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Reflections on #DH2013: History of Digital Humanities?
July 22, 2013 - 8:19pm

Last week, I was in Lincoln, Nebraska for the annual international Digital Humanities conference. I presented and that went really well. We were placed on a panel with Willard McCarty, who also happened to be the Busa Award winner (in other words, a pretty big deal). He talked about the difficulties of being truly interdisciplinary during our panel and the importance of knowing the history of DH in his keynote address.

(You should also check out a podcast we did about our paper from the great Digital Dialogues series.)

These are all subjects that are near and dear to my heart; trained in comparative literature, I am all too aware of the difficulties that come with trying to be interdisciplinary. I am also aware of the difficulties in breaking into a new field, especially one as amorphous and still undefined as Digital Humanities. This is not to say that DH is under-theorized or does not have a long list of varying and competing histories; instead what I mean to say is that there is still a resistance to defining DH as a discipline, which makes it difficult to know where to start.

As an example, I have often asked the question: If one was setting up a reading list for a comp exam in DH, what would be included on such a list? I immediately received feedback (see the link in the first sentence) about how this is truly when rubber hits the road and we have to admit and embrace a set of foundational texts. Seeing as how there are few explicit PhD programs in the digital humanities (or humanities computing), it becomes difficult for an outsider looking in to really learn the history (or histories) of DH.

I think another underlying issue to the perceived lack of history (or knowledge of said history) is the “hack versus yack” debate. The impetus on “doing” rather than “talking” appears to favor building rather than reading, coding rather than talking. I wonder if this very real tension when talking about digital humanities has led to a collective unease around the history of the discipline. This isn’t to say that the history isn’t important, or that there isn’t a history, but rather it hasn’t been prioritized within the larger community as something worth studying and knowing; rather than read your history, better to learn to code in python instead.

You can and should, of course, be able to do both. And know your own “home” humanities discipline well, too. So we once again get back to the “super-humanist” problem. How does one be a good digital humanist and combine both the digital with whatever humanities discipline we are (traditionally) trained in? Which comes back around to McCarty’s point about interdisciplinarity. And around and around we go.

I’m not sure what to make of this, other than to feel overwhelmed. I’m hoping that after a week at TEMiC, I’ll at least be a little more up to speed in the realm of textual editing and the digital. And I wonder if this isn’t a model for various sub-fields that fit under the DH umbrella, to help us learn the history, but also combine that history with our field of experience and expertise. 

 

 

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