The most interesting segment of digital humanities to me is the digitization of texts. It is a fundamental building block for most of the other digital humanities endeavors – in order to do text mining and parsing for visualization and mapping, first the text must be computer-readable. However, as seen by the TEI drama, there is still controversy over the best method to convert a physical, printed or written work into a digitized format. Computers and Internet speeds are massively faster than in the early days of TEI, and it’s now possible to endeavor to create a more sophisticated way to digitize texts to better reflect their origins as physical objects in addition to being words. For my final project I am considering brainstorming possible techniques that could be used to help bridge the gap between computer-readable texts and the human-readable source material. I can construct mock-ups to demonstrate my ideas, rather than code actual implementations.
Ambiguity and disagreement surrounds digital humanities – it’s hardly a decisive new approach to humanities studies. Mostly “digital humanities” seems to function as a buzzword for addressing inevitable change in the humanities alongside the rapid expansion of digital technologies. In the massively collaborative world of the Internet – wikis, blogs, discussion boards – the traditional hierarchical university model is increasingly inefficient and irrelevant. The growing influence of digital humanities can be seen as academia’s recognition that new digital mediums can’t be disregarded forever – and that new digital technologies are too culturally relevant and powerful to be simply ignored by humanities-related disciplines.
Digital humanities is defined most easily as the intersection between the digital and the humanities – a definition that encompasses an enormous range of potential applications, from considering new approaches and methods for creating and disseminating humanities-related works, to harnessing modern computer power to manipulate texts and relevant data. The most fundamental but perhaps most important and enduring current application is the digital preservation of traditional-medium works.
The broadly scoped, hazily defined nature of digital humanities is inherent. The field is temporary – its purpose is to jump-start the inevitable assimilation of the modern, technologically sophisticated world into the study and creation of the humanities. Criticism of digital humanities projects by knowledgeable technologists sometimes targets the considerable enthusiasm of un-tech-savvy scholars over projects lacking technologically sound foundations. I find this sort of criticism misplaced. As the humanities strive for relevancy in our digital world, they must embrace the digital. Digital humanities projects showcase this understanding, and need widespread scholarly enthusiasm much more than deeply sophisticated underlying technologies.
The field of digital humanities is a slowly evolving field that has yet to really hit its stride and figure out what it truly wants to accomplish. I think it is an interesting area of study with some neat ideas rolling around, but I have yet to see any sort of unified goal or sense of true application across the different projects we have investigated and read about. Many of the projects that we have seen and discussed seem to have a large focus on the textual humanities, mainly using information technologies to numerically and analytically assess large libraries of texts to find patterns, similarities and links within them. They take in these writings, process the letters, spaces, and punctuation, and then use numerical or contextual patterns for various purposes. We looked at this type of Digital Humanities project extensively when we played with the Many Eyes visualization tools using the articles that we read. These visualizations really do a good job of illustrating how I feel about the DH field up to this early point in our studies.
This visualization took in Patrick Svensson’s article “The Landscape of Digital Humanities” and created a dynamic, navigable word tree out of the words in the article. It allows you to search for a phrase, then shows the words that come directly after that term, then finds the next words after that, and so on and so forth. This allows you to see what words are used most often and gives them context based on surrounding words in the article. For this particular visualization, I wanted to see if I could gather a definition of Digital Humanities. The definitions that I found underline my beliefs about the field pretty clearly. The tools and projects that many people in the field are interested in do a really nice job of highlighting the broader, grander perspective of the texts that they evaluate, giving a fairly nice overview of the subject. But when you look closely at the direct artifacts produced by the visualization, most of what you get out of the program is half-complete definitions with no outside context or very general definitions that do not quite feel complete.
You get some as short as “digital humanities as a field.” or “digital humanities as humanities computing.”, which provide nothing. Then we get a bunch of confusing half-definitions that and pieces of sentences that might lead somewhere interesting if they were complete: “digital humanities as a project in terms of history, epistemic commitments, modes of engagement with the digital, conceptual foundations for associated cyberinfrastructure, visions, and hope invested” and “digital humanities as traditional humanities computing seems rather clear, and the positioning of speculative computing outside the digital humanities would seem to contradict the very inclusive notion of”. These just confuse me with a lack of context and the fact that the idea is left dangling. There are one or two complete definitions within the visualization (such as the second definition form the top), but even they are simple and do not seem to provide a complete view of the field.
I think my current reaction to the field of Digital Humanities can best be summed up in the wonderfully prosaic definition that is third from the bottom: “digital humanities as we have seen, digital humanities hardly make up an uncontested or well-defined landscape.”
Looking back over the myriad definitions we’ve read for digital humanities, I think the one that has made the most sense to me, in the most succinct form, was the one from Kathleen Fitzpatrick that Chris Forster repeated on his post. I also appreciate the way Forster portions off the discipline in his four rings, even if by sectioning it off this way, some nuances of the field are left uncovered.
With the digital humanities, I think there is an obvious advantage and equally obvious pitfall associated. For the benefits, or possibilities, being able to analyze humanities objects of study through digital tools not previously available will allow scholars to gain new insights, open new areas of inquiry, lead to discoveries that were not conceivable without these tools. The pitfall, which is the same pitfall, I think, that besets any technological advancement, is that it is very easy to become ensnared by what the tools do without reaching real or original conclusions.
With that said, however, I’m all for digital humanities work. I think the opportunities they afford are very exciting, especially the first two rings that Forster mentions—new methodologies and new media. The Orlando Project, for example, is a project that strikes close to my interests, and it opens to me female writers I may never find in any anthology or classroom. In a scholarly approach to considering the project, I think it could be interesting to investigate where these writers are distinct from their male counterparts. Another area of digital humanities—which may actually be less a part of the discipline than as tangential to it—is media/internet studies. I just think it is interesting to explore how the internet and new types of communication available through new media have altered our society and societal conceptions.
On a final note, I went back and read the ideology vs. methodology link that Forster has in his post, and the idea of the fluctuation from methodology in the late 19th & early 20th centuries to ideology during the 20th back, I suppose, to methodology now is a nice way of thinking of that debate. It also directs me to think that my previously mentioned pitfall is perhaps not so much that as a growing pain—right now, it seems, there are so many new methodologies available, maybe scholars do need to get caught up in them… and the new ‘isms’ will follow later.