Taken together, the series of articles by Patricia Cohen raise questions that are also suggested by the Digital Humanities manifesto 2.0. Should we understand the use of digital technologies merely as a tool for learning? Or is the integration of digital technologies into the studies of humanities a more radical project that, as suggested in one of the articles, changes both the kinds of questions we ask and the way we answer them?
I’m inclined to think that these actually aren’t different questions because the tools we use generally have implications for how we think. (I’m interested in seeing how writing a weekly blog entry in response to a set of readings changes the way I engage with those readings and how I frame my responses.) Sometimes these interactions are subtle and difficult to detect; sometimes not.
The spatial humanities projects described in Digital Maps Are Giving Scholars the Historical Lay of the Land seem to be the kinds of projects in which the digital infusion would create important changes to the kinds of questions asked and the kind of knowledge produced. In fact, there is an emerging field of critical legal geography that is asking new kinds of questions about the relation between spatiality and law.
The projects described in that article also stood out to me as kinds I would be inclined to incorporate into a course. I can imagine asking students to build interactive, layered maps that tell a visual story about the landscape of American law and politics. Such maps could include, for example, information on specific laws, the parties in power in the branches of government, demographic data, and much more.
Would the visualization of American politics just be a new way of displaying information or would it change how students think about American politics? Would it prompt them to ask different questions? I think it is likely that such a projects would change how they think about American politics and that it would prompt them to ask different questions. New and different questions shouldn’t be fetishized simply for their newness, but I think it’s worth experimenting to see in what ways digital technologies can be used to shake up humanistic and social science inquiry.
Another issue that arises with the turn to digital humanities concerns the perhaps constructive tension between engaging students in new ways and also requiring them to learn and demonstrate knowledge in more traditional ways. Do some digital projects compromise the “focus, fullness and heft” (as a teacher quoted in Giving Literature Virtual Life put it) of more traditional projects like papers and theses? Does that model of presenting critical thought need updating? I would not want to adopt digital projects that compromised sustained critical inquiry and depth of knowledge, but I’m not sure that most digital projects do that. I think they require a different set of specifically technological skills that are becoming increasingly important for students to learn. They also require thinking in different ways and presenting, even constructing, knowledge in new ways. Which projects will foster deep critical thinking and the development of important new skills? Which ones won’t?