Digging Deeper: Putting the H back into DH

Recently, a fellow MLIS friend and I were discussing what classes we are taking for our last term here at Western. I mentioned that I was taking a special topics course- LIS 9372: Digital Humanities and Library and Information Science and she asked me: “What is Digital Humanities?” As a former tried and tested Humanities scholar (BA and MA in English Literature), I’ve heard the term thrown around on multiple occasions and in a few English departments over the years. At Queen’s, I even had the chance to work a bit on a DH project of sorts. For a course on Web Design, my classmates and I spent some time creating a web page and writing code for an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. However, when my friend asked me to define what is meant by the term Digital Humanities, I had a hard time coming up with a response. Does it go beyond digitizing canonical texts and making them freely accessible to the public? Or does it have to do more with the tools themselves? And how is humanities used in this context? Finally, what implications does DH have for the humanities as a discipline? Needless to say, I’m still working on a response to her question.

In “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You,” Adeline Koh discusses a common perception regarding DH- that engaging in and with digital humanities projects will “save” struggling humanities departments. Apparently, there exists the school of thought that DH is going to add a new sense of purpose and relevancy to the discipline. Interest in the humanities will soar, faculty will gain research grants, and enrolment will increase exponentially. That is the dream. Perhaps, that is even the dream here at Western, where they just started a new Digital Humanities program in 2012- the first program of its kind in Canada. Koh states, however, that instead of helping to mitigate the financial cuts and setbacks of Humanities departments, Digital Humanities, as it exists currently, will only serve to accelerate their decline. Why? Because DH is focused too much on the how and not the why– that is on the tools and methodologies employed over the pedagogy and social implications of defining itself as a discipline. This oversight is mostly due to the fact that DH has its roots in humanities computing. As a result, DH projects have mostly been concerned with the digitization of texts, text encoding and markup, tools, big data, and topic modelling. However, by failing to get away from its roots and methodology…

Digital Humanities is not going to save the humanities from the chopping block. It’s only going to push the humanities further over the precipice. Because these methods alone make up a field which is simply a handmaiden to STEM – Koh, 2015

Koh posits that digital humanists should be more concerned with a new movement of DH, one that has the H, humanities itself, at its centre. The humanities, she states, has always been preoccupied with the study of how people process culture and ideas and scholars have questioned the methods used to document these ideologies. Therefore, one way that we can bring the H back into DH is to focus more on the fringe movements and consider the social implications of what we’re making- or maybe, even more importantly, what we have yet to create. Why is it, Koh asks, that we often only choose to digitize texts from canonical authors (read: white, male authors)? Why do we ignore class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality- issues that are not peripheral, but of primary importance to the humanities and, by extension, to DH?

These are great questions and, for the most part, I agree with the position that Koh takes in her article. I think that the root of her identity crisis question lies in the fact that, in the humanities, we have continuously defined ourselves in terms of what we are not. We have relied on binary oppositions (such as humanities vs. science for example) instead of embracing our interdisciplinary nature. And I think that when we become more open to ambiguity, we will become less exclusionary towards other groups and a bit closer to defining DH- that is a DH with the H equally present.

What is Digital Humanities? Sorry E—-, I’m still not sure. But when I do finally get back to you, I’ll try to define it in terms of what DH is- instead of what DH is not.

Koh, Adeline. “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You.” Hybrid Pedagogy (April 19, 2015): n.p. Web. 30 May 2015.