The question of the relevance of the digital humanities came up in my Digital Romanticism class with Michelle Levy at SFU, and I’m hoping EMICites will share thoughts, particularly as it pertains to our own work.
We were reading Matthew Kirschenbaum’s piece “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments“, in which he defines DH via Wikipedia as “methodological by nature.” He continues by saying DH is “a common methodological outlook.”
A concern I raised is that, by focusing on its status as a methodology, we risk eliding the question of whether or not DH is actually a transformation of the humanities, not simply a way of doing the traditional humanities differently.
Are the end goals of DH the same as the end goals of the non-digital humanities? Or even: is DH a way of bringing a shared notion of ends back to the humanities, if we agree that this is something the humanities is missing?
My inclination is to say that DH is actually a transformation of the humanities, and one that we won’t fully understand for some years. There are two distinct paths I see now, and I would love to have a conversation about which one we want to go down (or whether, of course, there is some ‘middle way’).
One path sees DH fitting the humanities more neatly into a managerial paradigm. Because DH can more easily demonstrate that it requires and creates certain transferable, technical skill-sets, because of its work with quantitative indicators and data, etc. it is potentially more appealing to those who see a necessity for humanities work to produce those kinds of measurable outcomes.
This gets directly to the question that comes up almost every time we talk about where the humanities are going: are the humanities still relevant? I generally hear two types of answers to that question. The first is to submit to it completely, and argue that the humanities are relevant because of “critical thinking skills” that are essential in the workforce. This answer comes in the terms of managerial paradigm – I’ve heard the number of Globe and Mail journalists with English degrees cited as evidence of relevance here (and I have to say I question how good an indicator that is of the success of English programs).
The second type of answer to the question of relevance resists its terms entirely, and argues that it’s an unfair one, that it’s antithetical to the humanities to even think in those terms. This is basically the “education for education’s sake” argument.
What we discussed in class, and where I see a second path opening up, is that DH can give us a new outlook on relevance. Instead of submitting to the managerial paradigm entirely, or rejecting the question of relevance, what if we reframed the definition of relevance so that instead of meaning something like “having an effect on our value in a market economy” it meant something like “serving the public good” or even “serving the public good by refining our notion of what that means.”
In his article “Electronic Scholarly Editions” Kenneth Price tells us we should “celebrate this opportunity to democratize learning.” This is the second path opening up, one wherein DH transforms the humanities in ways that I think most DH scholars (certainly all EMICites I’ve talked with) embrace.
But sometimes (and I hope we can talk about this in future posts, and in the comments here) I think we too easily assume that DH will take this path by default. It likely won’t. If the second path is the one we want to take, we are being called upon now to be conscious of, and to clearly articulate, the ways in which our contributions democratize learning and serve the public good.
I’m really excited to hear what EMIC colleagues would say about this. How do these questions play out in your own scholarship and thinking? Have they shaped your involvement with DH or with EMIC, or even your plans for your own edition?
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