Digital humanities scholars have recently found their work the topic of a number of snarky columns, and the arguments are now drawing support from some unexpected allies: digital humanities scholars themselves.
Last month, the Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman warned readers not to "spend eight years getting a doctorate with the sole purpose of becoming digital humanist." Writing for Ozy, Sanjena Sathian argued that "English doesn’t need to be code’s sidekick." On Friday, Adam Kirsch dismissed the “breathless prophecies” about big data in education as mere hype, and blasted the language seen in digital humanities publications as inspired by “the spirit of salesmanship” seen at an Apple product unveiling.
“Despite all this enthusiasm, the question of what the digital humanities is has yet to be given a satisfactory answer,” Kirsch, senior editor of The New Republic, wrote. “Indeed, no one asks it more often than the digital humanists themselves. The recent proliferation of books on the subject -- from sourcebooks and anthologies to critical manifestos -- is a sign of a field suffering an identity crisis, trying to determine what, if anything, unites the disparate activities carried on under its banner.”
Snark aside, the central argument in Kirsch’s column about the digital humanities -- that the bubble of expectations may have popped -- is gaining traction among digital humanities scholars.
“I agree that people are starting to realize that DH isn't the kind of savior of humanities jobs it was touted as being a while ago,” Adeline Koh, director of DH@Stockton, the Center for the Digital Humanities at Richard Stockton College, said in an email.
Koh and other digital humanities scholars distanced themselves from some of the most zealous predictions about the digital humanities made years ago -- namely, the idea that incorporating digital tools into research and teaching would launch the humanities disciplines into the national conversation, increase the supply of tenure-track positions and send students scrambling to declare themselves as English and history majors.
“There was a sense -- and I think that some people in the digital humanities are complicit in this -- that the digital humanities would save the humanities, or at least save humanities jobs,” said Marc Bousquet, associate professor of English at Emory University. “Part of what’s happened is that many institutions have invested in one or two digital people and expected an increase in their major or some other evidence of a revived humanities discourse, and so they’re feeling some disappointment, or rather a bursting of the bubble.”
Instead, Bousquet said, students are opting to study journalism, mass communication and rhetoric and composition to learn how to use digital tools. “What students are choosing is production-based studies -- production meaning what we used to call composing across a broad range of media,” he said.
Digital humanities scholars have also criticized the columns for focusing much of their attention on English departments. Roopika Risam, assistant professor of English at Salem State University, said the production-based fields Bousquet mentioned should also be considered “important genealogies of digital humanities."
“The idea of technology ‘taking over’ English or other humanities disciplines is overblown,” Risam said in an email. “Digital humanities tends to appear on the MLA job list as a desirable secondary specialty, but there are few primarily digital humanities tenure-track jobs.”
While the digital humanities gave scholars a name for the work they had been doing for decades, it hasn’t always been easy to define. Some Ph.D. students therefore attest to having “doubled up” on traditional scholarship -- such as journal articles -- to make themselves more attractive to hiring committees.
“In some respects, digital humanities poses bigger challenges than other fields,” Risam wrote. “So on top of scholarly labor to produce a result, there's an additional layer of labor: making results legible as ‘scholarship.’ The noise that comes along with claims about digital humanities as savior (or killer) is a distraction to that complex task.”
Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory and a self-described traditionalist who has been speaking on the issue, said he welcomed the scaling back of expectations.
“The digital humanities will produce some interesting and important work, but it will suffer the same diminution that the humanities have,” Bauerlein said. “It’s not going to make the humanities seem more hip and up to date and cutting edge.... The digital humanities will operate within the larger umbrella of the humanities, which is shrinking.”
Instead, he repeated an argument for the “softer” digital humanities, such as using technology to work with texts. That practice has been going on for years without controversy, he said.
“We’ve had 30,000 items of scholarship on Shakespeare in the last 30 to 35 years,” Bauerlein said. “There could be things to reveal, to display about Hamlet using these new technologies.... That’s the promise of digital humanities. The revolutionary claims? The ‘savior of the humanities’ claim? Forget it. This is hype.”