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.

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