Enough with the Hype

W. Gardner Campbell’s piece, “A Personal Cyberinfrastructure,” makes the sort of exaggerated claims that now appears to me as commonplace among the digital humanities enthusiasts. The tropes acquire the cadence of mantras: revolution, a brave new world, progress. There is a sense of both exasperation (with all of us not yet on board the train) and mad enthusiasm for an inevitable future in which technology becomes both the medium and the message of higher education—both the tool and the substance. You can count me as unimpressed, and more than a tad skeptical.

Campbell envisions a college experience in which each student—not just those with an interest in or a knack for computing—is required by their university to manage a server on which they will fashion, upgrade, and “create” throughout their college experience. The value of such a requirement is presumed rather than explained. It is unclear to me how this requirement would improve oral and written communication skills, math competency, or, more practically, how it would lead to improved outcomes in content proficiency.

Campbell also uses vocabulary associated with improvement and self-development, but fails to substantiate or in any way explain how his promises will be delivered. We are told that students will create, but we are not told what they will create nor, more important, how their creative-work will differ, improve, or build upon traditional forms of creative work done in classrooms and workshops.

Finally, the piece ends with claiming—again, an unsubstantiated claim—that a personal cyber-infrastructure will enable students to compete economically and intellectually. How will a future lawyer or doctor, or a future artist or poet, or a future civil engineer or nurse, or a future stockbroker or psychiatrist—benefit economically from such an endeavor?

In contrast to the Campbell piece, I found the d106 site to be fun, provocative, and potentially quite useful. I appreciate that the assignments include audio, visual, and elements of writing. I chose an activity that asks students to choose a historical figure and map their movement across time using google maps. Students studying slave trade, maritime history, the histories of empire, Atlantic and Diasporic history, and other types of history could use this exercise to map out the lives of historical figures or to map out the process of historic events, such as wars, immigration, the transnational flow of ideas, etc. Excellent idea!

Primitives and the foundations of Digital Humanities

In this week’s reading, John Unsworth attempts to locate some basic ideas that are common to all humanistic scholars in order to set some terms of agreement for thinking about the digital humanities. He draws explicitly on Aristotle’s notion of ‘primitives,’ or a set of terms whose meanings are self evident and without dispute, that form the basis of knowledge. He lists a number of humanistic primitives, such as comparing, annotating, illustrating, etc. The bulk of the piece explores how these primitives inform digital humanities projects, such as a site devoted to the presentation of William Blake’s illustrated journals.

Before stating what I think are the piece’s limitations, I should note that I think it’s a very worthy and perhaps even necessary exercise. With new fields like DH, there tends to be a sense of chaos, uncertainty, and instability that is both productive and limiting. It is productive because it invites explorations and experimentation without regard to traditional boundaries. In fact, it encourages the transgression of the traditional, and in the process, if executed persuasively, could lead to new ways of thinking and/or acting in the world. On the other hand, few rules or the lack of any set of agreed-upon standards can also result in lots of poor work, sloppy thinking, a lack of analytical rigor, and just a slew of projects without any clear usefulness.

My primary problem with this piece is that it lacks what is perhaps the most essential task taken up by humanists, namely, interpretive work. The primitives listed by Unworth seem designed to express what digital humanities are already doing–comparing, illustrating, etc. However, my question is, How do projects in DH change or assist the work of interpretation that is central to all humanistic work, from philosophy to history, from art criticism to the deconstruction of literary texts? This will likely remain my main question throughout the semester.

Dazed and Confused, On the DH Trail

Rob Alegre, Blog Post, February 7, 2016

Matthew J. Kirschenbaum “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” made clear what I had suspected but was unsure about the digital humanities, namely that it is more concerned with computing than with creating new humanistic knowledge. The most revealing passage, in my opinion, comes in the form of an anecdote told by John Unsworth, the founding director of the Institute for advanced technology in the humanities at the University of Virginia, in which he describes the term “digital humanities” as having been arrived at as a marketing term, one that would be more attractive to humanists than the term then in fashion, “humanities computing.”

The primacy of computing over creating original humanistic knowledge is clear in a dry, clunky, article written by Robert W. Maloy, Michelle Poirier, Hilary K. Smith, and Sharon A. Edwards’, “The Making of A History StandardsWiki: Covering, Uncovering, and Discovering Curriculum Frameworks Using a Highly Interactive Technology.” For an article presumably intended to create a sense of excitement and novelty regarding the use of Wikis, the piece reads in parts as a formulaic guide to teaching American history through the use of Wiki. Moreover, and most problematic for thinking about “digital humanities,” the article is not fundamentally about creating original humanistic knowledge. Its primary purpose is to teach history–a fine and noble goal, but one that I would classify under pedagogy, not History.

Finally, as my additional reading, I chose Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig “Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” (http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/introduction/) which is the title of their book on the subject. The purpose of the piece is to summarize their book, a work meant to assess how computing can be used for humanistic research and teaching. Two issues discussed by the authors stood out to me. First, the World Wide Web has made it possible for just about any amateur historian who knows how to build a website to disseminate information or ideas about the past. On the one hand, this represents the great leveling effect of the web—diminishing the role of the academy as gatekeepers of historical knowledge and allowing amateurs to shape how Americans view the past. The democratic nature of this appeals to our liberal (classical liberalism, not the Democratic Party kind) values of free speech, individual sovereignty, etc. However, it also enables amateur historians to intentionally and unintentional propagate falsehoods. This is particularly troublesome if these amateurs receive private funding to create lavish sites, and pay to have their site advertise throughout the web. One can imagine a wealthy anti-Semite promoting anti-Semitic sites as places to find “authentic history,” and the like. The authors have no remedy for such a scenario.

The second issue is of great interest to historians—the digitalization of primary source materials. On this score, historians would likely concede that digital humanists have much to offer the field. Online archives that present documents that previously required extensive travel and other difficulties to attain is a major innovation in the last twenty or so years. My question, however, is not whether this phenomenon is meaningful, but rather that it appears to be the online version of the physical archive—that is, it is not an example of the work historians do. It’s an example of what archivists do. The site alone is no more a “humanities” than a physical archive. It is the job of the historian to turn those documents into historical narratives, a process that digital computing may assist with but cannot claim to do.

BLOG 1, On the Virtual Life of the Text

Patricia Cohen’s “Giving Literature Virtual Life” reminded me of my days in an honors history class as an undergraduate. The course was developed by a history professor with an abiding interest in computers. When the World Wide Web emerged in the mid 1990s, Professor William Gilmore, my adviser and the tech-head in question, was eager to figure out how to incorporate it in his classes. The problem for him was that at our midrange state school that catered to commuters and first generation college kids, most of us had very little knowledge of computers, and could barely type. The students in Cohen’s article live in another world–elite, moneyed, and, apparently, sophisticated in regards to computers and computing. I think the kids today from my state school are probably equally inclined to work with computers, much more so than during my years as an undergrad. Still, I do think that the mixing of computers and intense reading requires a certain level of comfort with both. I worry that very few of my students would fit the mold, so to speak.