My latest at NITLE’s Techne blog: NITLE launches Digital Humanities initiative

August 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

Originally posted on August 31, 2010 at NITLE’s Techne blog,

Today, NITLE rolls out a new initiative focused on the digital humanities, including details on the first four seminars of a community-led series on digital scholarship. This week I’ll be using Techne to answer some of the questions I’ve heard as I’ve talked to people about developing this initiative. Today, I’ll start with defining terms: digital humanities and digital scholarship. In posts to come later this week, I’ll explain why the digital humanities matter now for small liberal arts colleges and lay out some ways for those interested in them to take action.

What are the digital humanities?

Kathleen Fitzpatrick (photo courtesy of Pomona College)

There are many definitions out there. I like the pithiness and rhetorical flourish in the one Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Professor of Media Studies, Pomona College uses in her ProfHacker post reporting on the Digital Humanities 2010 conference. She describes the digital humanities as “the big tent” and further defines it as

“a nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities, or, as is more true of my own work, who ask traditional kinds of humanities-oriented questions about computing technologies.”

“Digital Humanities” has become an umbrella term for scholars of the arts, humanities, and interpretive social sciences engaged in digital scholarship. In terms of discipline, we are talking about the humanities broadly defined and often mixed with other disciplines, e.g., adapting approaches along with technologies from the sciences. Digital humanities itself, however, is more a methodology and a community than a specific discipline. And it’s a community that prolifically defines itself, as demonstrated by this wiki (full of answers to the question, “How do you define Humanities Computing / Digital Humanities?”) or various manifestos, like the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 (from 2009) or the more recent Paris Manifesto for the Digital Humanities.

What’s digital scholarship?

So what exactly is this digital scholarship in which humanities scholars are engaging? Digital technology has changed how scholars work, allowing new methods of inquiry, increasing access to material, and opening up new scales of investigation. Preservation, publication, and dissemination have likewise been transformed.

Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences

To see how digital tools can transform a traditional humanities discipline, take a look at “Computing: What’s American Literary Study Got to Do with IT”¹ by Martha Nell Smith, founding director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, Executive Director of the Dickinson Electronic Archives, and co-author of Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences, A Born-Digital Inquiry.

Smith sees four ways the humanities can benefit from new technologies: 1) increased access to primary materials for everyone; 2) new media that allow new ways of organizing, structuring and presenting information; 3) new collaborative models of work; and 4) a greater awareness of how knowledge is produced and established as fact.

One of the greatest changes for humanities scholars may well be the need to collaborate with others, such as information technology staff, librarians, and other scholars. This collaboration marks a departure from the traditional mode of humanities scholarship, the scholar alone with her books.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at the historical development of digital humanities, including its spread through academia and arrival at the small liberal arts college.

¹Martha Nell Smith, “Computing: What’s American Literary Study Got to Do with IT.” American Literature 74.4 (2002) 833-857


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