Weekly Readings

This week’s readings, particularly “The History of Humanities Computing,” made me wonder how DH is different from cultural anthropology, social psychology, or sociology. Those fields also examine the humanities by using experimental and observational methods taken from the sciences. Is the difference just a matter of self-identification?

Stephen Ramsay might have provided a possible answer in “Humane Computation,” where he writes that DH can bring “humanistic discourse” to these topics. He seems to want digital research projects to be considered new cultural objects that are open to the same critical analysis as any others. Wittgenstein Tractatus.

Ramsay also made me think about how Google has trained many people to trust algorithms almost blindly. The computer scientist Jaron Lanier has written about the problem of how many people simply accept the first few entries that Google gives them, instead of exploring further (perhaps more interesting) pages of search returns. Maybe DH can help bring that deeper data to light.

And finally: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQ4o1N4ksyQ

9 thoughts on “Weekly Readings

  1. Patricia Accarino

    I’m beginning this course without a clear understanding of what Digital Humanities (DH) really is. This week’s readings provided an introduction to the field and to the debates that have emerged and are on-going. I got the feeling that the script is being written while the play is being performed. A few thoughts that came from these readings follow:
    I was wondering if the advent of computing, digital tools and data science, and their impact on the Humanities and academia, is akin to the upheaval that the invention of the printing press had on scholarship and the dissemination of knowledge and information that flowed from that? Are there any parallels or similarities?
    Many of the writers described the values of DHs as collaboration, openness, agility, and non-hierarchical structures. As I was reading this, I thought it very similar to the ethos of Silicone Valley and the the tech sector. Additionally, many writers spoke of collaboration, experimentation and the value of failure as though they were new concepts in the humanities. Yet these practices have been common in the realm of the physical sciences. Perhaps the advent of having humanists utilizing the tools of tech and the sciences will encourage cross-pollination of ideas and collaboration between these two branches of academia?
    I found myself aligned with Raphael Alvarado’s commentary in his article ‘The Digital Humanities Situation’ that DH is not a discipline in itself, but an approach to conducting academic research that embraces digital tools and media. His article also touches on the question: What are the core skills, or body of knowledge, that a Digital Humanist must master? (too many, too varied, according to him).
    What I find attractive about the DH is the interdisciplinary nature of the field. Since it is probably unlikely that a person would have the skills (or time) to master all of these tools, collaborations across disciplines could lead to interesting partnerships.

  2. Hannah House

    I don’t know if this puts me in burn-the-witch territory, but the social sciences seem like a natural subset of the humanities to me. So to my mind anthropological, psychological, and sociological topics are well on the table for DH interrogations.

    1. Anthony Wheeler (he/him)


      I very much agree with your statement, so if you’re a witch then I’m a warlock (or wizard, whichever lore you prefer). In my personal experience, the humanities (English especially) are very much about the human experience. Studying what it means to be human in as many ways as possible and learning from the written work people poured their spirits into very much crosses over with the area of social sciences. Anthropology, psychology, and sociology are all studies of people and culture as well. In my opinion, that most definitely makes them a subcategory of DH. I recall from orientation one of the final projects for the ITP certification was a digital map of some kind exploring the New York City subway system. I wish I recalled the project’s name and its author, but they explored each subway line and did an analysis of the people that rode that specific line. That is a random and vague example but I believe what they did falls under the subcategory of social sciences while also being considered a DH project. I hope that made sense? Maybe I can explain it better in person tomorrow. See you all then!

        1. Steve Brier

          And Michelle did this project, which looked at the variety of spoken languages above each subway stop, as a Linguistics student, which certainly qualifies her as a social scientist.

  3. Nancy Foasberg

    I think your point about trust in data and algorithms is a really important one, and I loved what Ramsay had to say about not treating data as an answer. And in a way, I DO think this is much more of a humanities way of looking at things than a social science way. I don’t want to sell the social sciences short or make it sound like they’re too reductive — but reading data like a text, and trying to ask the questions that would make you need to start over — that seems like a very humanities-oriented approach to me. But then again, the general concept of DH seems to encompass so many different kinds of projects that some are clearly going to be much closer to the social sciences end of things and some will be a little more humanistic, right?
    I really liked Alvarado’s emphasis on different *ways* of looking at similar data as the thing that distinguishes among fields. However, there’s no consensus on what that means for DH! What kind of praxis does DH embrace, specifically?
    Or, maybe the best part is that this isn’t quite decided yet??
    Which is why I think Burke is the one that spoke to me the most — he looked at how data can be used to dehumanize and calls on the digital humanities to rehumanize data and the digital. I was particularly interested in this concept of illegibility — data can answer questions, but we also need to think about what questions we want answered and also it’s possible & sometimes desirable for data to NOT answer questions. Does Tom Petty WANT you to know where he’s from?

    1. Rob Garfield

      Nancy, I agree about the Burke article. Because DH practice inserts a traditionally “scientific”, iterative monkey wrench between theory/approach and analysis in the humanities, i.e.,

      theory/approach → analysis → debate
      theory/approach → instrument→ iterative evaluation of instrument → application of instrument → data collection → interpretation of said data →saying something about the object studied → sparking further inquiry

      it is attractive to think that the product of the process is bringing us closer to a truth, that we are honing in on something, limiting the possibilities of what might accurately be said of the studied object. Burke cautions us against this attraction when he writes, “every humanistic work or analysis should produce an excess of perspectives, a variety of interpretations, that it should dance away from pinning culture to the social, to the functional, to the concrete,” (Burke, 2016) that, as you said, “[it is] sometimes desirable for data to NOT answer questions.”

      As an artist, I’m keen on the idea that “criticism” itself should be creative work that “riffs” on or launches from the foundation of an “art” object, rather than tell us exactly what DuChamp meant (without realizing it himself) by “The Fountain” within a standard deviation.

  4. Farah Zahra

    This week’s readings provide a concise introduction of the digital humanities main research methods, theoretical concerns and practical applications. I just like to comment on three discussions/topics:

    First, the rapid development of the field as highlighted by the introductions of Debate in the Digital Humanities (2012-2016). I wonder whether Gold—when ending his intro to the 2012 version by observing how the field is “moving from theory to critique to practice to teaching, ending with a look toward the future of the digital humanities”, had envisioned himself writing and expanding on these topics only four years later!

    Second, the ongoing debate on the values of the DH as a field. As most of you pointed out, Spiro’s article lays out an agenda for the development of shared values including collaboration, experimentation, openness etc. Most importantly is Spiro’s questioning of the function of the DH—that is “to “challenge and change scholarship” and not to simply “apply digital tools to humanities scholarship & teaching”. I also like the connection Patricia made between the DH values and Silicon Valley values/tech sector. That observation makes me ponder the commercialized aspect of the field and whether it thus intends to reach mass audiences. On the other hand, it also helps us think of/stretch the democratic character of the DH.

    Finally, the interdisciplinary character of the field. Alvarado raises great points on the varied skills and multiple tools a digital humanist must know/have. This makes me wonder: are digital humanists the polymaths of our time?

  5. Sandy Mui (she/her/hers)

    I’m so excited to dive deeper into the world of digital humanities after completing all of this week’s readings. A lot of the controversies/issues surrounding the field remind me of journalism — for instance, this conflict between “theory” and “practice.” I’ve always thought of fields in the humanities to be more theory-oriented, but especially with a background in journalism and media studies, I’ve seen how the two align (and create conflict). I also know that the second course in the DH sequence will allow us to produce physical projects, so there’s a great mix of theory and practice going on here already.

    From the readings, I could also gather why the GC would now have a completely separate M.A. program for Digital Humanities. It’s a rather exciting, emerging field, and “digital humanities” is going to become the new buzzword in no time. You can see how the idea of “digital humanities” has changed through the different introductions for the Debates in the Digital Humanities series, and the unreleased 2019 introduction made me realize just how important DH is in these pressing times. As someone who interns at Everytown, I’m actually extremely interested in social justice and activism, and I’m glad DH can provide some knowledge to me in that respect (which oddly enough, surprised me).

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