Study Guide

Digital Humanities Basics

  • Beginnings

    What does an Italian Jesuit priest have to do with the Digital Humanities? A lot, actually. See, there was this Jesuit priest called Roberto Busa who was not only interested in God and the Bible, but also in linguistics and computers. Hey, why not?

    So, way back in the 1940s, Busa decided to undertake an analysis of the concept of "presence" in the huge body of works by Thomas Aquinas. Yeah, you know the one: Saint Thomas Aquinas, thank you very much. The problem was that Aquinas was one prolific saint. This dude wrote more than 10 million words—which, folks, is a freakin' lot.

    Busa realized that no matter how busy he got, he couldn't possibly get through millions and millions and millions of some medieval saint's words: he needed the help of a machine. He convinced IBM, then just a young company working trying to make it big, to help him undertake a linguistic analysis of Aquinas's work. Lo and behold, the field of Digital Humanities was born.

  • Big Players

    Roberto Busa was one of the first, if not the first, to apply computing technology to the study of literature and linguistics, but there were plenty of others who followed in his footsteps.

    Geoffrey Rockwell is a Digital Humanist who's important because he was one of the first to try to define what the field of "humanities computing," or "digital humanities" as it came to be known, actually was. He also helped develop some of the earliest undergraduate programs in Multimedia and Digital Humanities studies. Yep, they exist, and if Digital Humanities is a part of the academy now, it's largely thanks to this dude.

    John Unsworth and Jerome McGann are two other names you should know. Unsworth, who was another early Digital Humanist, was also one of the co-editors of an important collection of essays called A Companion to Digital Humanities, and like Rockwell, he was one of the first scholars to try to come with a clear definition of what this slippery, messy, complicated field of "Humanities Computing" was.

    McGann, on the other hand, is a specialist in Romantic poetry, a textual critic, and a Digital Humanist. Like Unsworth and Rockwell, he's one of the pioneers of the field. He's especially well known for creating the online archive of the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti's work; the creation of this archive was one of the first big projects in the Digital Humanities.

    Then there's a whole host of younger Digital Humanists who have been developing and expanding the field: Stephen Ramsay set off a firestorm when he said Digital Humanities is all about "building" things (we'll look more closely at his ideas in the "Say What?" section below). Matthew G. Kirschenbaum has discussed the relationship between the Digital Humanities and English departments, specifically. Mark Sample is known as a scholar who advocates for an "Open-Access" approach to the Digital Humanities—as in: let's make knowledge available to all, for free!

  • Key Debates

    Ever since digital technology began to take over our lives in the 90s, the nature of the way we study, research, and even the way we think has changed dramatically. Is it just us, or has the internet been interfering with our ability to concentrate lately? Phew. It's not just us.

    There are a couple of key questions that Digital Humanities try to address. First, how can we use digital technology to better aid us in the study of literary (and other humanities) texts? And second, how has digital technology actually changed the way that we read, research, and access information?

    So, on one level, Digital Humanists are interested in developing digital tools that can help us better analyze literary and other texts. On another level, they're interested in figuring out how digital technology (and the internet especially) has changed the way that we access and acquire information.

    Digital Humanists are into an approach to scholarship and research that has technology at its heart. This doesn't fly with everybody: some scholars are just way more into the "traditional" approach of picking up a book, opening it, and using your own brain to analyze it.

    Within the field itself, there are some important disagreements, too. One big question is whether, Digital Humanists need to know how to program. Seriously, do Digital Humanists need to know how to code? If you don't know how to code, does that mean that you can never be a real Digital Humanist? Oh no!

    Well, Digital Humanists disagree about all this stuff. There are some who say that you should be able to program, and there are others who say you don't. This raises another issue that Digital Humanists disagree about: what is it that a "Digital Humanist" literary scholar does differently from a regular literary scholar?

    While there's no clear consensus about any of this, there is a general understanding that Digital Humanists thinkreally hard about technology and its place in research, while other scholars may uses technology without really thinking that much about it. You might use Shmoop without really thinking about what that means—but some Digital Humanist out this sure is thinking about, theorizing about it, and writing books about it.

  • State of the Theory

    Digital Humanities is the new kid on the block. Back in the 80s—and even the 90s—not a lot of people in the ivory tower were really into it. A lot of people thought that Digital Humanists were just a bunch of wacky computer geeks who also just sort of happened to be into literature.

    But boy, did the Digital Humanists prove those people wrong. Given how information technology has transformed our lives since the 80s, and given the way it's still transforming our lives, Digital Humanities has, in the past ten years, gained more and more respectability as a field of study.

    And this is just the beginning. Every day, more and more Digital Humanities research centers are opening up in universities all over the country. Publications in the field—books, edited collections, blog posts, and essays—are multiplying by the day.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    Literature is made up of linguistic patterns that we can analyze using the super-duper powers of a computer.

    What is an author?

    An author is someone who produces literary texts that are analyzable using digital technology.

    What is a reader?

    A reader uses digital technology to understand a literary text better. Readers supplement their own reading powers with the amazing analytic powers of computers.

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