Week 12: the past, present, and future of DH

In the last post on this blog, the penultimate of the semester, I spent some time thinking about pedagogy and what work in DH looks like going ahead, but those questions can be taken further. How do we talk about a kind of critical, expansive DH in an environment where all of the language around higher education is that of scarcity and deficit? Where administrators suggest cutting positions in the humanities are in favor of precarious, contingent faculty labor? This is worrying for the humanities writ large, but would seem to threaten nascent programs or support for development of non-traditional research centers like those in the digital humanities/digital history (and more so considering the uncertain lifespan and ongoing need for support of digital projects and tools). The coming months are certain to be a test for universities, though arguably this reckoning has been a long time coming as public conversations and perceptions around higher education continue to shift.

I had this in mind while reading Katrina Anderson et al 1 and considering what this means for current and future students in the digital humanities. The authors critique the rhetoric of digital humanities, which trades on ideas of openness and access while largely leaving students unsupported in their development of technical methods or with limited opportunities for collaboration or more substantive contribution to DH projects. The authors propose a variety of possibilities to address the structural issues, including access to training centers and mentoring of students, but also caution against approaches that simply shift the burden back onto individuals (i.e. “just take a coding course on your own time”). Not only do these solutions potentially worsen/compound the problem of underfunding (that is: if you can show you can do it without the support, you’re not going to get the support); they also would seem to isolate coding and technical work from the larger ethos and ethics of digital humanities practices, and reinforce the “hack vs. yack” dichotomy that Elizabeth Callaway et al also discuss 2. As an alternative, Anderson et al consider William Pannapacker’s solution of offering DH as a complementary kind of training program (in this case, something like a minor in DH). It seems like there may be opportunities to involve students in projects or activities outside of this, too, especially for those who might look at “digital humanities” and have no idea of how that might relate to their work. Wiki edit-a-thons, datathons, and transcription efforts have real potential to involve student contribution, especially when students can make connections between their own research and learning interests and the content of DH projects and questions.

This provides a good point of connection to other issues raised by Callaway, but also more directly by Roopika Risam’s “Intersectionality and the Digital Humanities3. The call for intersectional, critical, or feminist approaches to digital projects will probably ring true if you’ve read any of my other previous posts: these conversations are just as relevant in the domain of libraries (and it was very good to see Fobazi Ettarh included here, who has crucially contributed to critical library discussions with her concept of vocational awe!). Risam examines several projects to consider how intersectional approaches can be taken within DH projects, from the content and subjects of digital projects to the way the tools  are designed, and how these can make visible relationships, identities, and historic contexts. This raises a question that was asked a few weeks ago, though, and that I asked another studentin our Slack channel: what does it mean to tell someone else’s story? When projects look to surface or highlight marginalized persons, what efforts must they also take to ensure that the story is one that is factual as well as truthful? That is: how do you build projects that support contemporary users and researchers, but without any retroactive or ahistorical flattening of race, gender, sexuality, or other identities? For instructors, this could support productive and nuanced discussions of how these are historically-bound and unfixed concepts, but it also provides an opportunity to discuss/problematize the power held by senior researchers, catalogers, students, or anyone else who contributes to the building of historic archives.

I’m hoping to end with that positive note, because after this semester I am tired and can feel the easy creep of cynicism, but we can’t afford that or defeatism. It just remains (as ever!) that we have a lot of work to do together.

  1. Katrina Anderson, et al. “Student Labour and Training in Digital Humanities,” DHQ 10.1 (2016).
  2. Elizabeth Callaway, et al, “The Push and Pull of Digital Humanities: Topic Modeling the ‘What is digital humanities?’ Genre,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 14, no 1 (2020).
  3. Roopika Risam, “Beyond the Margins: Intersectionality and the Digital Humanities,” DHQ 9.2 (2015).

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  1. I like the way that you tied in the three articles, and your assessment of the problems that universities are facing, especially with funding. I had the same feelings when I wrote my last blog. I felt more of a depression of the present situation with teaching and learning in the humanities, than I did at the beginning of the course, when I was still naively ignorant about the status of DH. However, I think you did manage to end up with an encouraging twist. The best part of your blog is the last sentence, when you say that we have a lot of work to do, but we will do it together. I hope that the positive effects from the collaboration of the many groups in DH will lead us to a solution that is beneficial for the humanities.

  2. Stephanie,
    You raise a lot of really relevant questions about DH, but also about history in general; questions that historians still don’t have agreement on. What is a fact, what is a narrative really get at issues of power and knowledge production (hello Foucault), and it seems that partly what DH is wrestling with is whether it is its own thing or will be recognized one day as just “humanities.” These questions will remain, but DH tools may help to shed more insight into possible explanations.

  3. Really good synthesis of all the important takeaways from the reading and the issues we face in DH. I remind myself that I am lucky with the training we get at Mason and that I get at CHNM, as these articles pointed out how rare that is. And yes, shifting responsibility on those individuals who are already burdened with structural and labor issues in universities is not okay (and a large issue in academia). It’s an interesting contradiction that the Covid world reminds us how important DH is, yet we find no comfort or safety regarding funding, etc.

  4. Robert Carlock

    I feel your creeping cynicism, especially after being reminded of some of the systemic issues of higher education, but I have to say that this semester has left me more hopeful than when I started. It is definitely exaggerated, and perhaps not smart to put all my eggs in one basket, but I think that digital humanities has the potential to revolutionize higher education for the better. As a field/methodology/ideology both within and beyond each individual humanities field, it has strong potential to encourage interdisciplinarity. Being collaborative in nature, it can help resolve some of the loneliness of history. And since it is an emerging field, we now have the opportunity to help define its purpose and form. As the most revolutionary period since the 1960s, I think we are in a prime position to reshape higher education as part of the larger reform efforts we see around us; it happened then (and in my opinion, died with a whimper) and it can happen again now. Digital history can reshape the field in ways that postmodernism and cultural history could not.

  5. “What does it mean to tell someone else’s story?” This question made me reflect a bit. Because I think there are a few sides of this coin to explore than what you presented. It is one thing to re-historicize and contextualize in the hopes of drawing more awareness to marginalized stories. But there is the other consideration of “period eye” and how did they view their story? How would they want their story told? And then to really complicate things, I remember being in Methods class (art history) when the assertion was made…what if the artists intent doesn’t even matter? Or applying that to this case, can there be stories or truths that matter that aren’t acknowledged? Ok, now I’m getting a bit wordy and confusing so I’ll leave it there!

  6. Terence V

    The issues you raise about authorship of other people’s stories is especially poignant considering the subtle undercurrent of optimism (or at least I felt like there was) in the readings about DH this week. If the field is indeed going to advance its “big tent” ideals of inclusivity, many DH’ers are going to have to very quickly reckon with how to craft new and untested narratives; there’re certainly going to be some growing pains.

    And, not to toot the cynicism horn any more than is needed, I share your concerns about the future of DH in universities as budgets shrink and resources become more scarce. Thanks to so much external pressure – falling university revenues/endowments and pandemic drama, for starters – I worry that DH’s growth is going to be dramatically throttled back. The field will still grow as I don’t believe anything can really stop it (DH is the future, after all), but it will take a long time for it to realize the highest ideals it makes possible.

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