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What Have You Built?
February 6, 2012 - 9:13pm

About a week ago, I had a nightmare. I was presenting at a conference on a digital humanities panel. I was trying to talk about my research and interests, the DH issues I’ve been thinking about, and the opportunities left to explore, opportunities I wanted to explore. But a “senior scholar” in the field (a grey-haired tweedy academic symbol, not representing any one person) wouldn’t let me speak and kept yelling out, “What have you built? What have you built?” I was almost reduced to tears, at first trying to ignore the interruption and then when I had to admit that I had, in fact, built nothing. I ran from the room, humiliated.

Clearly, I don’t have nightmares like everyone else has nightmares.

Adding to my anxiety is this post eloquently arguing for the “small tent” definition of digital humanities; in other words, unless you’re building, you’re not doing digital humanities. Perhaps digital humanities adjacent. I have a lot of thoughts on the post (which I left in the comments), but it raises the main question for me of how much does one need to build before one is accepted as a digital humanist?

It’s a question I’ve heard a lot lately when I’ve been asking around as to what I should learn when it comes to coding/programming language: What do you want to build? I’m so new to this that I’m not even sure. I have boxes and boxes of materials I collected from archives, just sitting in my basement. Somehow, I distilled the multiple boxes into a dissertation, but in the process ended up excluding a great deal of material that is nonetheless interesting and, I think, relevant to the study of translation, canon formation, and the history of the book.

For me, digital humanities are a way to get that material out there and allow readers to interact with them in interesting and meaningful ways. Note the plural.

I was recently introduced to the Digital Thoreau project. This, I thought, is exactly what I am looking to do. Readers (or is it users?) can interact with the various versions and drafts of Thoreau’s writing, tracing the evolution of the work. I feel fortunate that my dissertation deals with poetry, as I have a “smaller” body of text to work with, and I think it also opens up possibilities to actually animate the progression of a text from draft to published form, or even the evolution of the different published forms. Having multiple translations of the same poem, with varying degrees of explanatory notes, could allow users to create their own critical “mashups,” creating new versions of the poems that can open up new critical avenues and insight.

So this is what I’d like to build. Now, I face any number of challenges in order to achieve this vision, not limited to the fact that I don’t have the technical knowledge to accomplish any of this. No, I am dealing with a contemporary author whose work is not a part of the public domain. I am also dealing with numerous different translations from various publishers, many that don’t exist anymore. Add to that archival materials that are also under various embargoes and limits, and I don’t even know that if I had the technical expertise I would be able to do what I envision.

I guess the first things that I am trying to build are bridges. Bridges between different humanities disciplines (translation, comparative literature) and bring them into digital humanities, at least in a more visible way. Looking at Mark Sample’s list of DH sessions at MLA 12, I was struck at how those working in a language other than English were off on their own panels, and probably largely attended not by those in DH but those who also worked in that language area. I think, more generally, DH could do more to bridge linguistic divides.

Even before I decided I’d do DH, I was a bit of an oddball in terms of my research interests (how many English instructors do you know who write about French authors?). It seems that I’ll be a bit of an oddball in DH as well. But when I’ve described my ideas to people, they seem excited and interested, rather than politely listening. What I’m interested in spells almost certain career suicide if I wanted a traditional academic position. In DH, it seems that it’s just one more cool idea among a lot of cool ideas.

I haven’t built anything yet. But I will.

(If you’d like to read more about my research, visit the Editing Modernism in Canada or EMiC website.)



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