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Debates in the Digital Humanities

by Matthew K. Gold, Editor
University of Minneapolis Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2012
532 pp., illus. 27 b/w. Trade, $105.00; paper, $34.94
ISBN: 978-0-8166-7794-8; ISBN 978-0-8166-7795-5.

Reviewed by Dene Grigar
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver

dgrigar@mac.com

Just as its title suggests, Debates in the Digital Humanities explores the various issues in contention among scholars of the digital humanities (or “DH”).  Those of us paying attention to The Chronicle of Higher Education or the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) Job Information List are probably aware that DH has been touted as the hot new ”Thing” (ix). But as Luke Waltzer reminds us, “the digital humanities is not new but rather the latest stage of inquiry at the intersection of digits and the humanities that stretches back to the 1940s” (338).

What the digital humanities is emerges as the first of six issues under debate.  For Matthew Kirschenbaum, it is “scholarship and pedagogy” that is “public,” deeply connected to “infrastructure,” “collaborative,” “depend[ent] on networks of people” who live “online” (9).  For Kathleen Fitzpatrick, it can be “understood as a ‘nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities, or, as is more true of [her] own work, ask traditional kinds of humanities-oriented questions about computer technologies” (12).  Lisa Spiro tells us that it is a field whose core values include “openness,” “collaboration,” “collegiality and connectedness,” “diversity,” and “experimentation” (24-30).  Rafael C. Alvarado argues that “digital humanists are simply humanists (or interpretative social scientists) by training who have embraced digital media and who have a more or less deep conviction that digital media can play a crucial, indeed, transformative, role in the work of interpretation, broadly conceived” (52). Tom Scheinfeldt likens DH’s “heavy reliance on instruments, on tools” to that of scientists (57) and tells us that scholars involved in DH are “more concerned with method than  . . . theory” (59).  Others, not mentioned here, weigh in with many more articles and with blog posts that further describes the field.  The points I am making are twofold:  First, the book’s approach to scholarship involves a lived practice, with each author providing his or her own perspective that may or may not conflict with the other authors’ take on DH––and in a way that does not denigrate but, rather, broadens understanding.  Second, this is the same approach used in the five sections that follow, and, so, the book makes for a lively and welcoming read.

Following the first section, “Defining the Digital Humanities,” comes Theorizing the Digital Humanities, Critiquing the Digital Humanities, Practicing the Digital Humanities, Teaching the Digital Humanities, and Envisioning the Digital Humanities. The repetition of the verb form reflects the sentiment of progressivism currently associated with the field.  A forward thinking approach underpins the way in which the book was produced (“three distinct stages of peer review” xii) and the various forms in which it will finally appear (the printed book and ‘an online, expanded, open-access webtext” xiv). Though Debates in the Digital Humanities is well over 500 pages in length, there is no fat in it; all essays contain important information and concepts relating to DH.  Taken together, the book as a whole and every essay in it is a must-read for anyone who claims to be a digital humanist whether she or he works in theory, pedagogy, and/or practice.

As one can imagine, a book of this length, organized into six sections of 29 essays and 20 blogs posts, and penned by 43 leading DH scholars covers a lot of territory; more would have made the book unwieldy. So, my next comments speak to ideas touched on in the book but ripe for future development of other publishable studies.

First, I want to see more information about tenure and promotions issues. David Greetham’s essay, “The Resistance to Digital Humanities,” details the challenges DH scholars face in regards to work counting as scholarship and not service (438-451).  Also helpful would be examples of tenure and promotions guidelines that can be adapted for use by others.

The book also leaves me wanting to learn more about projects undertaken by DH scholars, especially those outside of the U.S., Canada, and the UK.  Waltzer provides information on several: Hypercities, UMW Blogs, and “A Living Laboratory” (343). In other words, what is the breath of “experimentation” (28-29) valued in DH?

Third, I would like to know more about the relationship between the DH and other computer-oriented academic communities so that we can tease out the unique qualities of DH and get a sense of overlaps. How is DH different from media art or film and video studies where practitioners also utilize computing devices for their work, often collaborate in teams, and struggle to explain how their work counts as scholarship?  Since the late 1980s the Computers and Writing Community, for example, has been extremely active in theorizing and developing sound pedagogies for using computers for scholarship and teaching––and have already worked through many issues, such as gaining support for digital-based projects for tenure and promotions, engaging in cultural critique, and collaborating in teams, to name a few.  Two important scholars of Computers and Writing, Cynthia Selfe and Doug Eyman, are referenced in Elizabeth Losh’s “Hacktivism and the Humanities” (179-180), but there are literally hundreds of others working at U.S. universities and colleges.  What lessons can we learn from them and the projects they have undertaken?

My final two comments add my own perspective to the digital humanities.

Lisa Spiro asserts in “This is Why We Fight” that the DH needs to “produc[e] a values statement” in order to “provide the foundation for the digital humanities,” listing those associated with the “aesthetics and values” of the humanities (“inquiry, critical thinking, debate, pluralism, balancing innovation and tradition, and exploration and critique” 19).  She goes on to propose new ones mentioned previously in this review (“openness,” “collaboration,” “collegiality and connectedness,” “diversity,” and “experimentation”). It seems to me with the growing lack of support for the humanities in and outside of the academy, that one additional value that may help scholars bridge the gap between academe and the world beyond––and, so, demonstrate to our various stakeholders why studying the humanities is so needed––is “problem-solving.”  Perhaps we need to go beyond questioning and critiquing established norms, authority, policy, theory, approaches, etc., and lead the way in finding answers to those questions and solutions to those critical problems our communities face. Bryan Alexander and Rebecca Frost Davis hint to this concept in their essay, “Should the Liberal Arts Campuses Do Digital Humanities?,” when they stress the need for “community engagement” (384).

Finally, many of the book’s the authors allude to computer technology as a tool. In an age when mobile devices, are, for many of us, an extension of our hand and extend our online lives, as Kirschenbaum suggests, to “24-7,” and computer technology is so ubiquitous that communicating, driving, telling time, paying for groceries, etc. are dependent upon them, it is time to rethink our relationship with computers.  If we are makers of things like a digital archive of a literary writer like John Barber’s Brautigan.net project or a mobile app for teaching about a historical site like Brett Oppegaard’s Fort Vancouver Mobile project, or a 2D animated poem like Thom Swiss’s “Shy Boy,” then computers are not tools that help us do what it is we do, but rather the medium in which we work. It is a fundamental shift in thinking about our relationship with digital technology that can help to delineate the difference between the humanities and the digital humanities.


Last Updated 2 August 2012

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