Finding a way to Digital Humanities

Job searching, writing and sending applications is a very time consuming process, but one still has some time to do things on the side. Apart from reading on some topics, which I haven’t had time to look into while doing my PhD, I have decided to finally get into Digital Humanities (DH). To would be hard to deny that a strong incentive came from the fact, that a lots of job applications now are aimed at this particular field.

Getting into the subject is not an easy task. On one hand, one has seemingly endless amount of articles, lectures on YouTube and books available, on the other it is difficult to find something that would be actually a good starting point for a person not familiar with internal discussions. Ironically, as I later discovered, the problem of abundance is actually one of the core issue in the field.

So now after scratching the surface, I slowly start to grasp what is it all about and why there is such a hype. And unfortunately, at least some of my doubts have been confirmed. But before I get into the critic, let me first say that I do actually think that there is a lot of good things going on in DH and it can truly makes the difference. Secondly, for obvious reasons, I am mostly concerned with the relevance of DH for history and it seems to me that the disciple background actually makes a huge difference. And thirdly, history departments (in general) definitely need more fresh air, including more openness to DH.

The problem I have with DH is the hype that surrounds it (and is at least partly created by some people in the field), at time one can almost think of it as the Promised Land. The thing is there is no new world out there. The more I read, the more I observe, the more I am sure that the hype to a large degree is there to cover the fact that the emperor has no clothes. Digital Humanities is not a new type of science, it is simply familiar one, but equipped with new tools. And no doubt, they do make a huge difference, but they don’t offer completely new field. Looking into some of be best projects in the field helped me to understand it quite clearly. What I’ve realized is that some of the projects are really awesome, but with less hype they would be even more impressive. Secondly, tools used in DH are not suited for every project, that might seem like a truism (and it is), but the unfortunately is not stated clear enough. Especially not while being extremely excited about the endless possibilities of DH. It works very well in some projects, it can be useful in others and it’s not really relevant to other enquiries. As always, start with the research question and then decide on the method, not the other way round.

Why than there is such a hype around DH? I think to a large degree, the answer is rather unsurprising: money. As Richard Jean So pointed out DH can draw a lot of money, moreover it’s a way to boost your career as Andrew Stauffer pointed out. And there is nothing principally wrong with either, the problem is that it creates completely weird sense that somehow humanities are dying out. What struck me the most while reading the first articles and books was the underlying sense of great collapse of the humanities. No one however ever proves that this is the case or actually even defines what he/she means by it. Instead, it is presented as commonly known fact, sometime too obvious even to discuss, but that is simply not the case (Richard Jean So). On the contrary, many evidence point in exactly opposite direction. Arguably, there is need to rethink the way how education system is structured (Sir Ken Robinson and School of Life on that), but the argument popular in DH debate doesn’t really address it, but rather tries to legitimize DH by discrediting humanities general, without actually acknowledging that they are part of this field, even if for now the relationship is tense. Moreover, DH can also be read also in a much darker light, not as a liberalizing movement, but part of a destructive force (Richard Grusin).

Having said that, I still think it is worth exploring DH. One doesn’t have to covert to the new “religion” (sect?), to recognize the benefits it can bring, including the possibility to reach too much broader public and Internet archives just to name the two. So my advice to people who want to get into DH is first of all not to be scared of the vagueness of the field, secondly not to get drawn into the internal wars (“who is in and who is not?”) and thirdly don’t expect to discover the new world. Instead, start small: read some articles, listen to lectures on YouTube, check the leading projects, learn software and think how it can be useful in your field. As I’ve discovered, I’ve been engaging with DH even before I heard the name. As always, labels are of secondary importance.