Making DH inclusive: A case study

In this post I will try to make a case for why and how the discourse surrounding digital humanities can become more inclusive. As I said in class, the specific language of “bigger, better, faster” may seem like a viable and even true “justification” for the inclusion of digital humanities into the academy, where justification is necessary for funding among other practical concerns. However, it serves to alienate those who hear in it an implicit (and sometimes explicit) suggestion that their work without DH is currently deficient in some way. While this may not be the intention of DHers, we must all be sensitive as humanists to this possible interpretation.

My concern then is two-pronged. Alienation is one part. The second part considers the ramifications of this kind of discourse on DH itself and on the limited possibilities it will allow for institutional inclusion in academia. Basically by positing DH as “the new gold rush,” “the tech revolution” and crafting a language of “get with this to be up to date or else be left out,” DHers  may justify (that word again) departments’ acceptance and inclusion of DH but to a very limited point. The parallel I can think of here is with “francophone studies” and the strong case that was made in the not too distant past to “update” the limited focus of French departments because francophone studies was the future (in terms of demands for teaching positions, research and also of course for political reasons). While all this may be true and important, the result has been first of all that the position of francophone studies in French departments has usually been additive and not constitutive. A quick example would be our own department’s MA reading list with the small “Francophone” section tacked on at the end. This immediately creates an artificial boundary between French and Francophone and coupled with the periodization of the rest of the list suggests that no “francophone” literature was produced before the 20th century. While I am sure that the position of francophone studies in our department does not necessarily mirror the impression created by the reading list, I use that example to show the possibility that a small, comfortable, demarcated space will be created in a corner of academia for DH to satisfy the “we’re now up to date” requirement and that there will be no real way for non-DH scholars to grasp and even propose ways in which this field could merge seamlessly with the work that people in the humanities do. That would be a loss.

In short, I think that positing technological tools as the better alternative to old methods (eg. geo-referencing vs. paper maps) could lead some departments to pay lip service to DH (eg hire one DHer) for image reasons and continue on their merry way because that conversation about how there could be a real, meaningful, symbiotic relationship between the digital and the humanities halves that make up this complex and compound field…that conversation could not happen with the language of exclusivity and the implicit notion of “we are here to replace you.”

So here is a quick example of one way in which that positive, inclusive conversation has happened. The Golden Notebook is a 1962 (note the date!) novel by 2007 Nobel Prize laureate Doris Lessing. In 2008 Lessing began The Golden Notebook project, ” an experiment in close-reading in which seven women are reading the book and conducting a conversation in the margins.” I like this example because it does not present itself with language that indicates value judgement. Nor is it simply a digitized version of the book that is implicitly better because everyone can comment on it and therefore it shows the limitations of paper books. Rather, it takes a text that is about a female protagonist’s intimate, sacred, inner space (her journals) and puts it out on the web. Then it invites 7 outstanding (imo) readers including British writer of Nigerian descent Helen Oyeyemi (and personally my favourite writer of all time…sorry Cesaire) and Haitian-American poet Lenelle Moise, to read the text and make comments in the margins. Then there is a blog where the readers can write more extensively about their reading experience and finally a forum where everyone (else) can have a conversation. I think this project incorporates the essential elements that Cory pointed out in class of interactivity and collaboration, and is particularly successful to my mind because it weaves together seamlessly an intricate conversation about technology and literature where the two are mutually dependent and not necessarily where one can only be made better by shoring it up with the other. The notions of close reading and textual analysis are not secondary, nor are the important implications of representation and polyphony that characterise this symbiotic relationship between literature and the internet.

If this project relates at all to our future discussion of open access or really anything else I would love to do a small show and tell (shameless plug). This project has fascinated me for a while!

iBooks Textbooks

As though in (some kind of) response to Cory’s post on HASTAC, apple launched yesterday iBooks Textbooks, basically interactive textbooks that one may purchase and use on their ipad. I find the interactive aspect of this idea potentially intriguing. I’m not sure to what extent students think of textbooks as something to interact with. Workbooks maybe, but textbooks are more of a top-down, one-way monologue. In middle school I remember we were not allowed to write in textbooks or really engage with them in any way beyond passively absorbing the information.

I’m playing around with a biology textbook now as I type (the only free one I could find) and it reminds me a lot of the Encarta Encyclopedia CD I used to use way back in the day. The textbook basically incorporates videos so you can see and hear the author talking about ants, you can zoom in on drawings of DNA helices and move them around etc. It’s certainly more fun, and the fact that this particular textbook is free says something about open/free access.


This article suggests caution: but I’m not quite convinced that apple’s initiative is not a good thing for education.

The question of money and ownership with textbook publishing companies (similar to the questions we raised about the music industry in class) is very much at the forefront of the discussion. But from a student’s perspective, I think the novelty of it all, and the idea of interacting closely and even meaningfully with a textbook draws me in and changes the one-way model of knowledge transmission that has been my experience so far with textbooks.

So, what’s this all about? How is it different from what we normally do?

After our first class, I wondered if many of the students had a grasp of exactly about what we were discussing.  There were two salient questions that I felt were unanswered.

First, what exactly IS Digital Humanities?  It’s hard to describe, as you can imagine.  If you were to ask, “what is French literature?”  The most immediate response would be something like “the corpus of written text produced in France.”  But, we all know that it’s considerably more than that.  So, I’ll give you the “bare bones” description of Digital Humanities, and I’ll follow it with the standard caveat:  “we all know that it’s more than that.”

Digital Humanities–  The first part of the term is digital, meaning that its information stored by machines in a format consisting of zeros and ones.  Computers store information in this format:  a zero or a one.  Why?  Shucks, I don’t know.  What’s a zero and what’s a one, in terms of data storage?  Shucks, I don’t know.  The second part of the term is humanities, for which Wikipedia gives a great definition.  “The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences.”

So, put the two together, and we have:  academic disciplines studying the human condition, using digital methods that are analytical, critical or speculative.

But, hey, we all know that it’s more than that.

My second inquiry, relates to how digital humanities differs from regular humanities.  Kirschenbaum’s article, which we discussed last week, outlines this.  He gives three characteristics of digital humanities:

It’s social.  DH involves networks of people.

It involves a common methodological outlook.

It is one sector of the humanities that is seeing growth, not only in terms of human participation, but also in garnering financial support from institutions.

And of course, we all know that there is a lot more to it, than “that.”