The first required reading for my “Digital Humanities” course was Paul E. Ceruzzi’s Computing: A Concise History (MIT Press, 2012). There’s usually a formula things, to a course’s rubric, to a seminar’s progression, whatever. The first reading for most courses, for example, often tends to be something light, a work that lays the groundwork for things to come. And in many ways, this is indeed the case with Computing.
Unfortunately, my notes on the work and the original post for this blog, too, followed a formula. And then something unexpected happened: I went to the seminar with two friends also enrolled in the class and discovered myself asking—and being asked—a series of questions that is bound to reshape my reading of the “texts” to come and my thoughts on digital work in general.
Let me take a step back.
I’ve kept notebooks of classes and readings since high school—and have, sometimes embarrassingly, kept the majority of these in various boxes and filing cabinets, rarely looking at them, in fear of additional embarrassment. (A few summers ago, my girlfriend caught me in the kitchen furiously erasing the penciled-in marginalia in the first copy of Dickens’ Bleak House I had ever bought…) Before writing this post, I needed to check on something: my notebook from my college Composition class. The first pages are filled with a few doodles and sketches and a series of sarcastic remarks (and checklists) related to the numbers of rules and procedures repeated in a syllabus, and then repeated over again orally in class by the instructor. On page four, I wrote the following (I’m sure based on the instructor’s lecture):
Argumentation = the art of influencing others.
Good writers know and follow the rules.
Study and practice skills . . . variety of situations.
What are you trying to prove?
Research / Analysis / Organization
Appeals, Assumptions, A guarantee
Clear & Economical
Arriving at Conclusions
Words on paper have
Better thinking → better writing
I could go on, but I’m already beginning to twitch. (As it turns out, these are the very ideas that I call into question in my work today.)
Despite this resistance, reviewing Ceruzzi’s work, for me, revealed how comfortable—code for arrogant or lazy?—we can become within our own disciplines. Disciplines narrow things, thinking, limiting the line of questions we ask.
Graduate seminars can be equally limiting. Here, too, a formula. Students—scholars in training—view the terrain. They stake out their own turf and their colleague-competitors, and they fight for that gray area between specialties, sometimes ganging up on the weakness links in class, and, from past experiences, often shredding the finest of works into mulch. With my background in historical and literary studies, I already had guiding questions and criteria for evaluation before I had even entered Ceruzzi’s text. Prepared to criticize the work for its laundry list of computer innovators and innovations in computers, the instructor asked us to re(think) this “laundry list” as something else: a set of data points.
It then becomes clear. This is one of the opportunities of working in the Digital Humanities, the chance to shift perspectives and to ask a new set of questions in research. My initial response, then, might be a reflection of a larger issue facing our futures: looking for ways to bridge dialogue between the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. And the Digital Humanities may offer some opportunities for such connections. But the field is still a new one—at least in terms of its fashionable position in some academic circles. (Of course work in the DH dates backs well before this new interest—recognizing work in the field is another matter altogether.)
As we continue to grapple with work in this field, we must also continue to work with what exactly the Digital Humanities means as an area of research and its place in academia; present trends typically portray it as this incredibly broad, all-encompassing tent. (The following is a visualization of the field by Elijah Meeks at Stanford).
Still, others see the field as not inclusive enough. In a recent article in The Chronicle entitled “Stop Calling It ‘Digital Humanities’”, William Pannapacker, English professor at Hope College, suggests that the term 1) seems to exclude those not working in the Humanities and 2) will most certainly become outmoded and outdated as many of the activities associated with the field become part of the “ordinary methods of scholarship.” This is only one suggestion or strategy that Pannapacker offers to liberal arts colleges that he feels not only should “join the movement” but also have the opportunity to be more effective in some regards than larger research universities.