2009

“Digital Humanities and Academic Change”

Citation: “Digital Humanities and Academic Change.” English Language Notes 47 (2009): 17-35


[Excerpt from p. 27]

the more advanced the research or the more researchers seek cross-disciplinary grants, the more the very nature of the digital technologies involved demand robust collaboration. Every researcher can individually use a word processor, that is, but it requires a full team of researchers with diverse skills in programming, database design, visualization, text-analysis and -encoding, statistics, discourse analysis, Web-site design, ethics (including complex “human subjects” research rules), etc., to pursue ambitious digital projects at a grant-competitive level premised on making a difference in today’s world. Humanists working on collaborative teams with engineers and social scientists will thus need to contribute perceived value. And such value, as in any value transaction (even if only intellectual), requires conversion into a common currency of knowledge. I have argued in this essay that digital technology has caused (and/or expressed) evolutionary changes in the humanities, but that evolutionary changes incubate within themselves–like the alien in the crew member–an encounter with other disciplines that far exceeds the now domesticated familiarity of “interdiciplinary studies” to become a monstrous exo-disciplinarity. (p. 31)If my currency is interpretation, and yours is data or models, then for the time being–until more stable institutional arrangements catch up–digital technology is serving as the market in which knowledges are traded. A common calculation today, for example, might be: “we have an innovative project on data-mining social networks, but we need sociologists who research the Internet, humanists who specialize in discourse analysis, and artists who work on advanced data visualizations to be co-principal investigators.”

In sum, digital technology is on the threshold of making a fundamental difference in the humanities because it indeed serves as the vector that imports alien paradigms of knowledge. In terms of objects of inquiry, it brings into play whole new classes or levels of phenomena–e.g., quantitatively defined structures, forms, and cycles. In terms of analytical procedures, digital technology introduces modeling and other kinds of activities to complement interpretation. And in terms of the output or product of knowledge, digital technology expands the repertory of the monograph, essay, and talk (the staples of the humanities) to include programs, databases, visualizations, graphs, maps, etc. Of course, it is unlikely that the ultimate result will be the unquestioned incorporation of other knowledge paradigms in the humanities. Rather, the goal is for the humanities to engage, question, and adapt such paradigms–at times using them and at others performing them in some complex blend of imitation, irony, critique, and commentary. What might a critical database be, for example? Or a tragic or beautiful one?