DHSI: Summer of Love

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A good conference might feature provocative presentations or lectures. Or for a business convention, the introduction of an exciting product or new program, with head-setted presenters pumping up the crowd. (See Steve Ballmer, “Developers! Developers! Developers!”) This is different. The atmosphere here at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) 2014 is one of prevailing happiness, the kind that comes from being thoroughly immersed in something you love. And that spills over to an appreciation for your co-participants and teachers (who are also co-participants). As Ray Siemens predicted in his opening remarks, people quickly come to really like their fellow students, and the happy quotient only continues to rise through the week. His predictions are based on past experience, as this marks the 14th year of the event.

As lovely as it is in Victoria, and as excellent as the program, it’s not just DHSI that accounts for the generally elevated generosity of spirit that seems to be the order of the day here. Hearing the institute’s milestone, I realized my involvement in digital humanities (DH) is also in its 14th year—even if I didn’t always know to call it that—starting as a graduate student assistant at the University of Virginia Library’s Electronic Text Center in 2000. The excitement, engagement and collegiality there was the pink elephant in the room too, obvious enough that I felt compelled to point it out (“What’s up with all the people being really great and interesting and nice?”) David Seaman said he liked to think it the happiest place on earth. For a while, at least, it was.

The generally welcoming, engaging and cooperating character of the DH community is often remarked on, maybe most memorably in a 2010 post on Tom Scheinfeldt’s Found History blog:

One of the things that people often notice when they enter the field of digital humanities is how nice everybody is… our most commonly used bywords are “collegiality,” “openness,” and “collaboration.” We welcome new practitioners easily and we don’t seem to get in lots of fights. We’re the Golden Retrievers of the academy.
[Why digital humanities is “nice”]

Besides his nice turn of phrase (repeated in the Birds-of-a-Feather session: Future Tense—Where Are We Going and Who Is With Us?) Scheinfeldt is the only one (I’m aware of) to speculate that the nice phenomenon is anything more than just—well, nice. He suggests it can be traced back to a distinctive aspect of DH, its organization around method as opposed to theory. Arguments over theory and evidence can be interminable, whereas methodological differences are finally determined in practice. Opposed positions don’t become entrenched. There is peace throughout the kingdom.

A similar connection between the excitement and enticement of DH (if not directly its charitable character) and its shift away from theory can be seen in a 2010 post by Stephen Ramsay:

…to me, there’s always been a profound — and profoundly exciting and enabling — commonality to everyone who finds their way to dh. And that commonality, I think, involves moving from reading and critiquing to building and making.
[On Building]

Ramsay’s post in turn prompted comments (from Ryan Heuser) even more explicit in the language of love and liberation that flows in the wake of the shift to making and building in DH:

But building is the opposite of detachment. Building is a form of creation. Creation is the ultimate participation…We in DH know…we are building. And we love it and learn from it.

The rejection of an artificial (at best) or deceptive (at worst) stance of objectivity, also seems to follow from the shift to method and making in DH and away from theory, both in these comments, and prominently in the DHSI Institute Lecture by Aimée Morrison, “DH as Fan Practice: Remix, Re-use, Re-Write,” where she asserted: “We are interested…” (in both senses) in our subjects, and argued for the superiority of scholarship by those engaged in their subjects.

Engaging in DH clearly is not just a matter of moving from reading to making, but also involves a dramatic shift in world-view. And while the significance of the turn to method and making is widely acknowledged, most accounts of digital humanities take as their point of departure the intersection of technology and the humanities, whether from inside or outside the community. So Adam Kirsch’s recent shot across the bow defines DH (in its minimalist form) as “the application of computer technology to traditional scholarly functions.” [“Technology Is Taking Over English Departments” ] The Australasian Association for Digital Humanities defines “digital humanities as being the application of computing technology and techniques to build greater understanding of our diverse social and cultural archives…” [http://aa-dh.org/presidents-welcome/] (which appeared on a slide in Paul Arthur’s Institute Lecture: “Building Digital Humanities Communities” as DHSI 2014 drew to a close.)

The equation computers + humanities = digital humanities is obviously true in one sense. But I believe the you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter account of DH is much less significant to understanding DH than might superficially seem. And technology may be something of a red herring to understanding DH, even to DH understanding itself. If the language of love and liberation makes DH sound like a movement (and not just a the attachment of a tool to a set of disciplines) I believe that’s because it is. At its core, technology, while enabling, is peripheral (and sometimes, a peripheral) to DH. And while the technology component of DH makes it appear shiny and new, I believe it belies the fact that DH in some important respects is a conservative movement, an effort to reclaim aspects of scholarship that were gradually marginalized as theory came to predominate in many disciplines. It is essentially a reform movement in the humanities. And as it matures, the implications of this shift away from theory will emerge, as they are now in DH engagement with scholarly publishing and tenure reform. Activities around these areas are not digital humanities work as such. But the world-view that comes with the shift away from theory is evident in the engagement with these areas.

The Tuesday BOF session at DHSI took as its point of departure the assertion from Mike Witmore at the 2013 MLA: “If the digital humanities is successful, it will disappear.” On the account here, the digital humanities will not render all the humanities digital. Success instead might mean a much more profound change, rippling not only through the humanities but higher education generally, as a world view of scholarship no longer dominated by theory, but engaged, interested and inhabited, takes hold.

About Andrew

I have a job. In a library.
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3 Responses to DHSI: Summer of Love

  1. craigbellamy says:

    Really good post. Thanks for this. But despite some of your observations, someone still needs to learn how to use XML etc. It isn’t that easy, and it isn’t without effort. There possible needs to be a certification process, just like there is in other areas of the humanities (ie, on could be an historian and a certified DH specialist). The best critique that can ever be made about a DH work is ‘who made it’. Is the person that made it being acknowledged than it is similar to a form of plagiarism.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks so much for reading, and your comments. I didn’t mean to suggest good old XML should ever go away, and I hope (some) people still learn XML. I think a core of a kind of DH will and should still be involved with building (faculty and non-faculty too). I was aiming for a way of discussing the distinctive character that usually comes from building, but maybe doesn’t have to be, so we could group it all under the big tent.

      • craigbellamy says:

        yer i am not sure I like big tents. I like small, light-weight tents that I can hike with, be energetic with, climb mountains with, and not fit too much.

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