASL literature and poetry and furthered exploration in new and innovation means of performing and documenting these works. To what degree will Digital History effect change on the collection, distribution, analysis, interpretation, of deaf history?

As Robertson’s article suggested, answers regarding the issues significant to Digital History are more often found outside of the texts we’ve read this week. Few works dealt with the subject of Digital History directly. Approaching these texts, I hoped for a discussion of Digital History on par with the approach to literary text analysis offered by Ramsay. But there was no text that suggested a major shift in the theory and process of historical scholarship. In fact, Gibbs and Owens, demonstrated that historians using digital tools are yet to fully embrace new tools and methodologies – rather, they are more likely to utilize digital tools on traditional projects in traditional ways. Scheinfeldt suggests that time is needed, as is the understanding that sometimes tools are built to answer questions and sometimes tools produce their own questions.

As a newcomer to the field, I’m yet to articulate my point of view. Reading this week indicates that the field, particularly digital history, has yet to do the same.  But discussion at work and in class leads me to believe that the places where the Digital History is realized are centers like CHNM. Looking forward to more discussion next week.

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