Why I think the Digital Humanities are Important

Two weeks ago, I attended my second THATCamp.  Unlike the THATCamp I went to last summer at George Mason, which had many of the Digital Humanities heavy hitters in attendance, the THATCamp held at my home institution was comparably smaller, but no less enthusiastic about digital humanities.  The English department hosted my university’s THATCamp as that is where the digital humanities program is housed, and I was interested to finally meet the faculty and graduate students that are involved at my university along with those from other institutions.  Being in the history department, I was also curious to see if any of my colleagues would attend.

I know that several faculty in the history department are enthusiastic about DH (one of which I am currently working for), but some of my fellow graduate students remain highly skeptical.  This became glaringly apparent when a colleague of mine texted me during the keynote address on Friday evening.  This colleague ask me if I was still on campus.  I replied, “I am but at the DH keynote talk.”  I received the reply “Oh . . . DH?”  I recognize that many of the graduate students in my department are hesitant to embrace the digital humanities, which explains why only one other history graduate student attended the THATCamp, but my friend’s failure to understand that DH = digital humanities made me realize that I remain  minority.  Moreover, I find it frustrating that I need to defend and explain why the digital humanities are important.

This is in no way to belittle my colleague and friend, who is extremely smart and an excellent historian.  I have no doubt this colleague will have a very successful career. Nevertheless, anytime my conversations with this fellow graduate student turn to the digital humanities, I find myself on the defensive.  The consistent critique this friend and others put forth is that most digital humanities projects fail to make any arguments.  In graduate programs where students are trained to identify and analyze arguments, the absence of arguments in digital humanities makes some feel that digital humanities projects lack scholarly value.

When this point is put forward, I often recall Tom Scheinfeldt’s “Where’s the Beef” blog post which discusses whether DH should answer research questions and make scholarly arguments.  Scheinfeldt writes:

 Does digital humanities have to help answer questions and make arguments? Yes. Of course. That’s what humanities is all about. Is it answering lots of questions currently? Probably not really. Hence the reason for worry.

But this suggests another, more difficult, more nuanced question: When? When does digital humanities have to produce new arguments? Does it have to produce new arguments now? Does it have to answer questions yet?

After briefly discussing early scientific experimentation in the 17th and 18th century, Scheinfeldt concludes:

 Eventually digital humanities must make arguments. It has to answer questions. But yet? Like 18th century natural philosophers confronted with a deluge of strange new tools like microscopes, air pumps, and electrical machines, maybe we need time to articulate our digital apparatus, to produce new phenomena that we can neither anticipate nor explain immediately. At the very least, we need to make room for both kinds of digital humanities, the kind that seeks to make arguments and answer questions now and the kind that builds tools and resources with questions in mind, but only in the back of its mind and only for later. We need time to experiment.

Just as the Industrial Revolution dramatically broke with the past, the digital revolution is also changing how the world operates.  Just as historians now recognize that the industrial revolution took several decades to develop before it radically changed the world, the digital revolution too requires experimentation before its full effect is felt.  This is just as true for history as it is for finance.  Historians working in the digital humanities are slowly starting to utilize data in a digital format to make an argument.

The areas were this is likely to have the greatest effect is spatial and visual.  The digital humanities allow historians to collect and input data into a growing number of programs to visualize change over a period – thus radically changing how we understand certain events.  Moreover, this can also act as teaching tool in the classroom.  As I told my skeptical colleague, it is easy to tell students that the Eastern Front was more important to the outcome of World War II in Europe than the Western Front, but to have a digital projection that depicts the movements and strengths of both the Wehrmacht and Red Army would help students’ better grasp the largeness of the Eastern Front.

This type of teaching tool makes a simple argument that most historians accept; however, being able to visualize the Eastern Front, or the Eastern and Western Fronts simultaneously, may help historians better understand how the Nazi regime collapsed.  Furthermore, visual presentation of the Eastern displaying German units might present the distribution of units used to fight on the front lines and those diverted to commit genocide.  This might help scholars better understand how the Nazi regime allocated resources.

Besides a visual and spatial understanding. I also suggested to my colleagues that the digital humanities helps you learn new skills.  For example, this summer I am working for a professor and recently learned how to use ArcMap and to georeference older maps.  More than just learning a new skill, the faculty and staff and in the library GIS and Map Department taught me a lot about historical maps, particularly the problems with accuracy.  These are the types skills can prove useful far beyond conducting research for a professor, and might prove useful in my own studies.

Beyond the purely academic, historians need to develop the skills and knowledge to present information on the internet.  Even if a digital humanities project does not present an argument, putting accurate and verified information on the internet is important.  Today, when people need information, they rarely consult encyclopedias.  Instead, they go to Google.  Thus, historians need to be active on the internet and present accurate facts about the past.  We are told that the internet is the great democratizer, giving more people access to even more information.  Historians need to create a space where we can engage with the public.

All this is to say that the digital humanities is important and not going away.  Although it might still be in the experimental stage, DH will make arguments and help historians better understand the past, especially through spatial and visual tools.  Moreover, if the internet is where the average person goes to seek an answer, it is important that historians try to present our findings to the public.  Finally, as the digital revolution further disrupts the traditional ways of scholarship, it is important that graduate students learn the tools and knowledge to teach, research, and engage with students who cannot recall a time without cellphones and the internet.  Those who are “born digital.”

While my assertions might not be fully thought out, dismissing the digital humanities is a mistake.  Students in a position to enter a program should.  The place of digital humanities scholarship might still be uncertain when it comes to jobs and promotion, especially as collaboration is crucial, but a quick look at job advertisements indicates that historians with knowledge in the digital humanities will be in higher demand.  This, if not my ramblings above, indicate a shift in the academic job market and emphasizes the importance of the digital humanities.  There may not be many projects with arguments yet, but there will be – and they will prove just as important as a scholarly monograph in the future.

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