Monday, February 27, 2012

Thoughts on "Digital" and "Humanities" in the Everyday

Since this is my first post on this blog, I want foremost to thank Matt for inviting me to join the conversation. I look forward to seeing what comes of it. As my first post, I want to offer some thoughts on a methodological issue that has been on my mind especially in the last several weeks.

The other day, in conversation with a graduate student colleague and friend about current hot-topic trends in academia--what I, at the time, called "sexy buzzwords"--the topic of "digital humanities" came up. When I expressed my thoughts about how the topic is so prevalent at the moment (e.g. the recent MLA conference, several recent job talks in our department discussed it, etc.), my friend offered a joking but pointed response, to the effect of "I wonder if that's just a trend, and when they'll realize that it's just the way we all work now."

I acknowledge that this is a controversial question, and my thoughts on it are still forming as I read more around the topic. Of course I think that considering the pairing of digital tools and humanities is important--and there are some important conversations going on about this subject--but I do wonder to what extent the digital just presents new tools that we are becoming increasingly aware of and appropriating into our scholarship. After all, we never called our work "print [text?] humanities" when we relied on print technologies for our dominant tools of research and scholarly production. I have some genuine questions about this. Is the idea of "digital humanities" perhaps a way of drumming up new attention (and money) for humanities research with exciting and catchy appeal? Is it more than that, and if so, how and what? What are we to make of "digital" within humanities work, and how do we really define "digital humanities" as a new mode of working?

Thinking about this issue made me reflect on my own scholarship, and how much of it is entrenched in the digital, whether or not I consider myself a conscious participant in digital humanities. This has become most evident as I've thought about the process of putting together my first article publication, “Staffordshire Hoard Item Number 550, a Ward Against Evil,” Notes and Queries ns 58 (2011). So I created a list of digital aspects of the process--while probably not comprehensive, I do think it is representative--from 2009 to publication in 2011:
- Official news of the Staffordshire Hoard discovery spreading across the internet (how I learned of it in the first place), including news websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
- Images appearing on The Staffordshire Hoard website (, where I first saw the gold piece with the inscribed psalm (Item 550)
- Digital release of the official scholarship by Kevin Leahy, "The Staffordshire Hoard: Discovery and Initial Assessment," on The Staffordshire Hoard website
- Searching the Fontes Anglo-Saxonici: World Wide Web Register ( to discover uses of the inscribed psalm in Anglo-Saxon literary sources, supplemented by searching the Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus ( for Latin-Old English possibilities
- Posting my initial thoughts on my former blog, where I first received feedback and encouragement to pursue the connections
- Further research as I prepared the note for publication--including use of library databases, the interlibrary loan system, and especially the use of the digitized version of Sabatier's edition of Bibliorum sacrorum Latinae versiones antiquae, seu Vetus Italica on GoogleBooks
- Electronic (email) submission of the note and editorial correspondence about review, acceptance, revisions, contract, and publication
- Electronic correspondence for page proofs and corrections (via email, based on pdfs and review features back and forth between me and journal staff)
- Publication online through Oxford Journals, both online ( and in print form

Needless to say, while considering all of this, it quickly became apparent that the inscribed gold piece would have never come to my attention, and the article would have never been possible to pursue, without the prevalence of electronic media and access to digital tools at my disposal. Also curious is how much the presence of the digital was a natural part of this process for me--reflective of the more general trend in my own work to turn to electronic resources every day as I conduct my research. (Of course, there is also some implicit notion of closed-/open-access types of resources, and the commercialization and commodification of digital tools, but this is not the post to address these issues.) Yet what is most apparent to me is that none of this is uncommon; it is just the way I work.


Kath said...

I agree: digital is certainly a major part of my work-world just as it's a major part of my world in general. I get many (although not all) of my library requests as pdfs of journal articles or book chapters. When I go to the library, if something turns out to be really useful, I scan it rather than photocopy; and I have all of these things linked as attachments to the relevant entry in my endnote library. I am online *basically* every day, and one of the important things I do in this time is keep track of the informal conversations going on among medievalists worldwide in places like this. I keep in touch with a great network of people all over the world without having to leave Melbourne (even though nothing compares with *being* at Kalamazoo or Leesd). I use all sorts of organisational software, online databases, and even good old Google as research tools on a daily basis. As of this week, I also use blogs to communicate with my students and to model exploring online resources to them.

However, we can't deny the power of the 'new' in the mentalities of those with the power (i.e. money) ultimately to direct our work, whether research or teaching. I think 'digital humanities' does have special rhetorical value, for example in convincing management and senior academic levels in university departments/faculties that these practices are not only real and valuable, but also that they need to be imparted to students as part of how we teach them to engage in a topic, just as much as we teach them to discuss, read critically, write coherently, form arguments, and so on. We should do this not only because it is 'new' and the old way is 'old', but because if this really is how we work these days, we short change the students if we don't show them how it works. But selling it under an 'on trend' banner is kind of like the proverbial spoonful of sugar... wouldn't you say?

Jennifer Lynn Jordan said...

Hi Brandon, sorry it took me a bit to get to your post! I quite enjoyed it. Your point about "digital humanities" and the term's strategic use for bringing in attention, money, etc is a good one. As its star fades as a "buzzword," I imagine it will be integrated more fully into more everyday notions about how we do our work as academics.

B. Hawk said...

Kath and Jennifer--
Thanks for your thoughts. Although I did not directly address the rhetorical value, I think you are both right about how academics have to present these types of ideas to others--administrators, senior academics, even those outside of the community. I think this is probably key to the growing sense of "digital humanities" as a concrete notion, and the ways that some present it as an organized discipline in this regard. I do believe, as Kath points out, that a lot of new media and digital tools can benefit how we teach, and how students gain knowledge. I actually came across another article about new media and teaching just today on the Inside Higher Ed page, here. I'm not sure which category I fall into, but I suspect it's a mixture of Emulate, Digital, and Overenthusiastic, hoping toward being the savvy Digital. I think the article raises a lot of nice ideas about the practical outcomes of pursuing the digital for teaching, so worth checking out.

Kath said...

Oh yes! That looks very much worth reading. In fact, I may circulate the link to my teaching colleagues for discussion...