Opening up the Humanities Tent

While reading the manifesto written by fourteen digital humanities students from Bloomsburg University, I found myself easily agreeing with their points regarding interdisciplinary collaboration as it applies to digital humanities. One of the key points in this manifesto is the idea that the field of digital humanities “opens up a world of innovation that will enhance the study of the humanities.” This is particularly important given the declining emphasis on humanities at many top universities. Take Emory as an example. A significant percentage of the student population has a primary interest in the sciences, often as part of a pre-med program. Even though these students aren’t particularly interested in the humanities, they are still required to take courses in subjects like literature, history, and philosophy. How can we tap the tremendous intelligence of a group of students who would otherwise be unengaged in humanities scholarship, existing only as mere travelers through these courses? This is one of the key questions that must be answered to ensure the survival and growth of humanities scholarship.

I’m not suggesting that there is one answer to this question, and even if there were, I’m sure that it would be beyond the grasp of any one individual. However, I am intrigued by the possibility that digital humanities could engage a whole demographic of students with an entirely different viewpoint. From my own experience as someone who has taken quite a few classes in the classics and history while also having a deep interest in medicine, I can think of a relevant example. Several semesters ago I had to write a term paper on some aspect of ancient Greek history, culture, or philosophy. I decided that my subject would be Socrates, but instead of writing about his philosophy and ideas or his impact on the contemporary Greek culture, I found a specific topic more suited to my interest in medicine. It’s widely accepted that Socrates was forced to kill himself by drinking hemlock. However, scholars have questioned that assertion for centuries, claiming that the symptoms he had after ingesting the poison were not consistent with hemlock poisoning. Thanks to the digitization of numerous texts ranging from a third century BCE catalog of herbs and their effects to nineteenth century letters describing hemlock poisonings, I was able to find far more sources than even the most adept researcher working fifty years ago. My term paper certainly won’t put the debate to rest, but in its own very, very, very small way, it contributed to our understanding of Socrates. Maybe this example doesn’t amount to much, but add it to others and the picture become clearer. Perhaps a neuroscience student taking a course in religion as part of his GERs can use his knowledge of the parts of the brain dedicated to aggression to illuminate a discussion about conflict among different religious groups.

In order to survive and thrive, humanities as a field must open up its figurative tent to other students and scholars, and the use of technology is a very effective way to do this.

Everybody and Everything

This is the shape of hyper-linked knowledge.

In their manifesto, several Bloomsburg University students make a plea for the wider instruction of digital humanities programs across academia. While this is certainly a worthy goal, these students do not give themselves, their contemporaries, or “digital immigrants” enough credit. Many of the fundamental concepts and techniques behind DH and interdisciplinary studies (IDS) are familiar to “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” alike. For the most part, they take these concepts for granted because they have become such an integral part of everyday digital life.

One of the fundamental aspects of the digital experience is the hyper-link. Every article on every web site links to or from somewhere else, creating a self-referential, ever-growing digital universe. We live in a hyper-linked society where everything is connected to or references something, and perhaps everything, else. This isn’t something new to the modern age, but those references and their nature are far more explicit today than ever before. At its core, the field of IDS (and therefore DH) is about making connections. As such, IDS is perfectly situated to embrace and benefit from the way knowledge works in a digital age.

In a traditional academic setting, knowledge is a commodity that has largely lived in a gated academic setting. But now, the Internet has grown to allow everybody access to nearly everything, which allows for a potentially infinite number of connections to be realized. Universities have carefully cultivated knowledge for ages, but now knowledge has been released into the wild and assumed its natural, connected form.

While academia has largely resisted this change, a new kind of academia, a far more reaching one, has formed on this new frontier. Outside of IDS, the study of contemporary pop culture is largely ignored in academia. However, a new breed of academic has applied DH to specific topics within pop culture in ways most university programs can only aspire to.

From detailed guides to every lyrical reference in the Beastie Boys’ discography to Jess Nevins’ literary annotations to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book, even the most obscure connections within pop culture are easily accessible and searchable. Meanwhile, knowledge moved beyond the realm of a simple text dump with work like a geographic timeline of The Walking Dead comic book series or an infographic review of Bon Iver’s new album.

These are the kinds of pieces that populate the mainstream Internet. While individually impressive, the larger concepts behind them are simple and inherently understood as the way the Internet functions. DH is nothing more than applying these well-understood concepts in a slightly more traditional academic setting.

Bridging the chasm: DH as the link between the classroom and the bedroom

Let’s be honest—as a generation, we have no concept of an archaic punch card, rolodex, or dewy decimal system. We can no easier grasp the toil of Busa’s index verborum of St Thomas Aquinas than understand why someone would still be using internet explorer. We are the generation with personal computers, electronic mail, and the internet at our crib-side. Appropriately so, Bloomsburg’s undergraduate students name our generation “digital natives”.

The capabilities we have at our digital fingertips are astonishing. The preponderance of educational, social, informational, and inspirational resources we could possess on the internet alone is infinite. However, there seems to be a strong barricade constructed between the academic sphere and our personal digital playground.

We have all had those teachers that don’t allow laptops in class, enforce you walk to their office to hand in an essay, or even worse force you to track down a physical book in the library. Their restrictive motives could be valiant: to protect the pure process of research and writing an essay. Or maybe they are just technologically inept and want to punish the rest of us. Either way, there is a great divide enforced between the digital resources we have open to us in everyday life, and those we are allowed to use in the classroom. Why do academic standards still include spelling tests? Why do history tests still require us to memorize specific dates? Why can we not use a calculator in calculus?

I believe introducing digital humanities as a course will help bridge that gap that we mentally have set between the classroom and real life. I hope undergraduate classes like this can begin to bridge the chasm that separates traditional learning and the entirety of technology advances available to us. As William Pannapacker and Chad Gaffield argue, “DH is transforming every aspect of academic life by reconfiguring relationship networks both inside and outside academe. In the future, students will no longer see a hard line between working in the humanities and working with technology.” Once this integration is achieved, we can move past the basic memorization of past generations and develop new accomplishments of our own.

Digital Humanities and the Modern Student

It is almost impossible to imagine Emory University without computers today. From hallways to common areas, even back packs and pockets, computers are everywhere. Yet, the study of Digital Humanities, a field that incorporates such technology to aid in the study of humanities, is still relatively a unheard of and often, a misunderstood topic on campus. The students at Bloomsburg University argue that a modern student should come equipped, not only with facts and information, but also tools to process, extract and expand this knowledge base. In other words, the study of Digital Humanities is essential for this generation of students. They also point out several benefits, “Teaching Digital Humanities to undergrads can be beneficial because it gives insight not only into the humanities but also into how the onset of technology has changed our world, and how we can change with it.” I agree wholeheartedly and thought of a good example to explain to my father what I could get out of this course. Coming into the class, I had a very basic understanding of the field, stemming from a quick Google search and reading the brief class description. After a few days of class however, I was amazed at the near limitless modes of application of technology to aid academics.

What are some potential broader applications for the student? This was the question posed to me by my father after I attempted to explain what ENG 389 was about. He found the example of Voltaire’s letters of particular interest. The potential for interdisciplinary usage of such software is great, but even greater is the possibility of innovation. Not only can the study of Digital Humanities allow us to draw new conclusions from works in the humanities, it gives us the tools and ideas to innovate and use technology creatively to solve problems in all academic fields and beyond. For example, the graphical interface depicting the paths of letters allowed us to easily see their destination and origin, but could this same idea be used to help a marketing student understand the consumption patterns of a certain food product, its spread and distribution around the country visually, without having to pour over sales data? Such smart inventory tracking systems would be invaluable to manufacturers and allow them to deploy advertising material and new products at precisely the right time and location based on historical data. If we learn different ways of using technology to analyze a piece of literature for example, the same concepts could be used to generate ideas in other fields as well.

Alternate Effects of Computers on Digital Scholarship

In natural and social sciences, computers are primarily used to visually represent data, so the humans observing the data can draw conclusions regarding the reality that the data reflects. Since humans are poor at recognizing trends in raw numbers, researchers can use a computer to represent that data in ways that make trends or commonalities clear to the researchers. Consequently, computers can speed up the rate of discovery by simply being an extension of the minds of scientists. Although Julia Flanders is correct in saying that computers are excellent representational tools, some of the limited insights that she believes we can gain from using computers to analyze humanities are not attainable as a direct result of digital processing.
First, Flanders asserts that the change in medium, from paper format to digital format has allowed new opinions and ideas to be created about the work. However, it was not specifically the computer’s abilities that caused this new information to surface. Any change in medium that would have a degree of transcriptional inaccuracy and differences in alignment could have lead to those new discoveries. Second, she claims that computers will allow for greater communication between the disciplines and universities. Science, which is based on the empirical observation of the natural world, has experienced difficulties in uniting theories and schools of thought. The ability to establish the validity of scientific knowledge is becoming increasingly difficult because digital formats have allowed more information to spread, and not all of the information is accurate. Since the very nature of humanities allows for many correct answers, it could become nearly impossible to discern reasonable ideas from unreasonable or poorly researched ones, especially if there is an increase in the volume of opinions and thoughts. The breakdown of traditional hierarchy and universities may cause more of a decline in the humanities rather than an improvement. Finally, linking the large and small scales of digital representations of humanities is something that is neither created nor solved by computers. Any representation of humanities is going to have difficulty bridging this gap. It is up to the human mind to draw the connection for itself, since computers do not have the ability to understand nuance in that sense. Although computers may still revolutionize the humanities, it is unlikely that they will do so in the ways that Flanders believes.

The Dumbest Generation?

I have to admit: as an English and history student, the whole idea of “digital humanities” is a jarring one.  I cognitively understand, that (as explained in the manifesto), there should be a change in how humanities are taught and learned, however, I find myself disagreeing with some of the beliefs outlined in the manifesto.  I actually work (or worked, rather—one of the by-blows of digital humanities) at Borders bookstore.  It was a basic retail job, of course, but it has afforded me an interesting viewpoint: frontline of the decline and fall of the publishing and book industry.  We sold an astounding amount of e-readers, and I myself have one.  I’ve also had the same conversation with countless customers; “I just like books more, you know?”.  The argument we were trained to come back with is the same one you can see on those Kindle advertisements.

I do have a (perhaps old-fashioned) preference of books, because though I struggled valiantly with using my e-reader, it now it sits unused in my bedside table.  I find that I take in far more information (and retain it) when the words are printed out and tactile.  The same goes with handwriting—I feel that I remember what I’ve actually written for far longer if I’ve written it down.  Typing is of course easier, but for the purposes of note-taking, I find writing everything out in long-hand is more rewarding when it comes to exam time.

I also generally find computers problematic as an educational tool.  I’d like to highlight this point in the manifesto: “We’d like to argue that we haven’t done anything wrong; we’ve simply been misguided.  Technology can both inhibit and facilitate the learning process for undergraduates. It can serve as a tool for intellectual assignments or as a distraction; the latter of which gave us the title “Dumbest Generation.” If we, the digital natives, don’t want this designation, we need to harness this shift in our learning styles and knowledge. We need to show the digital immigrants that “our way” cannot be compared with the “old way” — it’s simply different.”

I agree with parts of this—of course our style of education is different; I’m able to hyperlink to a Kindle commercial and copy and paste whole chunks of an article in the blink of an eye.  I’m also blogging.  However, I think these revolutionaries have far too much confidence in the human race regarding our use of computers.  I have sat in countless classes and watched other people watch movies on their computers while the professor drones on about Walter the Penniless; I have learned all about the person sitting in front of me from looking at their Facebook page and reading their instant messages.  (It’s right there!  How can I not?)  I absolutely believe that we’re at a singular point in humanity and the study of humanities, I just think that with the good (the ability to look up articles in moments, the “save” function in Microsoft Word, ready communication with professors) comes with a healthy amount of bad.  I’m not sure if we’re the “Dumbest Generation”—just the most technologically overwhelmed.

Musings on the Manifesto

The Bloomsburg University Manifesto emphasizes the need for change in the education system that the digital era has brought, specifically by making the differentiation between natives of and immigrants to the digital age. It asserts that the methods for learning are different now; “[t]he immigrants ultimately need to accept this change, for the digital natives are fundamentally different.” I feel that this is not quite a fair claim, as in my experience the suggestions made have been integrating into the modern curriculum already. Though not always with technology, the collaboration and interaction that the manifesto lists have become a staple in many classes. It is primarily the so-called immigrants to the digital world that have been making use of technology for scholarly purposes. For an obvious example, blogging would likely not have been part of a class even five or ten years ago, yet here we are.

So since the changes to the system are being made already, what really is the difference between digital and pre-digital humanities? The manifesto says that digital humanities “gives insight not only into the humanities but also into how the onset of technology has changed our world, and how we can change with it.” Assuming that the changes to the methods of teaching are the changes that the manifesto means, is it now only the latest computers and programs that define digital humanities as digital?

I found it amusing that the assignment for Wednesday was to think about the definition of digital humanities, while the manifesto says, “Rather than fussing over a definition of DH, why not kick back and embrace its multifarious nature?” However, as tempting as that sounds, I think some standard of what “digital humanities” encompasses is necessary. It is admittedly difficult, but hopefully as the field progresses, lines can be drawn.

Finding the “Human” in Digital Humanities

As a student with an academic outlook geared towards the humanities and admittedly somewhat challenged in the digital side of this course, I was feeling uncertain if the humanities aspect was in fact present.  Yes I knew we would be reading works of literature, yes the articles explained how the resources enhanced scholars’ understanding of humanities, but I still did not see the human side of it.  However, in reading the articles for class, it became clear that the human aspect of digital humanities is in fact embedded in the nature of the field, most notably, in the notion of collaboration and enhanced communication with others within the same field and between diverse academic disciplines.

I was most struck by the way in which digital humanities seemed to expand the outlook in a significant way for the students who crafted the “Bloomsberg University Undergraduate Manifesto.”  They repeatedly claimed that the course “opened their eyes” to a new world, looking outside themselves and to the greater world of academia.  This notion is clearly stated, as they suggest that components such as “collaboration, networking, socialization, and interactive learning” are key to this field.  All of these work in some way to enhance one’s engagement with others in their quest of learning.  Even the very nature of writing this manifesto as a collaborative body of students is something outside the usual realm of academia, a project that encourages a group of individuals to craft a written piece of work as a team.  Their reflections on their experiences were shared, something that does not happen in the humanities field, as much of the work is solitary.  It is ironic that scholarly work in humanities is often individual, not actually working with other humans.  Therefore, DH brings a new dimension of a truly human component to the humanities field.

Additionally, even the essence of digital humanities encourages collaboration, collaboration between two disciplines that are often seen in opposition.  For instance, in the opening lines of the manifest, the students explore that even in the nature of the subject of DH it “gives insight not only into the humanities, but also into how the onset of technology has changed out world and how we can change it.”  Here, they directly link technology to changing the world, populated by humans, and therefore, illustrate the power of the collaboration of these digital and humanities world.

Julia Flanders also explores the conflict between these two fields in her article, but notes the ability to overcome them and achieve even more significant results.  She refers to this as the “unease” of digital scholarship, continuously suggesting ways in which the two disciplines are in conflict.  For example, she discusses that focusing on specifics in the humanities versus expansion in technological advances is one of the points of conflict present in combining the two disciplines of the scientific, methodological digital world and the less rigid humanities.  She states that scholarly inquiry in the humanities and success are based on “craft activities” in which “care and precision” are essential.  In contrast, there is a focus in “data pour,” the new mechanism that can “scale up by orders of magnitude” present in technological advances.  While it would seem that these two oppositional perspectives might not be able to be reconciled, Flanders does suggest that both have their benefits, and if there is a way to develop technology that allows both a wide range of data and resources, while not losing sight of the details, there will be much progress made.

Evolution of Scholarship

In The Productive Unease of 21st-century Digital Scholarship, Julia Flanders creates a dichotomy between two institutions “digital” and “non digital”. Specifically, she argues that there is an  “unease about institutional and organizational containers for professional identity [, and it] is a related concern with published expressions of professional identity and the question of how we evaluate new forms of communication and scholarly work”. I disagree with Flanders’ characterization of academic scholarship as having two contradicting institutions. Because technological progress is inevitable, the digital integration into academic scholarship is also inevitable. Although Flanders does conclude that progress toward digital scholarship is already occurring and is a good thing, her separation of scholarship into digital and non-digital is wrong. Academic scholarship is something that characterizes many schools of thought. Although these schools may be different (science, humanities, etc), they all have the same intent, namely to progress society by expanding our knowledge about various phenomena. Academic scholarship, like any institution, is subject to change. For example, religion, as an institution, has evolved through time as a function of societal and political changes. Like religion, academic scholarship has also evolved, and digital scholarship merely represents another phase of evolution. To characterize digital scholarship as different from non-digital scholarship, Flanders inhibits one of the primary goals of digital scholarship and one of her main arguments, namely to promote multi-disciplinary integration. I do agree with Flanders that there is a friction and unease between those that support the traditional methods and those that support the new methods (digital scholarship). I do not believe, however, that it is necessary to differentiate these two types of thought as different institutions. In fact, I feel that distinguishing the digital and non-digital to such an extent may undermine the natural evolution of academic scholarship, as it may exacerbate conflict between those that support digital scholarship and those that do not support it yet.

How diversity manifests itself digitally

I am skeptical about how the Bloomsburg University students believe that “diversity is foundational to digital humanities.” When elaborating on this, the authors claim that computer scientists, historians, and chemists will all approach analyzing an old manuscript differently, but that they will all transcribe those manuscripts in TEI-XML format. Maybe my misunderstanding comes from the fact that I am not familiar with TEI-XML, but logically it seems that the manuscript will look the exact same digitally (if it is in a certain format) regardless of the transcriber. However, if the authors are claiming that the diverse group of researchers will transcribe their individual findings into a digital format then I see the obvious benefit. But are their individual findings separate from the manuscript itself? Is the type of ink important in interpreting and understanding prose? Should we consider a manuscript as the text itself?

Obviously some manuscripts are purposely written on certain mediums with certain inks for the author’s particular motives, but are all mediums chosen this way? The obvious answer is no. I have personally written things down on any nearby paper I can find not because of the quality of the paper, but of its ease of access. I believe that even this contributes to an understanding of the text, because it emphasizes the importance and urgency of what was being written rather than the holistic beauty of the manuscript. But where should we draw the line? Digital analysis of prose allows researchers to mass analyze diverse texts in a quantified manner with very little effort. With such computing power, I am afraid that the significance of certain conclusions will be thwarted by the trivial information surplus that exists from mass analysis of different variables.