A digital humanities reality check

Last week I wrote a post in Swedish here about my initial impressions of the 2014 Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria. Now that it is over and a few days have passed, I thought I’d try to sum up my experience of the intense week at DHSI as well as some more general reflections. These notes are based on the course I took, ”Fundamentals of Programming” led by John Simpson; two ”Birds of a Feather sessions” I attended live and one I followed on Twitter; an ”unconference” session on open access publishing (chaired by my classmate Casey Brienza) and the keynote lectures by Aimée Morrison, Paul Arthur and Alex Gil. There were many, many more activities offered outside the regular courses, but this handful of events was all I managed to attend during the week in Victoria. (As an aside, to paraphrase a comment another attendee made on Twitter ”I can neither confirm nor deny that I just googled the phrase ’How do I move to Victoria, BC’.” The home of DHSI is clearly one of the loveliest cities I have ever had the privilege to visit.)

First of all, the programming class was tremendously good and I learned a lot in those five days. For a complete beginner the pace was quite fast, but our instructor did an outstanding job of keeping all of his 14 students on board and constantly moving forward. In just a few days we went from being introduced to some basic concepts in programming to working on different coding projects in small teams, ranging from text extraction and manipulation to geocoding analysis and writing a text adventure game. Some times it was hard to keep up and I’m still very much the beginner, but it was really valuable just to spend so much time in the command line interface day after day and to gain familiarity with it. Perhaps this familiarity and being comfortable with working in the Terminal was the most important outcome of the Institute for me personally, since it gives me the confidence to move forward and continue to learn on my own now that the DHSI is over.

Hello World

On a more general level, the out-of-class sessions I attended throughout the week were about a variety of topics but, to me, a common theme became apparent as the days went by: a sense of ”digital humanities reality check(s)”. The sessions may have been about trying to define who are digital humanists or not, about open access or graduate training, but to my mind they all seemed to return again and again to issues of finding a balance between idealism and pragmatism in promoting and implementing the digital humanities – whatever that is. And throughout all of these discussions, I couldn’t help but think that as the question of definitions is a case of ”you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t”. In other words, while many would argue that the endless debates about ”defining DH” are just a waste of time and energy it is hard to see how they can be avoided, since in order to know what we are doing we have to know what ”it” is and what it means.

It also seems clear to me that one of the main reasons for the great surge of digital humanities over the last few years has been exactly the fact that it is a very elastic, multifaceted term. It signifies many different things to different people, and when these come together it is inevitable that there will be intense and sometimes rather messy discussions about what it all means as these different groups try to figure out if and how they are a ”we” or not. So, for instance, while to some the digital humanities is rather simply just what the term implies, more or less traditional humanities scholarship that happens to be carried out with digital methods and resources, to others DH is something much more radical: a movement aiming for comprehensive and fundamental transformation of humanities research and the academic world that it is a part of. Between these extremes there is a variety of intermediate positions and priorities within the ”big tent” that the digital humanities, whether you like it or not, is today.

Reflecting on this situation and the discussions taking place within it, I cannot help but draw a comparison to a completely different, but in some ways also remarkably similar, historical context: the Reformation in sixteenth century Europe. This may seem far fetched, but there is the same widespread – albeit not universal – sense of crisis for the existing order within a well-established institution (the church/academia) on the one hand, and the same lack of consensus on how swift, deep and wide-ranging the reforms to counter it should be on the other. Some within the system don’t see the need for any internal change at all since the main problem, to them, is an unappreciative outside world who must be made to value appropriately the work we are already doing. Others feel that in essence, the basic principles of the current order are right but they are being misapplied or abused, so that what we need are some fresh ideas on how to practice what we preach. Yet others, finally, think that the whole system is corrupted beyond repair, in urgent need of being reimagined and rebuilt from the ground up. Everyone, of course, are deeply convinced that their view is the right one, and the outcome is a clash of competing visions that can be both invigorating and frustrating to witness up close.

My own position in all of this is firmly located somewhere in the middle, or perhaps even on the outskirts of the whole debate. To the question being raised in one of the DHSI sessions, ”Are we all digital humanists now?”, I would reply that on the one hand it is completely obvious that the answer is yes, in the sense that all humanists work with digital materials and methods and will increasingly come to rely on such in years to come. On the other it is equally apparent that the answer is no, for reasons already suggested above: many academics in the humanities do not subscribe at all to the agenda of those who most fervently self-identify as digital humanists and who see DH as something much more than merely a new methodology. One of the reasons why DHSI is such an interesting environment is, in fact, that it draws together people ranging from one extreme of this spectrum to the other, which makes for lively and diverse exchanges of ideas.

Ray Siemens

DHSI’s director, Ray Siemens, at one of the closing sessions of the 2014 Institute.

Having said that, I thought there were in some of the discussions a tendency to make unnecessarily sharp distinctions between ”us” (as in progressive, innovative digital humanists) and ”them” (as in conservative, traditional academics); to reproduce such polarizing dichotomies of ”we and they” is rarely a constructive way to move forward. It should also be remembered that the world of the digital humanities is not free from hierarchies or other forms of inequality; they just look different and are based on other criteria than in some other parts of academia. Perhaps this is, at least in some respects, more apparent to someone like me, in several ways something of an outsider looking in at the community of (self-identified) digital humanists. Generally speaking I see many intriguing opportunities and much potential worth exploring in digital sources and methods, but there are also many aspects of ”traditional” scholarship that I think are important to preserve and/or to build on for the future. That makes me approach the more ”radical” DH ideas and their proponents with an ambivalence that may best be characterized as a sceptical sense of sympathy. It also makes me think that we have many bridges to build in the years ahead, and that is ultimately what DHSI is all about.