Monday, February 13, 2017

Why Digital Humanities?

At last, I begin my first week of reading the articles I have compiled in my reading list-- a very exciting time.

Two of the readings this week will come from Blackwell's Companion to Digital Humanities, and the third is an article that I believe will be helpful in integrating DH into the English program curriculum. Without further ado, on to the first reading!

"The Digital Humanities and Humanities Computing"

Our first selection is written by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, and it's a helpful introduction to the Blackwell companion, explaining some of the "hows" and "whys" behind the DH field. Although the field is immense, there is an overarching goal of using the technologies offered by the Digital Age to help researchers in their quest for knowledge.

The "Digital Age" (or "Information Age") has taken the world by storm, and scholars have decided that it's time to integrate new technologies into fields that have become tired and worn out after years of ceaseless analysis. However, this storm has been met with resistance by many because if there's one thing scholars like, it's time -honored tradition. The editors reflect on this in the following selection:
Thomas documents the intense methodological debates sparked by the introduction of computing in history, debates which computing ultimately lost (in the United States, at least), after which it took a generation for historians to reconsider the usefulness of the computer to their discipline. The rhetoric of revolution proved more predictive in other disciplines, though – for example, in philosophy and religion. Today, one hears less and less of it, perhaps because (as Ess notes) the revolution has succeeded: in almost all disciplines, the power of computers, and even their potential, no longer seem revolutionary at all. 
Luckily for us all, the DH field has thrived and opened up countless new opportunities for study. The next obstacle to overcome is learning to use the various tools, and this is no small challenge. However, daunting as these tools might initially seem, the editors are quick to point out that the purpose of the DH is to weave to methodologies together with practical application. Much like traditional methodologies, the purpose is to use to tools at hand to discover new things about the field being explored. Although the tools and methodologies are important, the results are just as crucial.
The growing field of knowledge representation, which draws on the field of artificial intelligence and seeks to "produce models of human understanding that are tractable to computation" (Unsworth 2001), provides a lens through which we might understand such implications.
The editors and their cited sources conclude that the computational techniques and resulting data structures can have a great deal of impact on the way we interpret "human information." They conclude their introduction by dwelling on the powerful nature of the DH, positioning it next to other time-honored forms of inquiry, and suggesting that, due to the power of the analytics at hand, it may prove itself to be more powerful than any we have seen.

"Literary Studies"

With such a grandiose introduction, I'm expecting greatness from this book, and this field in general. Now, I'll move on the the next chapter, "Literary Studies," by Thomas Rommel, which will hopefully narrow down this broad field.

In the course of the article, Rommel discusses the wide range of opportunity that has been granted to the humanities by the introduction of the technology into the realm of criticism. He details how, upon it's birth in the 1960s and 70s, electronic media has changed the nature of the classroom. Once upon a time, scholars and students alike were limited to a set amount of options for textual data- relegated to however many they could feasible access and read in order to draw conclusions. This is not to deny the great critical works that were born in this time, but the rise of the internet has granted us the birth of a new age:

The "many details", the complete sets of textual data of some few works of literature, suddenly became available to every scholar. It was no longer acceptable, as John Burrows pointed out, to ignore the potential of electronic media and to continue with textual criticism based on small sets of examples only, as was common usage in traditional literary criticism: "It is a truth not generally acknowledged that, in most discussions of works of English fiction, we proceed as if a third, two-fifths, a half of our material were not really there" (Burrows 1987).
Another interesting fact that I came across is that, with the rise of technology, we have begun to move away from close reading, a methodology now firmly linked to traditional criticism. Close reading dictates that a scholar read a work (or works) thoroughly, in order to pull key ideas from the texts, in order to mine ideas. On the other hand, DH methodologies allow for interpretation of the text (or texts) as a whole, by way of surveying the entire corpus, regardless of length or number of works.
Comparative approaches spanning large literary corpora have become possible, and the proliferation of primary texts in electronic form has contributed significantly to the corpus of available digital texts. In order to be successful, literary computing needs to use techniques and procedures commonly associated with the natural sciences and fuse them with humanities research, thereby bringing into contact the Two Cultures: "What we need is a principal use of technology and criticism to form a new kind of literary study absolutely comfortable with scientific methods yet completely suffused with the values of the humanities" (Potter 1989).
As explained by Potter, cited in the above pull quote, the use of scientific (or technological) methods does not take away from the importance of the data. Much like a trip in the car does not take away from the experience of the vacation, the use of a computer does not negate the importance of the knowledge gathered. Further:
If a literary text carries meaning that can be detected by a method of close reading, then computer-assisted studies have to be seen as a practical extension of the theories of text that assume that "a" meaning, trapped in certain words and images and only waiting to be elicited by the informed reader, exists in literature. By focusing primarily on empirical textual data, computer studies of literature tend to treat text in a way that some literary critics see as a reapplication of dated theoretical models.
Within the text, Rommel cites another critic who brings the argument even closer to home by directly  citing popular forms of literary criticism, and likening them to DH methodologies:"'One might argue that the computer is simply amplifying the critic's powers of perception and recall in concert with conventional perspectives. This is true, and some applications of the concept can be viewed as a lateral extension of Formalism, New Criticism, Structuralism, and so forth. (Smith 1989)'"
One major way to view literary texts through this lens is to examine repeated structures, and analyze the meaning of the results. Repeated structures could be characters, words, or phrases that are chosen from a work, or series of works. For example, one could examine the appearance of the word "home" in relation to the appearance of female characters in a collection of texts of the Victoria era, and analyze what a correlation could mean. 
Chapters, characters, locations, thematic units, etc., may thus be connected, parallels can be established, and a systematic study of textual properties, such as echoes, contributes substantially to the understanding of the intricate setup of (literary) texts.
All praise for technological analysis standing, Rommel notes that it's still important to not get caught up in the tools, and set less importance on the results. The tools can only provide the information that is already in existence, the rest of the work needs to be done by the human mind. The humanities do, after all, bear a lot of weight in the Digital Humanities. One might say that the way the words are arranged tells the story of the field: Digital, the front, technological work that goes into an effort, Humanities; the analysis that must be done in order to validate the technological side.

Once upon a time, scholars had excuses for not using technologies- they were widely inaccessible. Prior to TEI (Text Encoding Initiative- one such DH methodology), the programs offered were complex and required much study to be understood. The endeavors were expensive, and required more than one person in order to be successful. Nowadays, we no longer have excuses for not using the technologies at hand, and yet these technologies are still only marginally discussed. The results of using technology as a tool for literary criticism are notable, so the remaining excuse is aversion to change. People are fearful of new technologies, choosing instead to stick to the path most traveled. Ironically enough, isn't that everything we're warned against in the world of literary criticism. Freud, Derrida, Fish, Bakhtin-- these people did not influence schools of thought by sitting around, saying and doing the things that people wanted to hear. They stirred things up, and I think it's time we do that with the technological advantages we have at our disposal.

"What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?"

My final reading for this week is an article called "What is Digital Humanities and What's it Doing in English Departments," by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum. When I found this article, it jumped out to me because it's exactly the question that many ask about the field of DH-- what is this strange idea doing in my English classroom? In fact, as we've seen thus far, because of this very question, DH is not in many English classrooms. 

The popular alarm of the English classroom sounds a little something like, "Computers? Never! Not in this class!" and book enthusiasts are likely to chime in, "E-book? Never. It's just not like holding a real book."

While these concerns can be valid personal preferences, they reflect a scarily real amount of opposition to technological advancement, that can be harmful to students of language and literature. Let's get candid for a moment here- we all know the field is saturated. We all know the starry-eyed Austin or Hemingway-crazed undergrad who pursues his or her dream through grad school, only to graduate and have their bubble burst, left unemployed and desolate in the job search. Does that sound real? Perhaps I know one too many people who fit the bill. 

There are always going to be positions opening up, people retiring after long and illustrious careers but, even so, if you know that the pool is large and the opportunities are few, wouldn't it be beneficial to differentiate in some way? Wouldn't it also be wise to see the world changing around us, and realize that this could open opportunities to jobs that traditional scholars can't fill? I give you, reader, the digital humanities. 

Kirschenbaum argues that computers are not the enemy of the English department, in fact, they're one of its biggest opportunities. He discusses text analysis tools such as we discussed above, and praises the networked connections that are birthed from a field that values interaction and working together to learn and grown. Because the DH is a newer field, people have more of a tendency to rely on one another to grow and teach, rather than the tired "sit and listen as I tell you everything you need to know" way of the past. 

In more recent years, beyond the 2004 publication of the Blackwell Companion, associations and alliances have been formed which support the DH, along with the Digital Humanities Initiative, which created an official support system for the field, elevating it to a higher and more recognized standard. Additionally, Kirschenbaum included the following segment in his article:
Digital humanities was also (you may have heard) big news at the 2009 MLA Annual Convention in Philadelphia. On 28 December, midway through the convention, William Pannapacker, one of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s officially appointed bloggers, wrote the following for the online “Brainstorm” section: “Amid all the doom and gloom of the 2009 MLA Convention, one field seems to be alive and well: the digital humanities. More than that: Among all the contending subfields, the digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time.” 
In the same way that they can be scary to those wary of change, the digital humanities are exciting to people who have been looking for a new way of channeling their love of literature in up and coming ways. The DH field brings an air of vitality to a beloved, but somewhat tired world, and the more people who support it, the better!

In conclusion to his article, Kirschenbaum answers the question he posts in the title of his article in 6 ways, which I will summarize here:

  • The DH gives us new ways to process and analyze texts, the backbone of English departments.
  • There's a powerful association between computers and composition which should used to its fullest extent.
  • We've been looking for a meeting point between technology and conventional editorial theory and methods, and here it is.
  • Electronic literature (E-Lit) is an up and coming field that is bright, interesting, and diverse.
  • English departments have long been open to new cultural developments and movements. Why should this be an exception?
  • The explosion of interest in e-readers and text digitization have supported the development of text mining tools and programs that are able to work with digital data.

In short, you ask, why DH? I ask you, why not?

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