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Debates in Digital Humanities: Transparency FTW!
January 22, 2012 - 8:06pm

Just after Christmas, I received my review copy of the new book Debates in the Digital Humanities from University of Minnesota Press, edited by Matthew K. Gold. I have to admit that I’m just halfway through it, but I’m going to share my impressions of the book so far.

What impressed me the most about the book are the collaborative spirit, as well as the spirit of mutual respect, that these authors share. The authors may disagree about whether or not digital humanities needs more or less theory, are nice or not, or should be political or not, but they came together to work together on the book, as explained by Gold in the introduction, using a “semi-public peer review system.”

“In the space of two weeks, the thirty essays that went through the process received 568 comments -- an average of nearly twenty comments per essay. Many contributors went far beyond the single essay that had been assigned to them, commentating on as many as half the essays in the volume.” (xiii)

I’ve come to a realization in my exploration of digital humanities; I am a process freak. I want to pull back the curtain and examine how and why things came to be in the form they are. My dissertation was all about archival work into the process of translating, editing, and anthologizing one poet’s work. As Graduate Student President while doing my PhD, I got to explore how the university works from the inside, from the top to the bottom. When I read the previous quote, all I could think of was, I want to read THAT!

But what we are left with is a book that reflects much (but admittedly not all) the diversity, openness, and community spirit of the digital humanities. For someone who came of age as an academic during a time where professors still spoke with bitterness at ideological and theoretical divides long past, it’s really refreshing to read from a community that, despite some pretty glaring differences (particularly, to me, on the political front in terms of how far digital humanities can and should go in terms of hacking), everyone largely gets along.

It helps, to me, that I “know” most of these writers not because of their prominence in the field but because I follow them on Twitter (and a lot of them know me, too). This is not to indicate that I am part of the “in crowd” (another debate taken up in the book); if anything I still have my face pressed against the window trying to figure out how to get “in” (again, whatever that means). What I mean to indicate is that there is a demystification process, either purposefully or indirectly, because of most DH’ers commitment to openness and transparency. They are free to confront and challenge each other directly and in the open for the rest of us to see on Twitter, their blogs, and (perhaps most importantly) in the comments’ section of said blogs. It’s less intimidating in a lot of ways.

(Don’t believe me? Read this post from a true DH “outsider” and his experience at the MLA this year.)

And we are free, too, to confront, challenge, and question them, in public. And more often than not, I find they respond. That I can be a part of a larger discussion in my position, that I don’t need to wait to receive permission through gatekeeping devices like traditional journals or edited volumes, means a lot to me and I think it means a lot to the future of scholarship more generally. But this also underscores the limitations of a book like this; it is an important document, a snapshot of what’s going on the digital humanities right now, but sitting alone reading the book, I had the impulse to hit the non-existent “Comment” button or immediately tweet the author (I was on a plane with no wifi – truly going Old-School in reading the book). Of course, I couldn’t, and I think the most exciting thing that this book provides is a resources of important essays, all conveniently put in the same place (and given the number and variety of essays included, it would take an individual much, much longer to have found all of these pieces on their own), and we can then take to our own blogs and Twitter feeds to offer our version of Debates in Digital Humanities 2.0.

Because, again, as Gold points out, “the field of digital humanities does move quickly; the speed of discourse is often noted with surprise by newcomers, especially at conferences when the Twitter feeds buzz with links to announcements, papers, prototypes, slides, white papers, photos, data visualizations, and collaborative documents” (xii). One perfect example of this speed is Charlie Edwards’ lament in her essay “The Digitial Humanities and Its Users” that there wasn't a “DH Commons” for new scholars interested in the digital humanities to go to and learn about DH and the DH community. Enter http://dhcommons.org/, launched in January 2012, with the goal and purpose of “a hub for people and organizations to find projects to work with, and for projects to find collaborators.” It remains to be seen if this new initiative will provide the access or roadmap that Edwards was calling for, but it’s a good example of how fast DH moves. 

The Storify I created and linked to above is a collection of tweets and posts pre- and post-MLA, after the book was published but before many people have had a chance to read it. I see echoes of essays in blog posts; for example Bethany Nowviskie’s post/MLA talk about the Lunaticks echoes what Tom Scheinfeldt writes in his essay, “Where’s the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions?” Both argue that we are in a time between great discoveries, building and refining the tools needed to make said discoveries and insights, be it the parlor trick of the earliest light bulb or the early professional structures that allowed scientific discovery to flourish later.

But the tweets are also about how digital humanities have been popularized (Stanley Fish, anyone?) and about who has been left out, ignored, or marginalized in the center of the debate (issues that come up in Edward’s essay as well as a published blog post by William Pannapacker). But again, the wonderful thing is that these omissions can be immediately rectified to a certain extent by writing, tweeting, and posting the responses. Those who are interested can use or follow the hashtag #DHdebates. The book is being taught in digital humanities classes across the country this semester, and we can all take part in the debate.

In my next post, I’m going to focus on one very important area of contention, not within the digital humanities, but a battle that is coming to head between DH and traditional academia, nay the legal world at large: the notion of openness. 

 

 

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