What good are the digital humanities?

I have a fundamental problem with the digital humanities: I’m not really sure what they are. I probably shouldn’t admit that given that I work with digital humanities tools every day. I also feel that I shouldn’t admit that I’m still trying to work out what DH really is, because I am working to build my career around using digital tools to studying nineteenth-century French poetry.

There are a few issues I have with DH. First of all, I wonder whether there will really be a need for the digital humanities in ten, fifteen, twenty years time? The humanities themselves have stood the test of time very well, dating back – I suppose – to Ancient Rome and / or Ancient Greece. The “digital” part, however, is a relatively new addition to our arsenal: there’s a perception that students love it, funding councils love it, and people on interview panels love it. I love it, too, but cautiously, as I’m wary of the desire to shoe-horn DH in at every opportunity. Doing so, I think, undermines the value of DH and of the research we’re already doing.

The digital humanities have already undergone a major rebranding, shifting from their old identity as the computational humanities, before it was decided that computational humanities was a bit last century, a bit computer-speak for humanists, and it should be rebranded as the digital. My issue is this: we live in a digital age, but very seldom in life do we flag up when things are digital as opposed to analogue. Most of us nowadays have smart phones, but mostly, they’re just referred to (in the UK at least) as “phones”. Nobody ever gets in their car and thinks: should I use analogue navigation (a map?) or digital navigation (Google Maps?) – they just do it. And this is precisely how I feel about the digital humanities: rather than trying to decide whether what we do is digital or not, and spend time situating ourselves within a digital culture, can’t we just accept our identity as humanists, from various disciplines and various methodological approaches?

After all, digital humanities is not a methodology in itself: those of us who approach our work digitally, using digital tools still have to decide what those tools are and how to implement them. Often this means devising the tools ourselves, working with someone else to devise the tools or using tools which are not actually designed for that purpose, appropriating them in ways which fit the job. This is all very productive. But this is still just doing our research in the twenty-first century. I’m sure – and part of me kind of hopes – that the digital humanities will fizzle out as a term. I don’t feel that it needs another new look, a PR overhaul, which is what so often happens with ways of doing things in university departments (e.g. “it’s not a research cluster it’s a strand / stream / insert other appropriate term for separating researchers out into useful groups” / “we need to give this course a more appealing title”). Instead of rebranding us, lumping us all together, giving us a new identity as digital humanities, it would be quite nice sometimes just to get on with what we do best (research / teaching / all the jazz that comes with being an academic) without having to work out where we fit in. That is as much a question of modern life as it is a question of asserting an identity within the academic community – where do I fit in and who am I?

Ultimately, it’s not productive to try and pigeon-hole ourselves, and we shouldn’t have to worry that we’re “not digital humanities enough”, that we’re too old-fashioned when applying for jobs or developing our CVs. That sends out the message that the kind of high-level, old school criticism done in the past in literary circles is not good enough. Yes, as critical individuals we can see the flaws in the approaches taken by our predecessors. I admit, also, that it’s important to be doing things properly, to be doing things well, and re-hashing old ideas in old ways does not constitute progress. Nor, however, does re-hashing old ideas in new ways. So, what I want to take away from these reflections is the idea that it’s OK to be a twenty-first century citizen in academia, to use the modern tools we have available to us in creative new ways. But, that it’s also OK to keep doing what you’re doing and doing it well, if you don’t feel that digital tools add anything to your research.

After all, it’s questionable how much digitization and e-books can really be said to innovative digital humanities methodologies in a world where many have been using Kindles for fifteen years or more and students and academics alike rely on tablets and laptops for information on the go. Much as I hate the term, I am a millennial. Since my early teens I’ve used computers for some kind of research, for communication and for learning (albeit, an unreliable dial-up connection in my school days) – much of what is commonly thought of as digital humanities is just second nature to me. But there’s another side to what is commonly thought of as digital humanities which is out of my reach – big data handling (I’m talking MATLAB and SPSS and other high-level tools which, as a modern linguist working on poetry I just haven’t had cause to use). I’m also talking programming. In the past few years, I’ve learnt a bit of code – I’ve progressed from creating the kind of homepage you might see in the Hampster (sic) Dance days, to something which looks fairly decent even by today’s standards. But I’ve worked hard to make even these baby steps, and I’ve had a lot of help. And that’s what we need to make digital humanities different – help. It’s OK to be proud of being specialists in our field, rather than trying desperately to edge into a different field. But let’s use the gaps in our knowledge to team up with other people. I think this is the goal for humanists – whether they consider themselves digital or not – to talk to the specialists in technology. I think they could tell us a few home truths about the level of forward-thinking tech which is actually at the core of much of what we consider to be digital humanities, but – perhaps more than that – they have much to offer in helping us to think differently about our research, enabling us to approach what we do in new, exciting and creative ways.

* Title with a nod to John Carey’s 2005 book What Good Are the Artswhich provoked a lot of thoughts in me as a first-year undergrad and which I now want to re-read.

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