Are We Taking the Human out of Humanities?

Digital Humanities can be seen as a system of advancing the way in which we study literature; the inclusion of digital technology usually has a connotation of forward progress and efficiency, after all. There is no doubt there are plenty of advantages to the technologies we’ve been discussing in class; TEI is only one example of how computers allow us to process and store information in ways that can make analyzing the texts easier by leaps and bounds. But for all the good of the digital aspect of the humanities, we should keep in mind the motto of this very page: “Improved means to an unimproved end.” Better technology is not the deciding factor of quality discussion and analysis, and while we can all appreciate the benefits of the new wave of humanities we should keep in mind some of the criticisms this field has been facing in order to ensure we all play a role in advancing our own work in a useful direction.

Humanities is traditionally seen as the study of history through the lens of fine arts, philosophy, human nature; in a sense, it is the study of people across time. The inclusion of the “digital” aspect of humanities is brand new, and can often be jarring to people who are unfamiliar with the technology. Debates in the Digital Humanities is a book which discusses the place of digital humanities in contemporary society through essays by thirty academic contributors. In the words of Stephan Ramsey, a tenured Digital Humanities professor in Nebraska, “you have to know how to code [to be a digital humanist].” Upon receiving criticism for his stance, he altered his requirements to “building,” or contributing in some way or another to the creation of a new project. This is a notable shift from what humanities is traditionally accepted as, learning through “reading and critiquing” to studying through “building and making.” When the trends seem to be pointing to digital humanities as the soon-to-be new face of humanities in general it can be unsettling for some to learn that they may not find a home in the new landscape of the field because they are unfamiliar with computers, a tool which for so long seemed detached from the world of literature. I argue that digital humanities and traditional humanities can stand on their own, each bringing unique perspectives to discussions in a symbiotic relationship.

This shift in the field has raised plenty of eyebrows on the faces of those who question the legitimacy of digital humanists. But the efficiency of the digital age cannot be argued with. The internet provides us with a conduit for fast and easy communication; methods such as peer review can be done to a surprising speed; Debates in the Digital Humanities posted essay drafts online to be reviewed by scholars and received “568 comments– an average of nearly twenty comments per essay…” Not only did the internet provide fast solution to what is normally a substantially time, “often more than a year to review and publish a paper.” The keen eye will note that the link leads to an article entitled “Peer Review: A Flawed Process at the Heart of Science and Journals.” The process of Peer Review is clearly seen by some as being more trouble than it’s worth. What the digital humanists surrounding the Debates in the Digital Humanities hoped to (and believe that they did) accomplish through their use of an internet forum for peer review was combat the criticism of the possibility of “superficial praise or… suppression of negative feedback.” The reviewers were publicly tied to the quality of their comments and so were encouraged to participate actively and productively.

It is true that the field of humanities is moving in a new direction. Change is at the heart of every academic field and to avoid the stagnation of one’s studies it is important to keep up with the times. However, the history and literature that humanities is rooted in should not be forgotten and left in the dust. To completely disregard the analysis and critique on which the field built upon is to fulfill the prophecy laid out by critics that digital humanists are concerned only with empirical data, not with true meaning. Technology is a tool to be used as an improved means, to be sure, but our end game should still be focused on fostering a better understanding of the human condition as a whole.

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