The DH Bridge: How is Digital Humanities a cultural phenomenon?

So I have had some experience with Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work in the past, but only recently have been able to apply his theories in a practical way. In reading his article What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments? I have decided to use this blog post to not only address the hostility and retaliation towards the digital humanities (towards the beginning of its existence as we know it today) but also how English departments have grown to open their doors to it. As time has gone by, the digital humanities as a field have not stopped growing. The name for all of the subcategories within DH is “The Big Tent” because the boundaries are essentially non-existent. However, in the beginning, there was some serious pushback to accepting the digital humanities as a field of study within English departments and academia as a whole. People considered it to be an incredibly exclusive field, and I recently learned that  University of Nebraska scholar, Stephen Ramsay, had really scrambled the field when he made his “Who’s In and Who’s Out” speech at the Modern Language Association Convention in 2011 (Gold). If you would like more direct information on that, you can find it in the same book’s (Debates in the Digital Humanities by Matthew K. Gold) introduction. Anyway, Ramsay’s made that speech essentially saying that if you did not know how to code, then you were not ever going to be a digital humanist.

At the time, digital humanities were in the midst of a flurry due to that statement (amongst others). It really helped to promote this cliquish culture in DH, something that took a long time to overcome. Some may still be fighting it. The reason I brought up Ramsay and the start of digital humanities was because of how much of a boys club it once was and where we are now. Kirschenbaum lists half a dozen reason English departments were so compatible with DH. However, he doesn’t dive very deep into any of the points, which is why I want to interpret them and explain what they mean to me. Starting with his first point:

First, after numeric input, text has been by far the most tractable data type for computers to manipulate. Unlike images, audio, video, and so on, there is a long tradition of text-based data processing that was within the capabilities of even some of the earliest computer systems and that has for decades fed research in fields like stylistics, linguistics, and author attribution studies, all heavily associated with English departments.” (Kirschenbaum) 

This first reason converges with his second point regarding computers and composition as well as his final point discussing e-reading. These three points can be brought together using a single word, archiving. A hefty motivator for students and professors of English to embrace this technological aspect of academia is the drive to digitize information and make it more accessible for curious minds. Look at the tragic loss in Rio, Brazil. They lost countless years of history and culture in one accident. As a result, they are trying to replicate the museum by digitizing it, archiving the data and mapping it out online so that their citizens and tourists can still have some kind of experience. I myself had the pleasure of working on an archive in undergrad when my professor, Dr. Annie Swafford, introduced us to DH. Working with Dickinson University, we created a Victorian Queer Literature archive for people all over to access online. This is where I first realized that this was something that could really connect people rather than keep them apart. Fields associated with text have so much potential in terms of technology, Kirschenbaum was well aware of that.

One last point I’ll unwrap was his fifth point where he stated: “Fifth is the openness of English departments to cultural studies, where computers and other objects of digital material culture become the centerpiece of analysis” (Kirschenbaum). I really enjoyed this point because from what I learned, English is a subject rooted in the human experience. Understanding stories of life through others’ experiences is what reading is about. So there is a very deep cultural aspect to English, something that we could use through our current and future technology to interconnect cultures and even academic disciplines. Technology is very much so a bridge between worlds that we can mold to bring everyone together rather than separated into cliques. Kirschenbaum saw this as an opportunity to use digital resources for reasons other than collecting data and analyzing statistics. For example, we can learn Brazilian culture through their digitized museum once it is complete. Ramsay may have had a point back in 2011, but the digital humanities have spread so widely across multiple disciplines. I feel as though Kirschenbaum was correct, but didn’t anticipate that English would act as a gateway like this way back in 2012.

*I apologize for the lack of page numbers! The Debates in the Digital Humanities online edition doesn’t have them to utilize.

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