What to do with “Digital Humanities”?

DH is a buzzword that many are not sure what to do about. It is in general agreed upon, by hiring and funding committees, that it is ‘important’. But what about a scholar or student like you and me? The first step is to consider that Digital Humanities is not a field of studies. Islamic Studies is. So is Middle East Studies. Digital Humanities is merely a label for a set of tools and methods to unleash the unprecedented calculating power of computers for the benefit of our studies. Just consider the following:

Your cell phone has more computing power than the computers used during the Apollo era.source

I find that quite mesmerizing. It makes me think we have an almost moral obligation to make the most of it. If NASA can put a man on the moon with much less than the device casually hanging out in your pants pocket, then surely you can take more advantage of that device than browsing Facebook and crushing cyber candy.

Peter Robinson, a pioneer in using DH for traditional Humanities research, wrote as far back as 2005 that digital illiteracy is what is holding people back. He concludes that there are three options for anybody eyeing DH, unsure what to do:

  1. Become an expert in these things yourself. This will take time (very large amounts of time) that could have been spent on the scholarship itself
  2. Form a partnership with a group in an institution that has the necessary expertise. This requires attracting the attention of that group, which you will only do if your project is of overwhelming interest or (amounting to the same thing) you have lots of funding. Most scholarly editions do not qualify on either count.
  3. Decide that, after all, you will produce a print edition.source

By the third option he means that you would decide to ignore DH and stick with the tested-and-tried methods of both research and publishing. I agree with him that the third option would be a waste.

Robinson likes option two, despite the hurdles one has to overcome. Perhaps this was indeed the right answer back in 2005. But today I think option number one shines forth. There are several reasons for this.

The most important reason is that learning more about how a computer works, what specialized software there is out there to help you and how to use it, how to program and develop websites and web applications, and how to tie all these components together, learning these things has become incredibly easy. I admit that there is a learning curve for everything, but there are so many resources specifically to teach you these things, it is easy to find one that suits for you (learning by doing, reading a book, watching videos, browsing message boards, etc.). Moreover, the vast majority is freely available online.

Another reason is that in the end you will have to use and interpret whatever tool, technique, or method is applied. So you will need to have some knowledge of what is going anyway. Likely, what you end up doing requires the technology to be tweaked a little, and it will be much easier if you can pop the hood and makes those adjustments yourself. Reversely, if you rely on developers or engineers, they will likely make something slightly awkward since they are not experts in your field.

Additionally, our field is a field of individual research. To break that open by a collaboration is something our workflow is not adapted to. It requires an entirely different approach to setting time tables for research, analysis, and writing.

Engaging with DH methods and techniques does not mean you have to immediately come up with state of the art technologies. Rather, it means to utilize what is widely available, often for free, so that you can expedite your workflow (and/or look into questions unanswerable without the aide of a computer). A modest start is expected. With the coming of so-called DH Labs, libraries are providing critical support for students and scholars who wish to start out with this. Often, such facilities can set you up so you can hit the ground running. Why not spend a few hours each week picking up HTML, CSS, and XML (especially in TEI-standard used widely in Humanities research). Why not simply begin looking into Python or JavaScript? Good luck!

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