A round table un-discussion, part 1

In September I had the privilege of sitting on a round table at the Digital Humanities Autumn School at the University of Trier, along with Manfred Thaller, Richard Coyne, Claudine Moulin, Andreas Fickers, Susan Schreibman, and Fabio Ciotti. Per standard procedure we were given a list of discussion questions to think about in advance; as with any such discussion panel, especially when the audience weighs in, the conversation did not follow the prescribed plan. 

Lively and worthwhile as the round table was, it would still be a pity for my preparation to go entirely to waste. Richard published his own reactions to the questions beforehand; I’ll join him by presenting mine here, in retrospect. This turns out to be a rather longer piece than I initially envisioned, and so here I present the first in what will be a five-part series.

1. The field of digital humanities is characterized by a great variety of approaches, methods and disciplinary traditions. Do you see this openness and dynamic as a chance or even necessary condition of the field or do you think that this endangers its institutionalization in an academic environment which is still dominated by disciplines? Does it make sense to make distinctions between specific disciplinary approaches in DH, for example digital history, digital linguistics, or digital geography?

If we leave the word “digital” out of the first sentence, it holds perfectly true – the humanities are heterogeneous. Thus I don’t think it is really any surprise that the digital humanities would be the same. Computational methods have developed fairly independently in the different disciplines, which does make specific disciplinary approaches rather inevitable – there are digital methods used primarily by linguists, that have been developed and shaped by the sorts of questions linguists ask themselves. These questions are very different from the sorts of questions that art historians ask themselves, and so art history will have a different set of tools and different methods for their application. And so we might perhaps better ask: does it makes sense to not make distinctions between specific disciplinary approaches in DH?

That said, the answer to this question is not so clear-cut as all that. In practice, very many people inside and outside the field think first of methods for text processing – encoding, tagging and markup – when they hear the words “digital humanities”. And so as a community, digital humanities practitioners tend to be extremely (though not exclusively, of course) text-oriented. Some of these conceive of the elements of DH pedagogy in terms of a specific set of tools; these usually include the XML infrastructure and TEI encoding for different text-oriented problem domains, as well as analysis of large (usually plain-text) corpora, which can include a combination of natural-language processing tools and statistical text-mining tools. That said, while text may be the Alpha of DH it is no longer the Omega – in the last five to ten years the archaeological and historical sciences have brought methods and techniques for mapping, timeline representation, and network analysis firmly onto the scene. One nevertheless retains the impression of Digital Humanities as a grab bag of skills and techniques to be taught to a group of master’s students, knowing that the students will perhaps apply 20-40% of the learned skills to their own independent work, but that the 20-40% will be different for each student.

So then, can digital humanities really be called a field or a discipline? It’s such a good question that it comes up again and again, and many people have attempted answers. The answer that has perhaps found the most consensus goes something like this: digital humanities is about method, and specifically about how we bring our humanistic enquiry to (or indeed into) the domain of computationally-tractable algorithms and data. That question of modeling would seem to be the common thread that unites the digital work going on in the different branches of the humanities, and it brings up in its turn questions of epistemology, sociology of academia, and science and technology studies.

What bothers me about this answer is that it gives us two choices, neither of which are entirely satisfactory: DH is either an auxiliary science (Hilfswissenschaft, if you speak German) or a meta-field whose object of study is the phenomenon of humanities research. The former is difficult to justify as an independent academic discipline with degree programs; the latter is much easier to justify, but appeals to something like 1% of those who consider themselves DH practitioners. I haven’t come up with an answer that I deem satisfactory, that ties a majority of the practitioners to a coherent set of research agendas.

In that case, a reader might reasonably ask, what is it that I am trying to accomplish, that fits under the “Digital Humanities” rubric? To answer that question, I have to say a little about who I am. I am extremely fortunate to be of the generation best-placed to really understand computers and what they can do: young enough that personal computers were a feature of my childhood, but old enough to be there for the evolution of these computers from rather simplistic and ‘dumb’ systems to extremely sophisticated ones, and to remember what it was like to use a computer before operating system developers made any effort to hide or elide what goes on “under the hood”. This means that I have a fluent sense of what computers can be made to do, and how thos things are accomplished, that I have been able to gain gradually over thirty years. In comparison, I began post-graduate study of the humanities twelve years ago.

So my work in the digital humanities so far has been a process of seeing how much of my own humanistic enquiries, and the evidence I have gathered in their pursuit, can be supported, eased, and communicated with the computer. It meant computer-assisted collation of texts, when I began to work on a critical edition. It has meant a source-code implementation of what I believe a stemma actually is, and how variation in a text is treated by philologists, as I have come to work on medieval stemmatology. It has recently begun to mean a graph-based computational model of the sorts of information that a historical text is likely to contain, and how those pieces of information relate to each other. And so on. Nowhere in this am I especially concerned with encoding, standards, or data formats, although from time to time I employ all three to get my work done. Rather, I rely on the computer to capture my hypotheses and my insights, and so I find myself needing to express these hypotheses and insights in as rigorous and queryable a way as possible, so as not to simply lose track of them. Critics might say (indeed, have said) that my idea of “digital humanities” is a glorified note-taking system; those critics may as well call Facebook a glorified family newsletter. Rather (and for all the sentiment that DH is first and foremost about collaboration) the computer allows an individual researcher like myself to track, and ingest, and retain, and make sense of, and feel secure in the knowledge that I will not forget, far more information than I could ever deal with alone. Almost as a side effect, it allows me in the long run to present not just the polished rhetoric appearing in some journal or monograph that is the usual output of a scholar in the humanities, but also a full accounting of the assumptions and inferences that produced the rhetoric. That, for me, is what digital humanities is about.