Study Guide

Digital Humanities Critics

  • Digital Humanities Scholars (Anne Burdick, Joanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp)

    [Digital humanities] asks what it means to be a human being in the networked information age and to participate in fluid communities of practice, asking and answering research questions that cannot be reduced to a single genre, medium, discipline, or institution.... It is a global, trans-historical, and transmedia approach to knowledge and meaning-making.

    We're living in the age of the IT revolution. Computers and other kinds of digital devices (who can live without a smartphone nowadays?) have transformed the way we live in a way that hasn't happened since maybe Gutenberg printed that Bible.

    Information technology has also changed the way we do scholarship and research. The kinds of questions we ask as scholars, how we find the answers to them, where we access information—that's all been transformed by information technology.

    Burdick and Drucker's definition of Digital Humanities is important because it emphasizes just how much information technology has changed the way we do things. These scholars are pointing out that it's not just GoogleMaps that's changed how we find our way around: things like GoogleScholar, Wikipedia, and Shmoop (oh yeah), have changed the way that we do research and the way we learn.

  • Stephen Ramsay

    Digital Humanities is about building things. I'm willing to entertain highly expansive definitions of what it means to build something. I also think the discipline includes and should include people who theorize about building, people who design so that others might build, and those who supervise building (the coding question is, for me, a canard, insofar as many people build without knowing how to program). I'd even include people who are working to rebuild systems like our present, irretrievably broken system of scholarly publishing. But if you are not making anything, you are not—in my less-than-three-minute opinion—a digital humanist.

    Stephen Ramsay's definition of Digital Humanities is pretty famous. He's saying that Digital Humanities is all about "building," though he's open about what building means exactly.

    Basically, according to Ramsay, digital Humanists are builders: they don't just "research" things; they make things. Some may be computer programmers, and in that case they'll build programs that help us do research in a more effective way. Some may not know how to program, and in that case they may "build" other things, like new ways of publishing.

    Ramsay's addressing a big question among Digital Humanities: do you have to know how to code if you want to be considered legit? Ramsay says no: for him, it's just necessary to build something.

    But to me, there's always been a profound—and profoundly exciting and enabling—commonality to everyone who finds their way to dh [digital humanities]. And that commonality, I think, involves moving from reading and critiquing to building and making.

    "Build," though, casts a wider net… All the technai of Digital Humanities—data mining, xml encoding, text analysis, gis, Web design, visualization, programming, tool design, database design, etc—involve building; only a few of them require programming, per se.

    The stuff that we usually associate with Digital Humanities—stuff like data mining, text analysis, and web design etc.—all involves building. But not all of this stuff involves programming; Ramsay's saying that that you can be a builder without necessarily having to be a programmer.

    For example, as a Digital Humanist, you could come up with a concept for a website, and a computer programmer could then go ahead and execute it for you. Ramsay's idea is that even if you just come up with the concept, you're still building something, same as the computer programmer who actually creates the website for you based on your concept.

  • John Unsworth

    One of the many things you can do with computers is something that I would call humanities computing, in which the computer is used as tool for modelling humanities data and our understanding of it, and that activity is entirely distinct from using the computer when it models the typewriter, or the telephone, or the phonograph, or any of the many other things it can do.

    You can do two types of things with a computer. Sure, you can use it do things like Skype with your grandma, or write an English essay, or listen to your music collection.

    But you can also use a computer to help you understand data better—and here we're talking about humanities data specifically.

    Let's say that you're writing an essay on children in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. You've got the book in digital form, and you do a search for the word "child" or "children" in the text, just to see how many times the word comes up. This type of activity is completely different from using the computer to Skype with grandma; it involves using the computer to conduct research. When you use the computer to conduct research in this way, you're doing "humanities computing." Yup, it can be as easy as that.

    Unsworth is drawing a really important distinction here. He's pointing out that we can use computers in simple ways (turning on Skype, listening to music, etc.) and complex ways (to do research). It's only when we are using computers to do research that we are engaging in "humanities computing," the other popular term for "Digital Humanities."

    We are by now well into a phase of civilization when the terrain to be mapped, explored, and annexed is information space, and what's mapped is not continents, regions, or acres but disciplines, ontologies, and concepts. We need representations in order to navigate this new world, and those representations need to be computable, because the computer mediates our access to this world, and those representations need to be produced at first-hand, by someone who knows the terrain.

    Five hundred years ago, the big quest was to explore and map out the rest of the world.

    At this point, we know pretty much every corner of the globe. But what we're just beginning to explore and discover is "information space." That's all that virtual space that we access through a computer. There are all kinds of new, cool things to be discovered there that we are just beginning to understand.

    How can we discover all that information? Well, through information technology, naturally—you know, computers. We can only discover and map this world through computers because it's only through computers that we have access to this "information space" in the first place.

    Unsworth is emphasizing that computers and information technology represent the new frontier. For him, the job of Digital Humanists is to map and explore this new frontier—just like all those explorers who sailed around the globe and mapped out the physical world.

  • Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

    So what is digital humanities and what is it doing in English departments?...First, after numeric input, text has been by far the most tractable data type for computers to manipulate. Unlike images, audio, video, and so on, there is a long tradition of text-based data processing that was within the capabilities of even some of the earliest computer systems and that has for decades fed research in fields like stylistics, linguistics, and author attribution studies, all heavily associated with English departments.

    What on earth do computers have to do with English literature? A lot, actually.

    Let's think this through. The study of literature is all about texts, right? And texts are made up of thousands, hundreds of thousands, thousands of millions of words. So far, so good. Well, computers are really good at analyzing text: they can zip through all of those millions of words and find patterns in the blink of an eye. It would take our little brains decades to do that.

    In a nutshell: digital research methods can help us analyze and understand literary texts more efficiently and more deeply.

  • Lincoln Mullen

    Digital humanities is a spectrum. To put it another way, all humanities scholars use digital practices and concepts to one degree or another, even those who do not identify as digital humanists. Working as a digital humanist is not one side of a binary, the other side of which is working as a traditional scholar.

    Moving from these practices to the digital humanities is a difference of degree, not of kind. It's only one step from searching Word documents to using Zotero and from there it is only a few more steps to text mining. A scholar who uses online digital collections is that much closer to curating an online collection, perhaps using Omeka.net. A professor who can post readings to Blackboard can create a course website using WordPress. Circulating papers for comment via e-mail might be a second cousin to posting your manuscript online for comment, but the two types of review are related.

    In the age of information technology, we're all Digital Humanists on some level. Even if you're doing something as simple as searching a PDF document of an article for a certain word, you're getting your Digital Humanities on. Even if all you're doing is putting some course materials on a website, you're also gettin' down with the D.H.

    The point is that it's not so easy to draw a sharp distinction between "traditional scholars" and "Digital Humanists." Any scholar in this day and age uses digital resources to some degree to do his or her work. Even if you're not going all out and programming all kinds of complicated computer software to help you do research in new ways, you're still acting like a Digital Humanist whenever you turn that computer on.

  • Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth

    Yet even a cursory glance at this Companion's table of contents reveals how broadly the field now defines itself. It remains deeply interested in text, but as advances in technology have made it first possible, then trivial to capture, manipulate, and process other media, the field has redefined itself to embrace the full range of multimedia. Especially since the 1990s, with the advent of the World Wide Web, digital humanities has broadened its reach, yet it has remained in touch with the goals that have animated it from the outset: using information technology to illuminate the human record, and bringing an understanding of the human record to bear on the development and use of information technology.

    Digital Humanities is a totally broad field. That makes the field kind of hard to defined, but at the core of Digital Humanities, there are two basic ideas.

    The first idea is that Digital Humanities is all about using information technology to help us shed light on and better understand literature, history, and the human record, specifically by allowing us better to analyze and comprehend texts.

    The second idea is that Digital Humanists are into figuring out how we can better design and use information technology to serve the purposes of scholars interested in the human record. What types of programs, digital methods, and websites do we need to develop so that we can do our work more effectively?

  • Thomas Rommel

    Computers are not used for the sake of using new tools, but computers can supplement the critic's work with information that would normally be unavailable to a human reader. Speed, accuracy, unlimited memory, and the instantaneous access to virtually all textual features constitute the strength of the electronic tool. By tapping into the ever-growing pool of knowledge bases and by linking texts in ways that allow them to be used as huge repositories of textual material to draw on, traditional literary criticism can profit substantially from the knowledge and expertise accumulated in the search for a more rigorous analysis of literature as practiced in computer-based studies.

    Computers can do things that our brains simply can't do. They're like super-brains: for example, they can zip through hundreds of thousands of words in a second and find all kinds of patterns. They also have huge memories—and,unlike our own messy brains, they don't make mistakes.

    The super-capabilities of computers are a great complement to the literary critic's brain. The literary critic has to figure out what to ask the computer to do, but then the computer can do it better, more quickly, and more accurately than any mere human could hope to do.

  • Mark Sample

    The promise of the digital is not in the way it allows us to ask new questions because of digital tools or because of new methodologies made possible by those tools. The promise is in the way the digital reshapes the representation, sharing, and discussion of knowledge. We are no longer bound by the physical demands of printed books and paper journals, no longer constrained by production costs and distribution friction, no longer hampered by a top-down and unsustainable business model. And we should no longer be content to make our work public achingly slowly along ingrained routes, authors and readers alike delayed by innumerable gateways limiting knowledge production and sharing.

    Digital Humanities is all about sharing. The reason it's such an important field is that it has transformed the way we access and approach knowledge.

    Thanks to digital technology, we can read books on a computer screen now. We can share that awesome English essay we wrote with someone who lives across the world by uploading it to a website, or emailing it to them. We can self-publish our books online, instead of waiting for some uppity publisher to give us approval and backing.

    Sample's point is that the digital age has made information much more easily available to us. Now, with the click of a button, we're on the Shmoop website and on our way to understanding the history of a literary movement, or a Renaissance text. This is what the Digital Humanities is all about: it's about allowing us to share knowledge in new and more open ways.