Modern Languages, Digital Humanities and the impact of Interdisciplinarity

Friday, 8 April 2016 saw the eighth annual Day of Digital Humanities  in which members of the academic community took to social media to share their own versions of a Day of the Life of Digital Humanities and to build up a picture of what Digital Humanities look like across the globe. The event showcases the diverse applications and outcomes of research which falls into the category of Digital Humanities research and provided a welcome opportunity for us all to reflect on our own involvement in this field.

What do the Digital Humanities mean for scholarship?

While the concept of using technology in humanities research arguably dates back to 1949, when Jesuit priest and scholar Father Roberto Busa came up with the idea for a  machine to facilitate him in his project of  creating an index of all the words in the works of Thomas Aquinas [1], the establishment of the Digital Humanities as a discipline, a mode of working, or as a way of identifying and uniting technological approaches to scholarly research is much more recent. Nevertheless, as most modern academics use some form of technology in the long process from initial idea to proposal to presentation of findings, we could say that, to some extent, we are all Digital Humanists. A thorough engagement with the Digital Humanities, which places a real emphasis on digital methodologies and on using technology to develop innovative strategies, can often lead to exciting new avenues of research.

Digital methodologies are particularly relevant to history, literary studies and musicology, as they allow us to look at “old” material with fresh eyes. While, arguably, there is always something new to find in studying Shakespeare and Goethe, analysing arias by Mozart, looking at Medieval manuscripts, or gathering information from sources from the past, vast amounts of time and research has already been put into building up comprehensive analyses of many well-known literary texts or musical compositions. Using technological approaches to study the production, reception or context of these works, on the other hand, can give new insight, offer up undiscovered information, and make possible the creation of large-scale databases and meticulous quantitative analyses that would simply have been unthinkable to undertake manually.  Digital Humanities also goes hand-in-hand with the necessary move towards engaging with scientific methods, which has been an important topic of discussion for many years, as highlighted, for example, by the Rockefeller Commission Report of 1978, entitled “The Humanities in American Life” [2] and discussed in Stephen Pinker’s polemic “Science is not your Enemy“. [3]

 

Digital Humanities and the Modern Languages: an interdisciplinary approach

The strong affinity between Digital Humanities and Modern Languages comes, I suggest, from the broad focus of both. Willard McCarty and Harold Short have drawn-up a diagram mapping the relationship between computational methodologies and the wide-ranging disciplines encompassed by “The Humanities”, which can be found in McCarty’s 2005 article “Computational Humanities” (diagram found on p. 1125 of the linked document). This diagram highlights the pertinence of  using digital technology in designing, building, conducting and reporting research in diverse fields from musicology to history, from literary studies to philosophy, from linguistics to anthropology and many more in between. What is particularly striking, however, is that this diagram could, with very little re-working, stand for researchers working in the many departments which come under the banner of Modern Languages.

Language studies  are interdisciplinary by their very nature. In many respects, the work we do as “linguists” is similar to that of our colleagues in other fields of the humanities – be they historians, musicologists, literary scholars in English or specialists in cultural studies; the key difference is that we are working through the filter of a language which is not English, which – for many of us – is not our mother tongue, however well we might speak and understand it. The idea of Modern Language studies as a mode, rather than a discipline might be somewhat controversial but, in straitened times, when language departments across the UK are struggling to recruit students, it is worth celebrating the value of the Modern Languages as a gateway to so many other disciplines and as a vital part of so many different cultural heritages and traditions.

Considering both Digital Humanities and Modern Languages as a mode allows us, as researchers to wander into uncharted territory, to try new things and to understand language, literature, art and culture. While Digital Humanities are to be embraced wholeheartedly, we should not consider this changes in academic methodology to be a case of “out with the old, in with the new”, or a scholarly trend to be shoe-horned into every project, but as a way of re-assessing and re-defining our approach to scholarship.

 

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2011/aug/12/father-roberto-busa-academic-impact

[2] A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/

[3] Stephen Pinker, “Science is not your Enemy”, https://newrepublic.com/article/114127/science-not-enemy-humanities;