Why I Support an Open Definition of DH

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After I posted my last piece on Who Is Doing DH, I got into an interesting conversation with my colleague/co-conspirator/Twitter-buddy/provocateur-extraordinaire Trent M. Kays about the problems with a “;big-tent” view of digital humanities. Below is that exchange.


[View the story “Is Big-Tent DH a Good Thing?” on Storify]


Trent is working on a post right now expanding on his view, but certainly his view that other academics and scholars (particularly, but not exclusively, in Rhetoric and Composition) have long been doing work that is now being considered digital humanities but have long been unrecognized by their colleagues in English departments and the humanities more generally is accurate and problematic. Roger Whitson acknowledges the blind spot in a recent post, after attending the Computers and Writing conference, as well as being schooled himself on Twitter.

But Roger also gets at, I think, is one of the reasons I contend that DH needs to be open and respectfully appropriate what has been done before (and for a long time):

“But most of these moves [within DH] have done little to change an institutional culture that largely sees preservation, criticism — and probably most importantly reading andwriting as their most fundamental practices. I, too, was swayed when Derrideans made claims that there were no real separations between theory and praxis or between constantive and performative utterances. And yet, what did those arguments actually accomplish except to keep us doing exactly the same thing?”

There needs to be a change in how we do things in the humanities. One of the things that attracted me to DH (other than what I’ve already stated here and here and here) was that there was room to do something different, instead of trying to carve out a small piece of the whatever-has-been-done-before-but-slightly-different. And certainly using technology, even mindfully and critically, can just recreate old patterns in bigger and faster ways. The more popular DH becomes, the more we risk research and work that isn’t innovative, just repetitive (although one could argue if one academic successfully uses a tool to do x to a certain text of body of texts, why it is then “;wrong” to use that same tool and process to do x to a different body of text? Less innovative, perhaps, but if the conclusions are equally insightful and revealing, then why knock it?).

This brings up an important issue that seems to be lurking, and that is the idea of “;innovation” that drives so much of the rhetoric in higher education today. Everything has to be NEW NEW NEW and groundbreaking and innovative; it’s one of the reasons the humanities haven’t faired as well as certain STEM fields (and why other STEM fields haven’t done so well, either). It’s also why DH is attractive -; it will CHANGE the humanities. But if we allow the innovation rhetoric to take over, then we will find ourselves in the cut-throat business (literally) of only seeking what’s new over what is interesting, useful, and insightful.

This is why I think the big tent, or as I call it, the DH collective, is so important. We need people who can do all kinds of different things (innovate, built, create, critique, tweak, and disseminate, among other things). I think anyone who is interested in DH should be welcome into the collective and then be permitted to find their space and their community (or form their own) within the collective. Excluding people because they don’t do x or y recreates the pattern of academia as it stand right now. We might never change what it means to be a humanist, but we can change how higher education operates. That, to me, is the biggest promise DH holds. 

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