Introducing Digital: Saving the Humanities & Solving the World’s Contemporary Problems?

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.

10 Replies to “Introducing Digital: Saving the Humanities & Solving the World’s Contemporary Problems?”

  1. Great points, and I like how you have a theme thread throughout your post.

    I want to share a few issues I have with Ceciro’s view on how to improve DH. While I agree that history is always political, I do not share the understanding of theory. She relies on Jean Bauer’s assertion that “the database is the theory.” I believe that theory is a lens that helps us understand something, the definition is broader. I do however agree with Ceciro’s point that it is easier to be nice, if you are a white man, you do not have to hear things like I do: “ching-chong,” “Yellow fever,” “Your English is so good for someone like you,” or “Go back to where you cam from.” But … ironically Ceciro discusses inequality and virtue in an incredibly inaccessible academic, elitist language.

    Leon’s “Returning Women to the History of Digital History” is on the contrary reassuring, but in a slightly outdated way. The article reads as “here is why women deserve to be doing Digital History.” And that mere fact is sad in itself. I was expecting a guide to how women would be included in the history. Another drawback was the author ignoring one of the most important barriers of this field- the technology aspect of it. It is the very culture that continues to reward boys and ignore girls more when it comes to Math and IT. The very accumulation of this is then felt on every stage, like my male peer giving me an unsolicited explanation of how to turn on a computer.

    1. Laura, first, I think you make a really good point about Cecire’s essay when you say that she “discusses inequality and virtue in an incredibly inaccessible academic, elitist language.” As I was reading that piece, something was really bothering me about it, but I couldn’t figure out what it was exactly, and you hit the nail on the head.

      (Maren, on the same topic, thanks for such a concise review of some Cecire’s points! It clarified a few things for me, and I’m sure for others as well!)

      And second, Laura, I think your criticism of what’s missing in Leon’s article is really fair. In the interview with her that we also read, she mentions that just to get started in the field when she did, she had to have some minimal knowledge of HTML, CSS, and PHP. Now, as part of a larger center, Leon explains, she’s able to have others do a lot of the coding for her, but I think a lot of digital historians are working on a much smaller level and need to be able to do what they’re doing themselves! As long as coding and other IT work are still seen as very male and not necessarily for women, and as long as women are not receiving the same encouragement as men to learn to navigate coding languages, that’s going to be a significant barrier to women in digital history. Leon did a great job of breaking down why women get short shrift in discussions about digital history from the history side, but I think you’re right that she could have done a better job of addressing it from the digital side as well. Thanks for a really thought-provoking comment.

      1. Katherine, thank you for letting me know I was helpful! I spent a lot of time with the Cecire essay because I’m pretty interested in understanding the theory and the why behind digital history. I’m so glad you found it helpful.

        I’m interested too in your response to Laura on Leon’s essay! As I said in the comment to Laura, it often left me wondering how I or any individual person can really make sure these structural and cultural forces are being mitigated in real time. It was great to learn that women have always been doing the work, but, like in reading history which painfully leaves women out of the story, my response is something along the lines of, “…hello we know women always existed, but it’s time their actual work was valued.” I think both you and Laura are onto something with the digital side of this story. I wonder if Leon focuses less on this because of her background and training in history and less in digital? Obviously, she is a highly accomplished digital historian, but I wonder if how she came to do digital history affects her perspective on these systemic issues. Also, you raise an excellent point that many digital historians are probably operating small-scale. I think that’s really a key to understanding this dynamic and the importance of understanding the work of digital history from all angles.

    2. Laura, I’m so glad you raised these points! I noted the inaccessibility of the language as well, which I found off-putting in a field which claims to be collaborative, approachable, and nice, as she Cecire speculated. I appreciate that you share your personal experience, and I think it’s certainly something to think about how “nice” is an expected trait (particularly expected from women) and also how it can be thought of in terms of privilege. It’s important to think about the ways in which a white man’s day is different and easier by, for example, not having to deal with the racist remarks that you face or by otherwise simply existing in a world built and designed for him.

      I think I understand your point about your different understanding of the uses of theory. Cecire did focus her definition of theory on how it solves problems and how the database is that answer. I found her definition confusing at times but wondered if it was because I would have to be more formally practicing digital history to understand it? Regardless, I appreciate your input on this point.

      I think your criticism of Leon’s essay is valid. I read her argument as “women have always been doing this work” and that she is defending their often overlooked positions because they weren’t the lead on the projects. I think your point about women’s exclusion from IT and math falls somewhere under the umbrella of her explanation of the structural forces keeping women out of the field, but I agree that including that point would have added strength to her argument. I think my frustration with this essay is really just with the larger issue of recognizing problematic structural and cultural forces negatively affecting women, and our only answer being “this needs to change by everyone just being better.” In that sense, I definitely see where you’re coming from that this essay was not progressive enough, outdated, as you said, and left me wanting more solutions and for women not to have to fight for their place in the historiography or the field

  2. Maren, I like how you pair accessibility and niceness in your post. In the articles we read, I was struck by the authors’ drive towards accessibility. This was visible in Lisa Spiro’s “how to” post, but also implicit in several of the other articles. For example, Rebecca Onion’s “Snapshots of History” confronts problems of accessibility, not to the digital world, but to history. The poorly managed twitters she analyzed can be understood to limit accessibility by stopping historical inquiry. Onion describes how these accounts fail to link to their sources, or add contextual information, thus making it difficult to continue research on the subject, should it appeal to you. Rosenzweig and Cohen also confront accessibility on their chapter on exploring the History Web. Several times in their writing they mention the vast amounts of class syllabi “locked” in programs like Blackboard, but these pale in comparison to the for-Profit projects such as ProQuest and the Thomson Corporation.

    These two examples confront vastly different ideas of accessibility, and leads me to the question of how much of the history web should we expect to be accessible? When you start a digital history project, what are the accessibility requirements, and how do you establish and maintain those? In “Returning Women to the History of Digital History,” Leon linked to DoHistory, the companion site to “A Midwife’s Tale,” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The address still works, but the site itself, created in 2000, is incredibly outdated by todays digital standards. Does that affect its accessibility? If you Google “Martha Ballard,” DoHistory is the second site to come up, after Wikipedia, but would its visual appearance throw people off? As we continue to learn about the ins and outs of digital history, I’m interested to discuss, and to learn more, about these questions of accessibility and how to protect it.

    1. Katie, I think your observations of accessibility are spot on. It’s interesting too, and I didn’t notice until you left this comment, that in my thinking about accessibility, I was really thinking about it as an accessible field to practitioners. But, your exploration of accessibility to audiences is entirely appropriate here because I think the lines are blurred in digital history. How *anyone* can do digital history as well as how *anyone* can access it (assuming we’re specifying the digital resources which actually are publicly accessible). I think Emily’s exploration of questions of accessibility and the discussion happening in the comments there is really fascinating and fits well with your observations, too, so I hope you check that thread out! I think accessibility is one of the main themes appearing to me so far, and I’m interested in how it permeates and maybe even helps to define the field from questions about who can practice digital history to who can access it.

  3. Language is a powerful tool. Cecire acknowledges it in her article and Maren noticed it as well. Language is important when helping people feel welcome somewhere; whether it is in the physical or virtual world. Cecire stated these terms have “social consequences” and I believe she is right. The field could look different with other terms, but I do not think she knows where because she seems to just drop the issue there. Could the language be changed? What could it be changed to? Simply changing the language to more “feminine” words, like weaving, would not be inclusive either. Gender-neutral words could be considered, but, much to my discouragement, she does not seem to go any further with this trail.

    1. Yes, Kaylee! These are such good points. I found it to be a fascinating observation that left me asking so many questions, like you are here! One question I had was if there is a dichotomy between the masculine language and the feminization of labor, if pointing those out and putting them in contrast to one another erases the complexity and reduces the conversation to one of “masculine” vs “feminine.” It really made me wonder what labelling any of these concepts in a gendered-sense does to our understanding of the field and of the false gender binary. I feel less like she is suggesting new language and more like she is just trying to point out the problematics of our perceptions of the language and the way work is done in the field. BUT, that said, it leaves me feeling a bit unsure if she had these thoughts or if she was just identifying the different use of language? I think your highlighting the importance of the language and bringing that point back to the foreground is a worthwhile one!

  4. Great Points Maren! I like your tone and approach to your post. You were clear, concise and emphasized the optimism that was attempted in “Returning Women to the History of Digital History”. The reading clearly attempted to push for a call to action and reflection for a more inclusive profession. However, the reading seemed to suggest that academic institutions must, “level the playing field” for women with very vague suggestions on how to do so. Old habits die hard and in the case of systematic oppression towards women by academic institutions, progress is not linear and the root of that oppression is not monolithic. No matter the ingenuity of women historians and their contributions to the genesis of digital history, the systems, and credentials in place for projects limits their recognition.

    1. Thank you so much, Sierra! I really appreciate that, and I’m glad you found it accessible and helpful. I 100% agree with your commentary on Leon’s essay. I think many of us are struggling a bit with this explanation and the lack of followthrough in identifying it. Not that I should expect her to solve the issue, I think that in writing this essay, I would have found the article more helpful or informative if there were some kind of “next steps” or call to action. You eloquently explain that no matter what the women have done or will do, the systems are the problem and will limit their recognition. It leaves me feeling kind of frustrated and struggling to be hopeful about the situation which is ironically the opposite of what I wrote about digital history being an optimistic field. I really appreciate your input!

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