Defining Digital Humanities?

[This is cross-posted at my other blog.]

I just got out of a department meeting where we were discussing the possibility of creating a new graduate certificate in the “digital humanities.” I think this is a terrific idea, but I have to admit I’m a bit ambivalent about the term “digital humanities,” partly because there’s some dispute over how to define it.

In a recent post on “The Digital Humanities Divide,” Alex Reid examines the CFP for the 2011 Digital Humanities conference, and finds that a

significant part of the digital humanities that is not captured in this call is the humanistic investigation of digital technoculture: no mention of games studies, social media, or mobile technology. In other words, no mention of the significant digital technologies and practices that are transforming human experience on a global scale. No, instead, we’re going to talk about writing software to analyze hundreds of out of print literary texts that no one can even name.

This aspect of the digital humanities is also reflected in the NEH’s recent call for Digital Humanities Start-up Grants. The call itself presents a fairly wide interpretation of “digital humanities,” but looking over the examples of projects that are getting funded (and based on a second-hand account of a conversation with a grant program officer), it seems like their main priority is on the activity of

planning and developing prototypes of new digital tools for preserving, analyzing, and making accessible digital resources, including libraries’ and museums’ digital assets

For the record, I don’t have anything against making such tools. However, as Reid points out, it seems odd that digital humanists wouldn’t be focused on “the powerful ways that digital technologies are changing the world.”

So, on the one hand, we have some folks saying there should be “more hackety-hack, less yackety-yack,” but on the other we have Neil Postman’s assertion that “technology education is not a technical subject. It is a branch of the humanities.” I think the tension here is not between digital and analogue, but instead in what we think the humanities is for. Is the point of the digital humanities to develop new tools for doing fairly traditional things with a narrow range of privileged texts, or is it to understand something about what it means to be human in a digital age?

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