I did not attend MLA ‘11, but given that there were around 40 panels focused on Digital Humanities/New Media, I wish that I would have. In particular, I would’ve liked to have been a part of the “standing room only” crowd gathered for the “History and Future of Digital Humanities” panel, which according to various blogs and reports has caused quite a hullabaloo. Since I wasn’t able to jump into the fray in L.A., Bill Caraher asked that, as the faculty member at UND who teaches the course officially named “Digital Humanities” in the NDUS system, I give my two cents on the subject and how I teach my course, so I will.
First, two very brief definitions seem to be in order. Digital humanities is the umbrella term often used to describe the conversion of analog materials (print, photos, audio, video, etc.) to electronic format. Meanwhile, New Media refers to “born digital” objects—works created on a computer meant to be read/viewed on a computer. These terms sometimes seem almost interchangeable, but while related, there is a difference in fields.
That said, live blogging from the conference for The Chronicle of Higher Education, William Pannapacker claims that the Digital Humanities went from being seen as the “next big thing” at MLA ’10 to “the cool-kids’ table” at MLA ’11. I have to admit, describing digital humanists as the “cool kids” made me laugh. On one hand, for a moment, the cafeteria scene from countless teen movies from the 80s and 90s popped into my head. My mind quickly rearranged the universe and rather than have the geeks/nerds and theater/artists tables be the object of ridicule for the jocks and preppies, the jocks and preppies were sneaking wish-filled glances at the promised land of popularity: one filled with books, art, and technology. It’s an alternate reality that I think I could live with.
On the other hand, I thought about my current situation, where, as someone interested in arts and humanities technology, I’m still trying to be acknowledged by the “cool kids:” those in STEM research. Yet, as Stephen Ramsay, associate professor of English and fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, has remarked “the ‘cool kids’ metaphor, honestly, makes [him] worry about [his] career”. Yes, well, it just goes to show that while we may all be years out of high school, we apparently can’t let go of the lunchroom mentality.
Pannapacker forces us to experience this unfortunate high school flashback because he claims that “the digital humanities seem more exclusive, more cliquish.” As he puts it:
The digital humanities have some internal tensions, such as the occasional divide between builders and theorizers, and coders and non-coders. But the field, as a whole, seems to be developing an in-group, out-group dynamic.
In other words, given the growth of digital humanities as a field, as demonstrated by the large number of panels on the subject at MLA ’11, the fear seems to be that at some point one will need to become part of the digital cloud because, if one chooses to remain analog, one will find oneself with a fate similar to Betamax.
Now, do I want to get into the whole print vs. digital debate here? Not particularly, especially as I believe that the 41st Annual UND Writers Conference “Mind the Gap: Print, New Media, Art” discussed that topic and others quite in depth for five days (for those of you who missed it, much of the footage will be streamed as part of the UND Writers Conference Digital Collection. It will be available at http://www.undwritersconference.org/WCVirtual_Library.html shortly, so you can watch it for yourself).
However, I do want to talk a bit about the claim that the digital humanities are “exclusive.” One part of me, at the risk of being quoted out of context, wants to say “yes, of course, the digital humanities are exclusive,” or at least as exclusive as any other academic field. Meaning, I can walk into the chemistry department and declare myself a chemist, but if I don’t know the first thing about how to calculate molarity, I don’t think anyone in the field would agree with my self-identification. But, I could become a chemist, if I learned a few things (okay a lot of things). That said, of all fields, digital humanities is already rather inclusive and one need look no further than the UND Working Group in Digital and New Media for evidence. The Working Group has members from English, History, Languages, Communications, Computer Science, Music, Art & Design, as well as the Chester Fritz Library (and if you’re interested in such things, just let me know). So, as Ramsay notes, “anyone can join,” but you may need to know, or be willing to learn, certain things.
So now a number of questions emerge: 1) “Do I have to code?” 2) “Do I have to build?” 3) “Where do I learn these things?” My short answers are 1) no 2) not necessarily, and 3) here at UND.
And now for the longer answers.
1) “Do I have to code?”
As Ramsey notes, “[o]nly a radical subset of the DH community knows how to code” and by code he means traditional computer programming. So, one does not have to be able to code to be a digital humanist. Yet many have what is called “procedural literacy.” One reductive definition of this term is when an individual understands the structure, logic, and function of a program/programming language, even if that person couldn’t write the application herself (for those who want to read more about procedural literacy, one might start with Ian Bogost’s article with the same title (.pdf)).
So, do you have to have “procedural literacy” to be a digital humanist? Well, no. It’s an inherently collaborative field and if you don’t program or don’t even have the faintest idea about how one functions, you just have to know someone who does who is willing to work with you. However, “procedural literacy” does help. And here I can’t help but think of the character Jack Gladney from Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985). Gladney is the founder and chair of Hitler Studies at College-on-the-Hill; he is an internationally renowned scholar on Hitler, yet he cannot read, speak, or write German. So, can one be a digital humanist without understanding the cyberinfrastructure that makes a project possible? Yes, but in my opinion, it would be better if you had at least some familiarity with the nuts and bolts of the underlying structure. In some ways this brings us to the next question:
2) “Do I have to build?”
This question ties back to one of the “internal tensions” pointed out by Pannapacker: the “divide between builders and theorizers.” Before I address that, perhaps a description of “building” is necessary. As Ramsay explains:
All the technai of Digital Humanities — data mining, XML encoding, text analysis, GIS, Web design, visualization, programming, tool design, database design, etc — involve building.
Builders create something that wasn’t there before and then theorizers ponder what was built. It seems somewhat obvious to say that there can’t be theories about the field without digital projects as a foundation, but I’m sure there’s someone who would disagree with me. But to go back to the “divide” and whether or not one has to build to be a digital humanist, in some ways this questions makes me think of any given English department (or Film or Music or Art department for that matter). Inevitably, within those departments, you will have folks who are “creative” —writers, cinematographers, composers, painters, and animators—working alongside those who are “critics” or “theorists.” As such, my identity as an English professor (usually) isn’t questioned because I’m incapable of writing descent Petrarchan sonnet, as I understand its structure and can therefore comment upon it. In my opinion, it’s roughly the same for theorizers of digital humanities. They don’t have to build as long as they have an idea of how the work is put together. Moreover, there are plenty of people who create and also theorize in English, Art, Music, and Film, and the same is true of the digital humanities.
That said, there has been some discussion that the digital humanities is an “under-theorized” field. As Geoffrey Rockwell explains:
The digital humanities, in part because of the need for [practitioners] with extensive skills, tend to look undertheorized, and it is. It is undertheorized the way any craft field that developed to share knowledge that can’t be adequately captured in discourse is. It is undertheorized the way carpentry or computer science are.
I find this intriguing. I have an initial reaction as to why the digital humanities might not be as heavily theorized as other fields: those of us in the middle of building our projects are too immersed in the day to day details of design and functionality to find the time to offer a broader comment on the subject…but that might just be me. I fully intend to have a discussion about this with Geoffrey when he visits UND at the beginning of March (additional information about his visit is at the end of this entry). In the meantime, I direct you to Bill Caraher’s blog, as he has already begun the conversation.
That said, I’m much less concerned about the lack of theorists in the digital humanities (“if you build it they will come”) than I am about the lack of women in the field. As Rockwell points out: “we suffer from being a field in which an old boys (and a few women) network formed because there are few formal ways that people can train.” And this, finally, brings me to the last of the questions I posed earlier.
3) Where can I learn about digital humanities?
Currently, there aren’t many graduate schools in the country that offer degrees in the digital humanities per se. As a result, those who want to focus on the digital humanities sometimes find themselves in Master’s programs in Library Science and Information Technology. Beyond the love of the field, there does seem to be increasing student interest perhaps because, as Rockwell points out: “There are a lot more jobs per capita now in the digital humanities than in traditional fields. This is in part because of all the semi-academic and para-academic jobs in libraries, digital humanities centres, computing observatories and instructional technology centres.” That said, there are a number of institutions that offer undergraduate programs in the field, and many more that offer courses that will get students on their way. UND is one of these institutions.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this meandering entry, I teach “English 428: Digital Humanities.” I guess that I could be classified as one of the “few women” in the field, and I admit that my training came from those who might be part of the “old boys” network (two of my mentors were previously connected to the University of Virginia, a long-time powerhouse in digital humanities). But, my class at UND does not have any prerequisites and is open to all (although currently only approved for undergraduate credit).
In my class, my objective is to make my students builders, not merely users of digital collections. We discuss the nuts and bolts of humanities computing, as well as how to create a workflow for a digital collection. We also discuss project management. And, above all else, my primary goal is to teach them Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) compliant extensible markup language (XML), which is the archival standard for textual encoding. To this end, I give them a file to encode that will ultimately be included in a digital collection that I am currently building. Now, I’m sure someone is already thinking “sure, free labor.” Yes, I admit, I need the help, but I find that if students are given work that will become publicly available, something very interesting happens. First, there is an investment and ownership in the project, as in “I built this. My name is attached to it, and I want it to be as accurate as possible.” Second, because it is the acknowledged work of a student, she is able to put it on her resume/CV and point potential employers/graduate institutions to the site. Third, because I am also working on the same project, I am no longer just that instructor in front of the room, but rather a mentor/colleague sitting next to the student figuring out the issue at hand. When there is a question of what or how a word should be tagged, it gets turned over to the group for discussion. My perennial favorite is “How should I tag God? Is God a person? Is God a name?” And, I think that I am having some success in achieving my objectives, at least based on periodic emails from former students who write to tell me that something that we covered in class just came up during the course of their day and, more importantly, how they were able to explain why one choice was better than another based on their experience.
That said, by the end of the semester, inevitably, one or two students discover that they really like coding and want to know more. When this happens, I encourage them to take other classes at UND that aren’t labeled “digital humanities,” but will help them to become a well-rounded digital humanist. For example, I suggest a number of courses in Computer Science, as well as courses in time-based media in Art & Design, Digital History, GIS, and new media theory. As such, although UND does not have an official program in the digital humanities, I think that there are enough courses and interested faculty on campus that a student might put together an Interdisciplinary Studies Program to that end.
All of which is to say, I don’t believe that the digital humanities is an “exclusive,” “cliquish” field, especially here at UND (particularly as we are really just beginning to have a digital humanities/New Media presence on campus). We are doing our best to get as many interested people as possible involved in the fields of digital humanities/new media. But, I can understand why some people might feel excluded. For example, say that ten faculty members were hanging around having a conversation in Greek. I don’t speak Greek, so I can’t understand their discussion (let alone contribute to it), and therefore, I might feel excluded. The same is true for digital humanists; we might get together and talk about any number of things that might seem like a foreign language, and thus cause people to feel like they can’t participate. However, it goes back to what I said earlier: it’s not that the group is purposefully excluding someone, it’s just that that individual needs to learn some things so that she can participate in the ongoing discourse.
If you would like to learn more about the digital humanities and how to incorporate it into the classroom, join Geoffrey Rockwell at an On Teaching Lunch Seminar on March 1, 2011 from 12:30-1:30 in O’Kelly/Ireland 260. Just make sure to RSVP here http://webapp.und.edu/dept/oid/programsEvents/onTeachingLunchSeminars.php.
If you would like to learn more about the UND Working Group in Digital and New Media, feel free to email me.