• College Ready Writing

    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


Why Do DH?

This might sound naive, but digital humanities provides three things that my current position within higher education does not.

October 18, 2012

I was watching Dan Pink’s RSA Animate on motivation (again) today with my class and thinking about his conclusions that autonomy, mastery, and purpose drive us. My mind was wandering the third time in a row I watched it, and I finally realized why it is that digital humanities is so appealing to me, why I want to “do” DH (I’ll be writing on Monday about what it means to “do” DH, at least to me and a group of graduate students at Western).

Autonomy, mastery, purpose; DH provides all of that for me in a way that my current position (and traditional scholarship) do not. It’s why, even if the position doesn’t ask for anything “digital” in the job ad, I am not taking out my DH leanings from my job letter. DH provides for me something that I’ve been missing.

I realize, too, that this is why my current position has been so unfulfilling. As Pink says in the video, I am paid enough (or, rather, my husband and I collectively are paid enough) that money isn’t an issue (as long as I forget my loans exist), so it’s more than the money. Money has been the excuse, I think, but it’s been a more general dissatisfaction with my position that has been harder to articulate (and, also, I think, why I have my reservations about a dedicated and separate teaching track; if these issues of autonomy, mastery, and purpose are taken into consideration, it could work).

But back to DH. For me, there is the issue of autonomy. Because it is such a “young” field, there is lots of room to experiment and play. Also, room to do things differently than before. I can be free to collaborate and do my research in new and interesting ways (at least for me). There is a DIY mentality, too, that I enjoy (but also find problematic, on Wednesday!) that allows for work to just get done. Even large projects that require intense collaboration between various parties offer a level of autonomy that, I think, doesn’t happen anymore in higher education.

In my current position, I teach classes that are increasingly standardized in an environment where I am implicitly and explicitly told I should not be trusted to do my job well. Let’s face it, many places take the attitude towards DH expressed here that they need/want someone to explain it to them, rather than trying to dictate the terms. This, over all, isn’t a good thing, as Ted Underwood expresses, but in terms of being able to achieve a certain level of autonomy in an increasingly rigid and dictatorial environment, maybe it’s not such a bad thing.

Mastery. As Dan Pink puts it, we want to be challenged. DH, for me, right now, is a challenge. It challenges my research approach, my pedagogy, and my skill-level. I want to master and practice these new skills. I want to integrate them into my classes. I want to learn something new, heck, lots of new things. The idea of (eventually, when I have time) learning how to code is exciting to me. I have to be honest, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt this excited to learn something new, put something new into practice.

Finally, purpose. I think, for me, there is finally some purpose to my research, a purpose I didn’t have previously. My research has taken on new significations and will reach a new and bigger audience. Before, the purpose was to get it published in academic journals or with an academic publisher (which, I still do and is still a fine goal). But eventually it’s a goal (especially when you’re not on the tenure-track) that doesn’t hold a lot of meaning (yay! Four people will read my article! At least it’s indexed…). DH can provide new and different audiences, as well as new and different ways to present my research to those audiences. Again, I’m excited about my work again. Really, really excited.

So, there you go. For me (and I think many who are drawn to DH), it isn’t about what’s “new and hot” nor about what will get me a job (because now everyone needs DH). It’s about a space in academia where I can achieve a degree autonomy, mastery, and purpose that aren’t available to me in my current position. It’s not without it’s problems and challenges (more on that 


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