In a job interview for a position as a Digital Humanities coordinator I’ve been asked whether I believe everyone should do “digital humanities” soon. Here’s my point of view.
In this question, another question is hidden: What is a digital humanitist? Is it everyone doing stuff digitally (as we all do)? Is it a specialist of some kind?
Digital Humanities as a specialisation
Wikipedia gives a definition and I think, the overall practice gives a similar one even though it is being re-evaluated all the time: Digital Humanities (DH) are at the intersection of the humanities and the computer sciences. As they are the humanities they don’t just develop new digital methods for the humanities, but analyse the applications as well. So, as DH is a specialisation, I think the question “Does everyone need to be a digital humanitist?” is easily answered:
No. Of course “traditional” humanities are still as valuable as they have been before. There is research that doesn’t need sophisticated digital tools and some profs, who have been doing something the last 30 years, don’t need to change their minds and methods. Talking archaeologically: We need people, who dig. People who analyse the pottery sherds, flint tools, bone assemblages archaeologically, we need people who think about theory, and so forth. Whether they do it digitally or not, I don’t much care.
Digital Humanities skills everyone needs
What I do care about, is how they publish: I would like for these results to be published in a digital and accessible way. I wish to see databases, linked and open if possible, and not just tables in books, which I then have to digitise again, when I know exactly that they exist digitally already (because everyone is using digital tools, remember, especially databases). I wish for the databases to be, well, consistent and re-usable. And I wish for the research process to be as transparent as possible. So, if you use digital tools – which you do, even if you aren’t “in the DH” – please use them in a “good” way. Just as with any other tool you learn, there are some things to be aware of. Think about data structures, meta data, long term storage etc pp .
That’s the one side of it. What I also believe to be very important, that “the new generation” has the chance to learn new methods. I’ve been taught a statistical tool, that had stopped development for 20 years by that time. Which is not ideal, really, *especially* thinking about the data import and export. I am beyond that now, but wouldn’t it have been nice to have learned R in class… There are loads of amazing digital tools in statistics, text mining, network analysis, agent based modelling, GIS, 3D mapping, 3D reconstruction and so many more, and they get constantly developed further and new ones pop up all over the place!
Of course no department can offer all these as classes. It’s to be expected that a professor cannot always keep up with all the developments, that is just impossible, especially if his/her expertise is actually flint artefacts in Southern Denmark between 8000 and 4000 BC. Therefore specialised courses on digital humanities and digital / computational archaeology need to be offered. People interested in the very newest methods and tools will take these, whereas other departments teach methods that might not be the newest, but are still just as useful as they were 10 years ago.
Digital, but still a humanity
This is what is happening at the moment: Master’s courses in DH are “popping up” in several places, there are DH centers founded at universities and the DH are the coolest kid in town. In a way. Some people, maybe a bit suspicious of this “newcomer”, argue, if digital humanities are “just focusing on methods”, are they still a humanity? Aren’t they just the IT-guy? Also, the Digital Humanities are the only place in which one can study all the humanities in one course, but as the humanities are so diverse, [indignant voice on] how can anyone be a specialist in a humanity after such a superficial study program! [\indignant voice off]
So, because of their technological focus and not a traditional specialisation in a field, DH are often seen as just a help to the “real humanities”. That’s a pitfall. Not only have most DH programs lessons on methods used by different kinds of humanities, especially how data is procured and what you can and cannot do with them, the DH focus a lot on methods of evaluating written sources. And whether they move into a historian or a linguist direction, the source is the written word and text mining might be an interesting approach for research questions in these fields. That might actually be one reason, why there is a separate development in Digital and Computational Archaeology: Especially Prehistoric Archaeology doesn’t have words to analyse (“pre-history”, you know before writing was invented), therefore they needed their own “digital specialisation”. If you’re interested in the relationship of Digital Archaeology to the DH, go read Hugget (2012).
A call for inter- and transdisciplinarity
More broadly speaking, a lot of the research questions the DH work on are transdisciplinary. Just think about modern online publication strategies, digital editions, data storage, linking different datasets, web-based mapping, … Using all these nice new methods change how you think about data, offer possibilities of new research questions and outreach projects. BUT. You need to understand these tools thoroughly to be able to think about their appropriateness. Therefore DH people aren’t the ones who will “help” you, whenever you feel like it, but need to be included in every aspect of the research design, especially in the beginning. And as everyone who is that important for a project they can develop their own research projects as well. It’s the time for collaborations, really, they will need the coin specialists and early medieval literature geeks and the sherd nerds, but so is everyone who is developing a larger project nowadays.
As I fear that a lot of people see the DH thus wrongly, the most fruitful and job-secure thing I think there is, is to have “one leg” in a humanity and the other one in DH. That’s what I try. I trained as a traditional prehistoric archaeologist, though I focused on some digital methods (as they were offered). I’ve worked on cluster methodology and digital / computational archaeology approaches the last few years and hope to return to do a mixture of “traditional” pottery and landscape archaeology with some (as much as I manage) computational methods thrown at it for my PhD. That’s what Ben Marwick has called a “pi-shaped researcher“: Some general knowledge in your field and then two specialisations, one “inside the field”, one in computational methods.
How do you think about the DH? Are you “in” the DH and how do you deal with this problem?
PS: Are you interested in the discussion around Digital Archaeology? I might write a blog post about that…