Archive for September, 2014

“Help, I want to do DH!”

Man wearing a shirt that reads "staff can halp?" on the back.


I just answered an email about digital humanities. I do this on kind of a regular basis, seeing I’m a certified “Digital Humanities Strategist.” This email was a certain type, however, the one that I think of as “Help, I want to do DH!” I get this question—although it’s not a question—pretty regularly from people, and it’s a hard thing to answer. There’s just so much to say. This is what Bethany Nowviskie was talking about in 2010 when she wrote about the “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities.”

That said, I’m happy to get the question and I’m happy that people are willing to ask me. I just worry, as I expressed on Twitter, that my answers just aren’t going to be satisfactory. Again, there’s so much to say and only so much time to respond to such questions.

Merisa Martinez responded to me on Twitter and observed that people ask these questions because they’re new and because “there’s no one size fits all ‘FAQ’ with DH.” So people ask those whom they think can help them, and when possible I try to answer as best as I can. But given my conversation with Merisa, I figured I might as well share what I wrote to this interlocutor. It’s not a FAQ per se, but it’s a list of things that people might use to get started with digital humanities.

What follows is the text of the email that I wrote to this student. For context sake, he is an MA student who is working with a very good friend of mine from graduate school who now teaches at Illinois State. This friend and I were in different disciplines. The email below has specific recommendations to this individual, but I’ll gloss one of them with a broader rule. I appreciate my friend for referring this student to me and the student for being willing to cold-call someone he doesn’t know and stick out his neck.

Two caveats:

  • It’s still true that even with what follows that there is no one-size fits-all FAQ for DH. This is just my response. You’d get a different one from any number of other (smarter) people in the field. See this post by Paige Morgan, for example, which Merisa and Melissa Terras brought to my attention. Or this post by Lisa Spiro which Ryan Cordell reminded me of. You’d probably get a different response from me on another day.
  • As I say below, it can take a long time to start thinking differently with a computer. Too often we forget that we didn’t start studying a particular field on the first day of graduate school. When I started my PhD in English literature, I had been writing about poetry and fiction for well more than 10 years. If you’re in a language program, you’ve got to count not just the literature classes in college, but those language classes in junior high. We live in an awesome age when you can find most things online—including the answer to “what is digital humanities?”—but the time that it takes for us to learn to think in a particular way is real and it can’t be skipped. Thinking, as Mark Sample has it, can be difficult.

So here you go, my answer on 25 September 2014 to the “Help, I want to do DH!” email.

Hi X,
Thanks for your note. This is a big question and one that isn’t entered into lightly nor, I’m afraid, especially well in an email conversation.

What I’d recommend is that you look for some opportunities:

  • Read. Start with Matt Gold’s edited volume, Debates in Digital Humanities. Take a look at Steven Jones’s The Emergence of Digital Humanities. Hunt down all three of Matt Kirschenbaum’s “What is DH?” articles (1, 2, and 3), even though they’re a bit of inside baseball. Look at Digital Humanities Answers.
  • Explore. Look at different digital humanities projects. Think about how they could affect the work that you’re doing. There are several different things that people mean when they say “digital humanities.” They include the following, and none is “right”:
    • The examination of digital objects from the perspective of the humanities (e.g., media studies)
    • Digital pedagogy
    • Digital scholarly communication
    • Digital collection/archives creation
    • Humanities computing (using computers to help you identify patterns in your text / data that you then interpret)
  • Realize that as far as humanities data analysis goes, there are several different “pillars,” as Elijah Meeks has called them: text analysis; geospatial analysis; network analysis (consider this Coursera course); image analysis; and so on.
  • Look at people nearby who can help. Patrice-Andre Prudhomme in your library might be a resource ( You’re only 60 miles from Champaign-Urbana, and they have a lot of interesting stuff going on there. Consider attending the Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities & Computer Science that happens next month. (The broader rule here is that there might be people at your institution or nearby who are doing this work already. Libraries are a great place to find many of these people.)
  • Get on Twitter and network with people that do digital humanities. It’s where a lot of conversations happen.
  • Think about attending a THATCamp:

Perhaps the main things to think about here are the following:

  • Digital humanities is, in the end, still about the same humanities questions. You should start with questions and then choose a method for investigating based on what will help you get the best results.
  • It can take a long time to figure out what those questions are to be paired with computational methods. I’ve been doing this for 7 years, and I’m only starting to figure out what I feel like are some GOOD questions. Think about how long you’ve been working in your discipline and you’ll realize that there’s potentially a long time to be engaged in something before you’ll hit a pay off.

None of that is to discourage you so much as a way to say that it’s a big discourse and there’s lots to learn.

EDITED: Included Lisa Spiro’s very good post.

No Comments