CODEC BOOK CLUB: Defining Digital Humanities

CODEC BOOK CLUB: Defining Digital Humanities

Reblogging from CODEC blog, posted earlier today:

Defining-Digital-Humanities-TerrasBack in October the CODEC team discussed Melissa Terras’ inaugural professorial lecture on digital humanities, whilst this week we focused on the associated book Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader (Ashgate, 2013) edited by Terras, Nyhan, Vanhoutte. We focused upon the introduction (pp1-7), and a series of definitions of ‘digital humanities’, covering the years 2009 to 2012 (pp279-297).

Discussions started with a questioning of which of the definitions most resonated with members of the CODEC team, seeking to clarify that what CODEC is doing is actually “digital humanities”. Bearing in mind that the text indicates that “we make no attmpt to imply that one view is more correct than another, nor do we believe this to be the case” (p279), it is unsurprising that there were a range of views. Digital humanities allows us to pursue questions humanists have always pursued, but faster and on a larger scale; it allows us to focus on digital culture, including cyberculture and posthumanism; and other projects allow us to create new online materials for future use.

Stephen Ramsay, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, indicates that digital humanists both built and theorise the built, demonstrating optimistic futurism, and scepticism of the posthuman condition. Kim Lacey from Wayne State University focused on increased cross-pollination between and across academic fields, whilst new interactive tools allow us to rediscover ideas in a new way, whilst ‘Mia’ noted that we need to think critically about the impact of digitality on scholarly practice.

We questioned what it is about the subject that makes it hard to define, although funding has determined that themaking of tools has been prioritised, so it’s tactical convenience to follow those kind of projects. Are we truly burning down academic walls, or simply jumping on the latest fashionable bandwagon (as the number of centres defined as ‘digital humanities’ has grown hugely in recent years) – whether that be digital humanities or interdisciplinarity. The book seems to focus more on what technology can bring to the humanities, rather than the other way round. Is the computer simply ‘slave labour’, producing data that humans then analyse? What about the computer’s ability to interact – how does that change things?

Bearing in mind that ‘digital humanities’ emerged from the field ‘Humanities Computing’, the definitions given by a range of academics appears to follow an interesting line between 2009 and 2012. In 2009, the majority of definitions were focused upon ‘the computer’, by 2010, the focus had moved to ‘functionalism’, by 2011, to experimentation, collaboration and interdisciplinarity, whereas by 2012 the conversation appeared to have moved onto changing practice, and questioning the impact of digital, with more resistance to the idea of that ‘digital humanities’ was any more than a phase in the humanities. In many ways this follows the same route as “e-learning” conversations, which view the “e” as simply a transitional term, as expertise is on the learning and teaching.

We discussed whether ‘digital’ has rebooted the humanities, and whether there are stop/start point, or whether it is part of a continuum (which doesn’t take away the history of what has already happened). We agreed that we are definitely building upon what has been done before, and that the range of expertise in the room (theological, biblical, IT, history, media) offered co-laboratory opportunities and new ways of doing. Rather than rebooting, the digital provides a new ‘operating system’ on top of what has already happened. The majority of those engaging in this field have been trained in the humanities and then start tinkering with computers and code. Within CODEC we’re certainly looking for collaborations for the back-end technology, as we focus more on the front-end questions.

If we throw computer science and theology together, or put theology into the digital spaces, what happens? How do we bring the expertise that we already have into the digital age/spaces and change the conversations? How do we define ‘digital theology’? Theology involves talking about God, in historical, contemporary, experiential and sociological ways (to name but a few). Does all of this have to be interdisciplinary by nature? Not necessarily. It’s also important to remember that those things that appeared cutting edge a few years ago (such as online journals), are now part of everyday practice.

Interdisciplinarity offers opportunities to break out of disciplinary silos, potentially seeking to make research more meaningful to society. We examined how far development in the digital humanities is driven by the disciplines or funding organisations. Technological tools offer opportunities to make money, so is it all driven by politics or economics, rather than academic drivers? How far has the ‘impact agenda’ changed the questions we ask, and the research outcomes we seek? Within academic systems such as the REF, interdisciplinarity, although officially encouraged, can make it hard to place those who truly work across disciplines.

We have to ask whether we are actually asking something new with the research that we’re doing? Why do others see value in the work that we do? Opportunities may be driven (or constrained) by funding, but the desire has to be there amongst those doing the work, and amongst those we are working with to produce the most interesting results. When we look at ‘digital discipleship’, what is digital about it? Is it just the technology we’re using? What are the bigger questions about digital culture that changes the way we do things/think? With regards to the Bible, Erasmus led to the production of the Bible/texts, leading to the production of scholarly resources which influence modernist Bible techniques and scholarly Bible interpretation. The changes are pedagogical rather than sociological.

Are we in an age of post-postmodernism , is “the” digital age a new umbrella term? We have seen this across “the ages” of history, including the development of writing in 5th Century Athens, the printing press in the reformation/renaissance, or was it pre-dated by post-modernism in the 1960s/70s? Are we part of the first movement towards a ‘greater age’, or is this, as Janison would say, the last blast of capitalism? We drew on Toderov (the reader is in charge of interpreting the text), Derrida and Richard Worthy in questioning whether the ‘consumer’ can read a text how they choose to, rather than it having a fixed meaning.

If there is a ‘digital age’, can we define it? Is it possible to create a simple list? What are the characteristics of e.g. ‘digital theology’? What are the differences between a/the digital age? Is it a new “age”? Does it have to be global? Is it difference from ‘the information age’? Has it/does it have the potential to be distinct? Both volume and accessibility have increased with computer. Was transportation a building block of where we are now at, leading to the industrial age, cities, societies in which skills could be aglomorated? It’s a modernist notion to place time in ‘ages’.

Digitial Humanities: Part of its way of thinking is to interrogate what it is. Most self-define, but do we need to agree? Funding places those constraints, and we can expect challenges to our definitions. Are there better things to do than argue over this definition? It was agreed that it’s important to have this conversation, as it’s happening, although it can be hard to define such things whilst riding the wave itself, anticipating self-reflection later on. It’s also important to think about who you are in conversation with, seeking points of connection with the disciplines, seeking to challenge/work-with the assumptions pre-coded into each discipline (e.g. sociology focuses on texts, materiality and communities). CODEC places itself firmly within the boundaries of digital humanities, and continues to work to develop ‘digital theology’, drawing on the range of expertise in the team.

Dr Bex Lewis, Research Fellow in Social Media and Online Learning

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