Definitions can be a scary thing

Stephen Ramsay, in his speech, attempts to define  “digital humanities” as building things. Specifically, he argues that  “digital Humanities is about building things…. the discipline includes and should include people who theorize about building…if you are not making anything, you are not… a digital humanist.”  He later goes on to claim that having opinions such as these is good for scholarship and more specifically claims that discussions like this allow retention of collaboration and cooperation. I believe that categorization and exclusion of certain types of scholarship from digital humanities defeats the purpose of the idea of digital humanities as explained by Flanders and Unsworth. Specifically, it undermines Flanders and Unsworth’s argument that the digital humanities, in part, exist to promote multi-disciplinary integration. By doing so, the digital humanities are able to integrate vastly different fields of scholarship in order to promote and improve the overall quality of academic scholarship. Although having discussions such as defining digital humanities, as Ramsay does in his speech, does promote thinking and keeps making us think (Flanders’ conclusion about scholarship in general), the specific definition Ramsay uses undermines one of the primary goals of digital humanities. To be fair, Ramsay’s definition does allow for integration of different fields of scholarship, as his definition only specifies that digital humanities as a certain type of scholarship. I believe, however, that having definitions such as these justifies worse exploitation of ‘digital humanities’ as a type of scholarship. Definitions could emerge that completely segregate the digital humanities as a separate form of scholarship, and as a result, those types of definitions would undermine the multi-disciplinary integration that the digital humanities hope to promote. Additionally, this segregation could exacerbate the unease that exists in the status quo. Although Flanders argues that this unease can be a good thing, expanding it to such an extent may be harmful to the digital humanities and more generally to every field of scholarship that exists today.

3 Comments on “Definitions can be a scary thing”

  1. Chelsea Edwards says:

    I also found it interesting that Ramsay was so quick to trash the basic concepts of DH, “community, comity, collaboration, and cooperation”, as nonsense. I found myself struggling to see the common ground between Ramsays essay and Unsworth and Fitzpatrick’s definitions of DH. I do agree that this essay painted DH in a highly specific and exclusive system rather than an open inter-disciplinary open tent.
    However, I wonder if many DHers are trying not to define DH because, as Ramsay says, disciplines “can destroy themselves through overprecise definition”. Or maybe they just do want to be that warm open tent for any specialty to stop in? And do you think many DHers would be opposed to a slight “segregation” from other scholarships? Or do you think the DH community would be entertained by exacerbating unease in the status quo?

  2. Tarun Ramayya says:

    Well I think it depends on the type of digital humanist. We see that Ramsay argues something different from Flanders and Unsworth, showing that conflicting ideas about digital humanities do exist. I feel that it’s in the best interest of digital humanists to not exacerbate the unease. If certain digital humanists do wish to promote integration, then I feel that exacerbating unease would undermine the cause for integration.

  3. Brian Croxall says:

    I’m glad to see you thinking about the relationship between what Ramsay, Unsworth, and others are saying about the field.

    That being said, Unsworth’s argument is not that DH should be about integration of different fields. Instead, the point of that essay is simply to demonstrate that digital scholarship uses the same scholarly primitives as other scholarly practices. Ramsay’s speech, on the other hand, is concerned with saying what counts as DH and what doesn’t. If you look at Unsworth’s definition of humanities computing in the Flanders’s essay, you’ll find that Unsworth is even more exclusionary than Ramsay is.

    We can certainly agree, I suppose, that we must define DH somehow, even if only to say that it must involve something digital.