As someone who is new to the world of digital history, diving into conversations in the field taught me that the world of digital history is, well— nice.
And accessible at that. While this perhaps should not be surprising, my impression of digital fields was that I am too lacking in knowledge to be a part of the conversation or that I would be unwelcome there because of my lack of experience and training. Instead, I’m finding that the digital history field strives to be approachable and welcoming. Take, for example, Lisa Spiro’s blog post answering questions about how to get started in the field. Spiro wrote this guide based on her experience presenting at a conference with an audience whose reaction was much like my own—eager but intimidated. Her blog post is full of resources for those of us who are just diving into the field, aware of the possibilities but unsure where to begin.
Many of us have lived the majority of our lives in the digital age. Most of us could probably take a guess at vaguely defining the terms “digital history” and “digital humanities.” But the definitions, particularly “digital humanities” are difficult to specify due to the enormity of the field and the variety of projects which are produced under these labels. Beyond defining the terms, could we dive in and do digital history? Many practitioners would likely argue yes. And that is a critical aspect of the field— the division between thinking and doing, between theory and practice.
Practitioners of digital humanities also appear to be overwhelmingly hopeful,optimistic that this new methodology has the potential to “save” the humanities. Sharon Leon pushed back on this perspective in a conversation with Melissa Dinsman, published in 2016. What digital history in particular can do, Leon argues, is reinforce analytical and inquiry skills already emphasized in universities and especially in history departments. Asking digital history to save the humanities creates a false crisis and puts pressure on these kinds of projects, digital and public, to do the heavy lifting of shifting how academia interacts with the public and with knowledge and practice. Instead of saving the humanities—an enormous task for one methodology— Leon argues that the digital turn, much like public history, encourages scholarship to look to new methods and new audiences, creating a different kind of public platform.
While, digital history won’t save the humanities (if they need saving is left up to you), perhaps it will prove to make a lasting impact on the structure and tradition in universities. Men have historically dominated the academy and excluded women from participating in the production of knowledge. Leon demands that digital history work seek to reconfigure the systemic and structural forces which erase women from history and from historiography. Digital history has its origins in the 1980s and 1990s as Cohen and Rosenzweig point out. So why then, were women excluded from the historiography of digital history? Leon sought to answer these questions in an essay on her blog, “Returning Women to the History of Digital History,” making the argument that women were at the forefront of digital history but have been written out due to the structural forces of the academy and of cultural heritage institutions.
This article reveals some of the cracks in the nice-gilded facade of digital humanities. How does a field emphasizing the importance of collaboration and shared authority erase women from the historiography? Natalie Cecire sought to answer this question in a different way—with theory.
Natalia Cecire cites Tom Scheinfeldt’s commentary on the word nice to launch into a discussion of the virtues of public humanities. Scheinfeldt suggests that the generally nice attitude in the field is due to the focus on methodology rather than theory. She suggests that because there is a practical answer or end to most methodological debates, the debate is more likely to end in a productive answer or result. Cecire takes this argument a step further by questioning how this attitude shapes the field and by reading the language used to talk about digital humanities.
Despite being a field in which the feminization of labor is evident through its modular approach and breaks from traditions in the academy, Cecire points out that the language used to describe the digital humanities is distinctly masculine and industrial— hack, hands-on, build, and mine are just a few prominent examples. Cecire argues that because digital humanities is about doing and method rather than about thinking and theory, it makes an economic claim about the value of work and of knowledge. Cecire speculates, “The field might look very different if the dominant metaphors for “doing” digital humanities research included weaving, cooking, knitting, and raising or nurturing.” If digital humanities is now part of a debate about what kind of work is worth doing and what kind of knowledge is most valuable, then Cecire argues, it is a social and economic debate about our contemporary world.
While this theoretical essay is dense, it matters because Cecire is attempting to theorize a field which, she argues, has the potential to affect how we perceive work and knowledge. The root of this question could lay in the dissonance in the digital humanities between the language we use to describe it and the reality of how that work takes form—masculine verbiage versus feminization of labor. Why does this matter? Or does it at all? It matters because the digital humanities and digital history produce visible, clear products, often public-facing in nature, proving the validity of the work of the humanities both to the public and to universities.
But, as previously mentioned Leon argues, “I don’t think the humanities needs saving.” Instead, digital humanities is perhaps more suited to solve issues of contemporary life, as Guldi and Armitage argue, by contributing the tools necessary for a return to social long-termism by means of a return to the historical methods of the longue durée. They argue that history should act as arbiter for the past and the present and that digital history is a means, a method, of accomplishing that goal. While, it can still be argued that digital history and digital humanities also can not solve the contemporary world’s problems, those wielding its powers are not wrong in that it provides tools to bring humanists and perhaps the world a step closer. Displaying an unfailing optimism in the value of history, digital tools, and perhaps humanity.
Digital humanities and digital histories are optimistic and anticipatory fields, focused on the next tools and the methods which will innovate the field. So, what comes next in a field looking to the future by way of the past? Perhaps this semester we will begin to answer this question with some collaboration and a nice attitude.