Demystifying the Digital Humanities

As a new intern here at WIC, I would like to dedicate my first blog post to an issue that has both piqued my academic interest and that has, quite frankly, often baffled me thus far in my graduate studies:  what exactly is “digital humanities” (“DH” for short)?  This is a difficult question to answer, precisely because the field keeps morphing as our knowledge of technology and, therefore, digital scholarship, evolves.  Matthew Kirschenbaum, for example, is one DH scholar whose work has been influential in unpacking the term while tracing both its evolution and its future in certain disciplines, particularly in English departments (his 2010 article on the topic is quite interesting).  Even after reading such an informative piece, however, I often surface as similarly puzzled as when I began; I find myself lingering on the same question:  so, what is digital humanities?

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Maybe the term itself is so difficult to capture because it resists definition and, instead, begs for examples to demonstrate its weight as a scholarly field.  For me, demystifying the digital humanities involves examining what scholars are actually doing with DH in their work.  For example, Italian literary scholar Franco Moretti has ruffled some feathers in literature departments by introducing a methodological approach to literary studies

Moretti’s 2005 book, Maps, Graphs, Trees

called “distant reading,” which basically involves digitally tracking (mapping or graphing) common elements among various texts in order to draw new conclusions about the collection as a whole (a 2011 New York Times article helpfully summarizes the concept). Work in DH such as Moretti’s has shown that current technologies have allowed for new findings in already well-studied texts, findings that are not possible to extract with the human eye.  For the demystifying purposes of this post, then, we can claim that DH involves using digital technologies that collect, analyze, and synthesize data and then applying the findings in humanities fields where such data-gathering has not been traditionally performed.

Still confused by the DH speak?  Let me provide a brief example of my own work, which, I hope, will be a bit easier to digest than Moretti’s.  In an English class last year, I studied a lesser-known British novel of the 1930s, but having read other novels of the period, I knew to be on the lookout for traditional modernist themes.  Since one theme involves the development of characters’ conscious awareness, I experimented with the novel’s text accordingly:  how many times was the word “conscious” or its variants (consciously, unconscious, self-conscious, race-consciousness, conscience) mentioned in the book, and what conclusions could I draw about the novel based on these words’ frequencies?

With a Kindle e-copy of the book, I performed simple searches to gather my results, loosely using a process in DH called text mining.  My findings displayed that the variants of “conscious” for which I was searching appeared 47 times throughout the novel; for a book consisting of merely 148 pages, I considered this a noteworthy discovery.

Sample word frequency graph for “conscious” and “conscience” in English books from 1800 to 1935 (from Google Ngram Viewer, a popular text mining tool available in Google Books)

Because I noticed that these “conscious” words often appeared when the main character was interacting with objects instead of people, I established an argument about how objects facilitated both the character’s subsequent relationships with others and his own growing subjectivity.  This simple experiment with text mining, then, enormously enhanced my knowledge of the novel, the society it portrayed, and its position in modernist literature.

I hope that this example of my own work, as well as the resources to which I have pointed, have helped, at least minimally, to demystify what the digital humanities involves, what it looks like, and what it can do for scholars in various disciplines.  To keep your finger on the pulse of DH studies, a great resource to check out is Digital Humanities Now, a site that collects work from several journals, online venues, and social media sources to report on current happenings in the field.  The “Editors’ Choice” featured stories display some fascinating studies going on at the moment, including tracing musical spaces at Auschwitz and mapping the French book trade across Enlightenment Europe.  These examples merely scratch the surface of what can be done in the digital humanities, and I hope this gets you thinking about how DH can enhance your own studies for the upcoming academic year.

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