Editing Modernism in Canada


September 29, 2011

Are the Digital Humanities Relevant?

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?

One Response to “Are the Digital Humanities Relevant?”

  1. Anouk says:

    Hi Reilly – great post, thank you. I’m at the start of teaching a new course on Digital Humanities, so I’ve been thinking about these issues too, and in particular trying to see them from the point of view of undergraduates. In the UK the humanities are under threat as never before, with departments closing, teaching budgets cut to nothing and so forth. Plus the system by which the government distributes funding to universities requires us all to come up with metrics to prove the “impact” (= the value) of our research, so these are very much live issues for all of us on the other side of the pond.

    I too have met the dichotomy you speak of, between the instrumental and the knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake views of the humanities. It’s an issue about which people feel passionately, so it’s not surprising that people often end up articulating their views in such binary terms. But I am not convinced that it needs to be a dichotomy. The fact that DH teaches skills that will be useful in the workplace need not diminish its extraordinary ability to generate insights, sharpen and transform existing analytical tools, better contextualise existing research, and, in short, to allow us to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake (and, if we’re lucky, to derive enormous pleasure from doing so). Indeed, the more I work with graduate students the more it strikes me that the rather prosaic skills such as communication skills, the ability to work collaboratively, IT literacy and so forth are precisely those that one needs in order to succeed in a research career. So – although I realise that you aren’t the one drawing it, merely remarking on its existence – the duality between the academy and the real world seems to me an unhelpful one, and one that DH is conceptually useful in helping to undermine.

    There is also an extent to which one needs to be strategic in working with, rather than against, the discourse of the world in which we hope to make our interventions. I’m delighted that, by giving my undergraduates some so-called “real world skills” via a DH course, they might be taken more seriously by a world which delegitimises the study of the humanities, and they may go on to get precisely those kinds of jobs in finance, government, business and so on that not only require the kind of critical thinking skills that appear to have been in rather short supply in the run-up to the various global and regional financial crises of recent times, but that also create the conditions of possibility for a more equitable world. I don’t teach my students critical thinking and close analysis specifically so they can go out and get these jobs, but if some of them end up going into these fields and exercising the critical muscles they learnt to flex while doing textual analysis in my classroom – either using DH methodologies or more conventional humanistic ones – then that is something to be happy about.

    I do agree that we won’t understand the full import of the challenge DH poses to the humanities for quite some time. Perhaps not in our lifetimes. But, until then, what a ride it will be.

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