Dilemmas of the Digital Humanists
Armed with computers, humanities scholars have been performing once-unimaginable feats. They have recreated early modern London and American Civil War battlefields with the help of geospatial imaging. They have trawled, or “text-mined”, the vast corpus of Google-digitized books to establish how many times certain words or linguistic patterns appear. They have created a searchable database of almost 198,000 trials held at the Old Bailey between 1674 and 1913 (www.oldbaileyonline.org). They have mapped the Republic of Letters by tracing the journeys of 50,000 letters written and received by Voltaire, Locke, Franklin and other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century luminaries (https://republicofletters.stanford.edu/www.oldbaileyonline.org). They have mapped the Republic of Letters by tracing the journeys of 50,000 letters written and received by Voltaire, Locke, Franklin and other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century luminaries (https://republicofletters.stanford.edu/).
All this falls under the expansive label “digital humanities”. Humanities computing dates back decades but has taken on a new lustre lately. The list of digital editions and visualizations and experiments grows and grows as the tools become more sophisticated and the datasets larger. Funding agencies such as JISC (formerly the Joint Information Systems Committee) and the National Endowment for the Humanities have created grant programmes to support such work. The New York Times has documented some of the most eye-catching work in its “Humanities 2.0” series. No wonder that William Pannapacker, an English professor and blogger for The Chronicle of Higher Education (my employer), described the digital humanities as “the next big thing”.
That was in 2009, the year in which digital humanists (as they are often called) stole the spotlight at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA). One might have expected them to sit back, let the algorithms run, and bask in the glow of attention. But success, it seems, breeds its own set of worries. By 2011, Pannapacker was fretting publicly that the digital humanities had become so fashionable that they had given in to cliquishness. At the MLA gathering that year, Stephen Ramsay, an associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, gave a deliberately provocative talk arguing that true digital humanists build things – by which he meant things such as software programs for computers. “Do you have to know how to code?”, he asked. “I’m a tenured professor of digital humanities and I say yes.”
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