Day of DH: digitalculturebooks Authors Reflect on Growth and Growing Pains

by Korey Jackson on March 27, 2012

Digital humanities scholarship is, as Melissa Terras’s “Quantifying Digital Humanities” infographic reveals concisely, steadily finding new practitioners, funders, and advocates. Of course, quantified growth alone doesn’t reveal the kinds of rewards and challenges that attend DH as it simultaneously expands and congeals into something like a discipline (or, perhaps, multi-located sub-discipline?). Nor does it capture the equally expanding semantic landscape of DH: the new varieties of scholarly work that have been brought into the digital fold and the new definitions being put forward to make room for this work.

By way of celebrating the annual Day of DH, then, digitalculturebooks has asked Amy Earhart and Edward Whitley, authors from the recent dcb title The American Literature Scholar in the Digial Age, to reflect on the growth (and growing pains) of the field, the practice, and the work that comprise digital humanities.

We Aren’t the Big Tent:  Disciplinarity and Digital Humanities
Amy Earhart

During the lead up to the Day in DH I’ve been in the process of revising my abstract for the Digital Humanities 2012 conference while writing the conclusion to my monograph that examines the historical emergence of digital literary studies.  The two tasks juxtaposed during this past week in ways that reinforced my concern that digital humanities is in the midst of a tumultuous transition period.  For all the talk about DH having “made it,” we are not sure what makes up DH work or how this amorphous field/methodology/focus that arose out of humanities computing should develop.  I almost wrote that it was disturbing to see how conflicted the field is, but I don’t think conflict is the problem.  I think that our belief in absence of conflict is the bigger problem.  Any field that doesn’t use conflict to grow can’t progress.  But that conflict needs to be productive, not destructive, and too much of our recent conflict seems designed to inflict wounds rather than resolve problems.

My monograph project, which I initially imagined as a historical overview of digital humanities, has taught me that disciplinarity is alive and well within nearly every aspect of the supposedly umbrella DH.  Regardless of the Big Tent Digital Humanities conference held last year at Stanford and this year’s DH 2012 Digital Diversity theme, it is clear that gatekeeping is in place that is not about who is in and who is out, but that is about underlying assumptions of method, practice, and theory directly related to discipline.  While I tend to agree with Steve Ramsay’s 2011 “Who’s in and Who’s out” MLA paper, which noted that “Digital Humanities is about building things,” the backlash against the paper signaled the growing tensions between application and theory.  Jean Bauer’s “Who You Calling Untheoretical?,” Bethany Nowviskie’s “Don’t Circle the Wagons,”  Miriam Posner’s “Some things to think about before you exhort everyone to code,” Natalie Cecire’s “When DH was in vogue; or, THATCAMP theory” posts are just a few of many recent blog posts that signal tension between theory and applied work.  I don’t mean to suggest that such tension is new.  I think some version of this tension has long been in play in versions of digital humanities.  And it isn’t just DH that has such tensions.  I’ve heard numerous scientists complain of modeling versus field work, theory versus application tensions within their field.  This leads me to believe that our most crucial issue in digital humanities is negotiating this split.  Calling ourselves a big tent has not resolved the tension.  And it appears that we aren’t doing a good job talking through the issues if the recent blog posts are any indication.

In my monograph I’ve focused on the tensions between historicians and literary scholars.  Both historians and literary scholars are guilty of hiding disciplinary difference under the term digital humanities. Historian Ed Ayers has stated, “The irony is that history may be better suited to digital technology than any other humanistic discipline. Changes in our field far removed from anything to do with computers have helped create a situation in history where the advantages of computers can seem appealing, and perhaps even necessary… The new technologies seem tailor-made for history, a match for the growing bulk and complexity of our ever more self-conscious practice, efficient vehicles to connect with larger and more diverse audiences.” Historians are not the only group that sees their discipline as specially positioned within digital humanities. Matthew Kirschenbaum has noted, “digital humanities has accumulated a robust professional apparatus that is probably more rooted in English than any other departmental home.” Both are responding to resistance to DH in their home communities, so why wouldn’t they argue that DH is intimately entwined with their disciplines?  I don’t find either comment problematic or akin to academic Balkanism.  Instead both are positioning DH in relation to their academic disciplines, a process that must occur before we are able to move beyond disciplinary boundaries.  I tend to think that the most helpful way to begin to move ahead is to dump the big tent DH.  Let’s interrogate how DH is particularized in our fields and then begin to look for ways to connect our digital work to other disciplines.  This seems a much more honest approach than declaring ourselves post-disciplinary.

Disciplines govern our academic lives, from our graduate training, to our positions in the academy, to the type of work produced and valued, to our ability to advance in our careers. Universities continue to organize knowledge groups into traditional subject areas so it should come as no surprise that we find it difficult to work outside traditional structures. We pretend disciplinary boundaries don’t exist to our peril. Instead of shying away from such complexities, we should embrace the heady dissention.  I would love to have an interdisciplinary DH.  I hope that we might work towards such connectivity.

Which leads me to my recent attempts at revising my DH conference abstract. Among my reviewer comments was this: “Good research but presented in a pretty obscure way.  Maybe a more simple, easy-to-read language would help.”

I found this comment ironic, as I was often told in graduate school that my writing was too simple and too transparent, that I would do well to mimic denser high theory arguments.  I also believe that the reviewer was trying to help me improve my work.  Yet we all know that writing style is disciplinarily specific, with certain humanities fields, such as literature, valuing dense and theoretically specific language and the science/computer science/engineering fields valuing a clearer writing style.  How should we respond to such tensions?  I’m not sure.  But let’s be honest and admit that DH is not interdisciplinary and that our various disciplinary positions need to be transparent in our work and our interactions with others.  If DH 2012 is about digital diversity, does that extend to diverse disciplinary practices?  I hope so.  But I don’t think that the answer is in the big tent model that obscures difference.

Confessions of a DH Dropout: How I Lost (and then Found) My Faith in the Digital Humanities
Edward Whitley

My crisis of faith with the digital humanities began on September 24, 2011 in a stairwell of the New York Public Library. I was on my way back from the main reading room at the NYPL to a meeting about social network visualization and archival data–a meeting that I felt very privileged to attend–when my faith in the power of digital technology to transform humanities research began to crumble. Earlier that morning, I had given a brief presentation on my work with The Vault at Pfaff’s (a digital archive about the bohemians of antebellum New York that I co-direct with Robert Weidman) and The Crowded Page (an NEH-funded project for which Andrew Jewell and I had recently completed a proof-of-concept social network visualization). One of the images that I had shared with the group at the NYPL was the following screenshot from The Crowded Page:

This is a representation of the social network of Ada Clare, the “Queen of Bohemia” in antebellum New York. Clare was one of the most famous members of a community of self-described bohemians who gathered in a German beer-hall in lower Manhattan in the years leading up to the Civil War. Walt Whitman, the writer that, today, we most associate with the antebellum bohemians, was friends with Clare and regarded her as a “New Woman born too soon.” I was proud to be able to share with this group of scholars an image that, however messily, demonstrated in a succinct visual form how important Ada Clare was to the artistic community of nineteenth-century New York, how interconnected she was with the other major players in the bohemian scene, and how much the other bohemians depended upon her to provide a hub around which their experiences in the antebellum counter-culture could revolve. Other scholars at the meeting presented similar kinds of social network visualizations that demonstrated how much potential–not to mention excitement– there is in this field of inquiry.

In the heady rush that followed the morning’s meeting, Rob Weidman and I decided to spend our lunch break in the main reading room of the New York Public Library searching through nineteenth-century newspapers that mentioned Ada Clare and the New York bohemians. One of the first images that we found was a Thomas Nast illustration titled “Departure of the Queen of Bohemia, for California–Intense Grief of Her Subjects”:

New York Illustrated News February 20, 1864. Courtesy of the New York Public Library

This was the moment when my faith in the use of digital methods for humanities scholarship got a little shaky. It had taken two years and a government grant to come up with a (still buggy) digital image that communicated Clare’s centrality to the New York bohemians; it took less than an hour to flip through the pages of the New York Illustrated News and find an image that accomplished many of the same goals. I had to wonder:  Was all the time, money, and effort that we put into this digital visualization tool worth it when this image had been available in a brick-and-mortar archive all along? Wouldn’t it be enough to find a few nineteenth-century anecdotes with a similar message to Nast’s “Departure of the Queen of Bohemia” to make my case that Ada Clare was an important part of the antebellum counter-culture? Humanities scholars often build their arguments on representative samplings of available information rather than amassing (and digitally rendering) a comprehensive inventory of structured data. Why shouldn’t this image from a nineteenth-century newspaper be enough to do the trick?

I was also growing increasingly concerned about the methodological assumptions that had led me to social network visualization in the first place. According to the visualization of Ada Clare’s social network that we developed, Clare was connected in meaningful ways to dozens of different people. But there was something misleading, if not outright deceptive, about this image of Ada Clare at the center of a vast human spider-web. For starters, it’s difficult to imagine a setting in which Clare could interact with all of these people at any given time. Neither Pfaff’s bar nor Clare’s West 42nd Street apartment–the two primary locations where the bohemians congregated–was large enough to hold more than thirty or forty people. The visualization we created, in contrast, presented us with an Ada Clare who is always in immediate contact with all of the people in her entire social network. This type of image might make sense for visualizing the social networks of Facebook or Twitter because, given adequate Internet access, you can always be in immediate (virtual) contact with everyone in those social networks. It might not, however, provide the most accurate depiction of an analog community for whom the telegraph was cutting-edge technology. Had I imposed a twenty-first century way of seeing the world onto a nineteenth-century community? Had I distorted the complex workings of that community in an effort to make it conform to the expectations of the digital era?

But it wasn’t just the historical mismatch between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries that had me troubled. I was starting to worry that the visualization wasn’t revealing new knowledge so much as it was reducing complex pieces of historical evidence into quantifiable metrics renderable as discrete circles and lines. I had previously written about the tendency of visualizations to reduce words to numbers in an essay for The University of Michigan Press volume The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age, but it wasn’t until I compared these two images side-by-side that I really felt the disconnect between humanities scholarship and information visualization in my bones. I was starting to believe that there was more than just provocative hyperbole to Johanna Drucker’s claim that “the ideology of almost all current information visualization is anathema to humanistic thought, antipathetic to its aims and values.”

Drucker’s essay from Matt Gold’s Debates in the Digital Humanities has become an essential text for me as I work to recover my faith in digital methods for humanities scholarship. Specifically, Drucker has laid out for me the central question that we must ask ourselves if we are to continue to employ the methodologies of data visualization–methodologies that she characterizes as “positivistic, strictly quantitative, mechanistic, reductive and literal”–in our work in the humanities. That question, as Drucker puts it, is the following: “Can we engage in the design of digital environments that embody specific theoretical principles drawn from the humanities, not merely work within platforms and protocols created by disciplines whose methodological premises are often at odds with–even hostile to–humanistic values and thought?” In other words, is there a humanistic way to do digital scholarship as opposed to a digital way to do humanities scholarship?

I’m willing to believe that the answer is “yes,” even if I’m not entirely sure at this moment what it would look like to create a social network visualization born out of the assumptions of archival research in The New York Illustrated News rather than the assumptions of Facebook and Twitter. I’m heartened by the good work of scholars such as Micki McGee, the director of the Yaddo Circles project, and Jean Bauer, the creator of Project Quincy and the director of The Early American Foreign Service Database. Both of these scholars are taking seriously the challenge that Drucker lays out for us to let humanities methods guide how we work with digital media. I look forward to learning from both of them as I continue to recover my faith in the digital humanities.

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