A Short Reflection on DH

I just returned from Victoria, British Columbia, where I attended my first Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria. I found the workshops thought provoking, engaging, and useful, especially as I work to define myself as a scholar within the Digital Humanities. My workshops exposed me to a range of new tools useful not only to my research, but also to my teaching. I am happy I went and it laid a solid foundation as I think about finding the right balance between my research, digital interests, and community engagement.

With that said, I found myself concerned throughout the conference with what Brian Greenspan has rightly identified as utopian thinking within the DH community. The assumption at the conference was that DH held the potential to not only save the humanities but also to radically transform the modern university. Open source, big data, visualizations – DH instructors, scholars, and presenters explained – would forge new bridges, redefine the classroom, and bring about a new age of interdisciplinarity. I couldn’t help but think that these views reflected more the ethos of Silicon Valley, Google workplaces and the “creative disruption”/innovation discourse permeating American higher education, rather than the broader ideals and critical approaches at the center of humanistic inquiry.

I was happy to see that Digital Humanities Now just made David Golumba’s the editors’ choice for June. His critique points to the concerns I had throughout the conference. Like Golumba, I want to emphasize: I am neither defending the traditional humanities as defined, nor am I against technology (I hope my project makes that clear). In fact, I am all for dreaming big and rethinking higher education and the ways technology can be used in the classroom. But the idea that the digital humanities will be that change-agent for American higher education ignores powerful political and economic interests at play as well as the tensions within the humanities as an academic discipline.

I am in full agreement that the Digital Humanities offers scholars a new tool and method for humanistic inquiry. As a graduate student exploring the possibilities of GIS mapping, I am excited to see the ways visual mapping can bring out new insights in my research. But, to truly confront the problems facing American higher education and the humanities in the 21st century will take more than a fancy visualization or a new digital tool in the classroom.