My latest at NITLE’s Techne blog: Finding Capacity in Digital Humanities at Liberal Arts Colleges

July 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Originally posted on July 24, 2012 at NITLE’s Techne blog,

This post introduces a new series of blog posts on building capacity in the digital humanities at small liberal arts colleges.

How do you find digital humanists who’ve never heard of the digital humanities?   Many small liberal arts colleges are now facing this quandary as they try to build capacity in the digital humanities on their campus.  The natural first step in such an effort is a search for those already engaged on campus.  Sometimes, however, those using digital methods in the humanities, don’t necessarily self-identify as digital humanists. I first experienced this phenomenon when talking to a faculty member who was part of Hamilton College’s Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi).

“I didn’t know I was a digital humanist,” he told me when I asked him how he got involved in digital humanities.

But he wasn’t the last.  When faculty members uncover their secret identity as digital humanists, there’s typically some relief in their voices, as if they’re thinking, “It’s nice to know the disease has a label” or “Maybe I’m not so weird.  Look at all the other digital humanists out there . . . ”

The unaware digital humanist stems from the relative newness of  the term, “digital humanities”.  Matt Kirschenbaum traces its origin to the publication of Blackwell’sCompanion to Digital Humanities in 2004, the creation of the Alliance for Digital Humanities Organizations in 2005, and the launch of the Digital Humanities Initiative (now the Office of Digital Humanities) at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 2006. (1)  The diverse application of this term has led to the comparison of digital humanities to a big tent; it’s a useful umbrella term for a variety of digital approaches to the humanities or humanities approaches to the digital.  Chris Forster and Brett Bobley take the metaphor further by identifying the rings of the circus under the big tent, including

  • Uses of computational methods for research (Humanities Computing)
  • Media studies folks studying “new” media
  • Using technology in the classroom
  • The way new technology is reshaping research and the profession
  • Using technology for public programming
  • Archive building

But the newness and the capacity of the tent can cause problems of identification.  Sometimes scholars using digital methodologies don’t see their work as fitting into the tent, especially if the examples they have been given don’t match their own digital work.  “Well, sure, text mining is digital humanities . . . but I’m creating an archive of digital stories organized by location and accessible through a mobile app.”

As I began to research the growth of the digital humanities in the NITLE network, I ran into this challenge of discovering digital humanists.  Because this movement is new and diverse you can’t just ask digital humanists to self-identify.  Alternatively, perhaps a good survey instrument could identify them through their use of digital methodologies, but I have yet to find a well-tested, successful example.  And because campus cultures vary, I suspect that some surveys might not transfer between campuses.

I have, however, found some other effective strategies for reaching the unconverted or the isolated digital humanist.  NITLE’s Digital Scholarship Seminar Series uses the term “digital scholarship” rather than “digital humanities” so as not to exclude the social sciences or any other discipline.  DHCommons hosted a “Getting Started” workshop at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in order to reach out to faculty through their discipline.  At the institutional level, successful strategies shared with me have included holding workshops and seeing who comes, surveying faculty and staff, looking at smaller requests as opportunities for engagement in digital scholarship, and basic networking, e.g., attending departmental meeting, presentations, and faculty meetings.

Since I’ve been working with several campuses in the NITLE network who have asked about this challenge of finding digital humanists on campus, I think it’s time for other campuses to share answers they’ve found.  So, I’m starting a series of blog posts on this topic.  Our next post will come from the Claremont Consortium.  In the meantime, if you’ve developed that perfect survey instrument or some other strategy for building capacity on campus, please send it my way!

(1) Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “What Is Digital humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010). Web,


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