Editing Modernism in Canada


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June 7, 2014

DHSI and the Never-Ending Learning Curve of the Digital Humanities

As I sat through a course on GIS this week, learning theories of cartography and the intricacies of software, perhaps my largest takeaway was a reaffirmation of how different a field the digital humanities really is. On Monday 24 students entered the room with wildly varied backgrounds and levels of experience. Some had never forayed into digital research before; others had been teaching DH courses for years. Regardless of their starting point, however, by Friday all had substantially increased their knowledge and some incredible historical and literary mapping projects were already underway. In combination, the universal success of these populations suggests a truth about the digital humanities: the bar to entry is comparatively low, but you are never done learning.

Even more than the end products of this course, the questions that arose throughout the week were indicative of this fact. Questions like: ‘what constitutes data?’, ‘can location names be pulled from a text file automatically?’, ‘how does a database work?’, ‘what are the options for incorporating multimedia into the interface?’, ‘how can I share my work online?’,  and ‘does imposing a literal geography change the source information?’.  This mix of theoretical and practical queries, the answers to which were largely beyond the scope of a one-week course, stress the need for collaboration and a continual advancement of skills, two core components of digital humanities research. We are in a field where there is already too much to know and technology is ever advancing; keeping up on what you should be learning and who can provide the skills you lack is vital to pursuing progressive research.

The importance of DHSI for supporting scholars in this way is fairly clear. Few of us are in a position to commit to a full-term course, even if we live near a university that has some, but a weeklong intensive is manageable. For many courses, including the GIS one I had the chance to take, it also means being taught by a genuine expert in their area. Perhaps most significant, though, is the scale of the event and the opportunities it offers to network with some 600 fellow students and instructors. These interactions foster cooperative projects and inspire new ideas that might otherwise never arise. For all these reasons this week has taught me just how fundamental DHSI is to digital humanities in Canada and beyond. I was thrilled to be a part of it, and hope that I can join the ranks of annual attendees.