Kirschenbaum’s “What is Digital Humanities . . . “

Out of curiosity, was anyone else disappointed with Kirschenbaum’s article?  I felt like the article left me with more questions than answers, and not in a good way; indeed, I felt more frustrated than intellectually challenged after reading his work.  In a nut shell, Kirschenbaum traces the growth of “digital humanities” as an area of scholarly study since the late ’80s and shows how it has gained credence as a legitimate topic for serious intellectuals to both analyze and participate in themselves.  Ultimately, Kirschenbaum defines “digital humanities” as “. . . a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people and that live an active 24/7 life online.” (p. 60).  I appreciate that his definition is fairly precise, but in the end I think it fails to adequately answer the “so what” question:  why should we study digital humanities in the first place?  What makes it “special” or worthwhile?

To me, at its most basic level, “digital humanities” simply refers to the digitization of scholarship, or the uploading of academic writing, research and evidence onto the world wide web.  The most obvious benefit of such scholarship, as Kirschenbaum aptly notes, is that uploading scholarship onto the Internet allows researchers’ ideas and writings to spread to a much wider audience than could be attained through printed academic journals or other traditional forms of scholarly communication.  In theory, this wider audience can advance scholarship by bringing more people into a certain debate and adding more ideas to the discussion.  However, Kirschenbaum leaves me wondering if there are other benefits to digitizing scholarship.  If so, what are they?  What are the downsides?  What makes digital humanities complex and worthy of debate?  How is it more than the simple uploading of material onto the Internet?  For me, Kirschenbaum failed to adequately answer these questions and his inability to do so is a source of consternation.

I did enjoy how the author detailed the development of different organizations devoted to the study of digital humanities.  It surprised me a little to discover that the digital humanities have been around since the 1980s.  The article also led me to wonder where the study of the digital humanities is headed.  What new questions are scholars debating within the discipline?  How will new technologies continue to change the ways we think and learn?  If nothing else, I think Kirschenbaum did a good job of provoking readers into considering these questions, as well as others.  Hopefully, most other readers were just not as frustrated by this article as I was.



8 Replies to “Kirschenbaum’s “What is Digital Humanities . . . “”

  1. historyfan29,

    I was also disappointed with the article. While Kirschenbaum does give detailed descriptions of organizations devoted to the study of digital humanities, that is the majority of the article. For me, the title did not fit the body. Kirschenbaum does not discuss the link between digital humanities and english departments until the end. Had the title been revised to somehow convey the article would be emphasizing the origin, use and place of digital humanities in today’s world, I would not have been left feeling like the article skimmed over the title topic.

    Does anybody else agree?


  2. I think each of your criticisms of the piece are fruitful. To put this piece in context a little bit, at this moment, and currently, a lot of folks are finding extensive discussion of the digital humanities and talk about it as if it were a brand new thing. As historyfan notes this piece is exposing some of the history this field, and connecting it to a existing movement in humanities computing.

    With that said, on re-reading it I think there may have been some more useful first blushes with the Digital Humanities. It may have been more useful to have folks take a look at digital humanities definitions by type. With that said, I do still like the part of Matt’s piece where he really excavates the history of the field. Even then, it is also worth noting that humanities computing has it’s origins all the way back in the 50’s.

  3. I would be inclined to agree with both “historyfan29’s” and “kellyc’s” assessment of this article. While I was not “disappointed” by it per say, I did pick up a hint of cynicism on the part of the author throughout this article.

    This cynicism comes from his answer (or lack therefore of) to the question “what is the digital humanities doing in the English Department?” To simplify his answer, I think there may be two parts to it:

    A) Because that’s where the money is. He mentions how “scare resources” have been devoted to launching new grant opportunities in the DH. The reason for this, according to him is that “digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time.” This leads to the second part of his answer.
    B) Because people don’t want to be left behind when the DH train leaves the station. Kirschenbaum points out that many current academics have added “Digital Humanities” to their job titles in an attempt to stay abreast of the trends in a time of declining public funding and increased competition for academic jobs.

    As others have mentioned, although the article provides a background in the growth of DH, it does seem leave more questions than answers. It seems to me that Kirschenbaum himself, an English professor (despite having published a book on digital technologies) might be a little leery about technology that provides the ability to “data mine,” and to “perform distance readings” of “millions of books at a time.” English is a discipline which often requires an intimate acquaintance with the literature, not the passing fancy enabled by 140 character Tweets.

    The fact that Kirschenbaum ends his piece with a rhetorical question could expose the apprehensions that many have in try trying to determine exactly where the digital humanities fit within English departments.

  4. Some good points have been raised here regarding Kirshenbaum’s article. While I noted how Kirshenbaum depicts the digital humanities as both a useful, effective historical method as well as a burgeoning network available to an ever growing academic community for scholars, his bigger point seems to be the overall growth of the digital humanities field. It comes at a time when rapid transformation is taking place on many campuses regarding issues of funding, administration, teaching, and course structure.

    His points about how DH has infiltrated English departments sometimes seem overly obvious, especially when he states how text-based data processing and computer-based composition go hand-in-hand with English departments. I suppose he could say this for many other fields of study in colleges of arts and sciences, like political science, sociology, psychology, and any other field that requires its students to word process prodigiously.

    I think he could have followed through a bit more when he points out the impact of e-books though Kindle and iPad. For example, what might their future impact be on teaching and learning and what might an English classroom look like in twenty years? Will hard copy books be a thing of the past for future English majors and other liberal arts students? And how will “the absent presence” of teachers through DH affect and influence future academic institutions and departments?

    I think Kirshenbaum, like many of us, might be unsure exactly what might transpire in the future of DH and its impact on English classrooms. That appears to be the nature of the beast. It seems to be a two-sided one for Kirshenbaum; one that caters to the ADHD younger generation through Twitter and its abbreviated style while also catering to the more scholarly, thoughtful network of scholars who are actively trying to both protect and disseminate their scholarship to an ever-growing online audience.

  5. While I agree with my fellow classmates that Kirschenbaum failed on the whole to adequately address the question in his title, I did find some of his discussion illuminating as to the importance of digital humanities. In particular, I enjoyed his anecdote about Twitter during the MLA Conference.

    Social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have certainly left their mark on the way that we interact with other people. One of the important aspects of digital humanities is the ways in which humanities organizations have embraced these new resources to expand their audiences. I think that it is exciting that larger institutions are now hiring social media consultants.

    In this respect, I think that Kirschenbaum’s observation that digital humanities are becoming a tool of the younger generation is extraordinarily important. He does argue that this has been a field since the 1950s. However, I feel that one reason why he fails to adequately address his opening question is because the evolving nature of digital tools forces the field to evolve as well.

    1. Bridget,
      I was also intrigued by his short Twitter story. One of the things I hope to discuss tonight is whether we, as a class, believe that social networking sites are a fad or a tool that will be around for quite awhile. Hopefully we will be able to expand on Kirschenbaum’s useful anecdote a little!

  6. I would definitely agree with Andrew that I found Kirschenbaum’s brief mention of Kindles/e-books, and especially Google Books lacking. As Kirschenbaum says, digital humanities has real potential for resistance or reform, and ebooks seem to be one of the newest tools for educational institutions to use. The use of Google Books goes along with the concept of “accessibility” discussed in Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Introduction.

    In addition to being accessible at all hours of the day, rather than when a library or Barnes and Noble is open, venues such as Google Books contain many works not necessarily accessible through print. Speaking to the applicability of Google Books to history in addition to English, manuscripts, old publishings from the nineteenth century, treatises, etc are all readily available online and for free. How might this accessibility change a syllabus, pedagogy, the way student conceptualize a particular topic?

    1. Katie,
      Your last question is definitely one that I plan on discussing in class tonight! I too am curious to see what other people think about how the digital humanities can alter the ways that we think and learn.

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