Why Should I Care About Digital Humanities?

What is “digital humanities” and why is it such a big deal?

It seems as if everything these days is digital. I’m typing this on my MacBook, and I read all three assigned readings – Davidson’s and Goldberg’s The Future of Thinking, Cordell’s “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities,” and Kirschenbaum’s “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” – on my iPad. I used a stylus to highlight text and make notes in a PDF app, and now I’m posting about it in a WordPress-powered blog that I’ve shared with my professors and fellow grad students. Clearly, this has to qualify, right?

Maybe that’s why I was perplexed by having to define this “field of study” in the first place (as in Kirschenbaum’s article). Isn’t digital humanities just… you know… the humanities? It had not crossed my mind to think of incorporating technology and digital tools into the curriculum as being anything other than 100 percent normal and expected at the university level in 2016. Yet, in reading some of these articles, one would think the authors thought they were being revolutionary by suggesting that we incorporate some of this newfangled technology in the classroom.

This is perhaps why I enjoyed English professor Ryan Cordell’s piece the most out of the three readings for today. While Kirschenbaum sought to clearly define “digital humanities,” Cordell suggests in his 2015 blog post that labeling what we do as “digital humanities” is a “tactical error” on the instructor’s part:

In the first version of this piece, I posited that using the term “digital humanities” is often a tactical error, particularly when trying to introduce digital humanities into the undergraduate curriculum. In this version of the piece, however, I want to take this point one step further and suggest that our concern with defining and propagating the field writ large can interfere with innovative but necessarily local thinking about digital skills, curriculum, and research at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Farther down in the post, Cordell articulates what I had been thinking as I was reading Kirshenbaum (emphasis added):

We pair “digital” with “humanities” and feel we have something revolutionary, but for our undergraduate students the word digital is profoundly unimpressive. Their music is digital. Their television is digital. Many of their books and school materials are and have always been digital. To brag that our humanities (or our liberal arts) are digital is to proclaim that we’ve met a base requirement for modern communication. It would be like your bank crowing that you can check your account online. Of course you can. At this point, you would only notice if you couldn’t.

But, he is also quick to point out that, just because someone is a digital native, it does not mean he or she necessarily knows how to utilize technology effectively, just as someone who can drive a car does not necessarily know exactly how the engine works or how to fix it if it breaks. That is perhaps the role of the DH instructor, Cordell suggests:

Because students do love doing DH things, when those DH things are framed around particular skills and often within disciplinary structures. And I would argue more and more that the way we should integrate DH into the undergraduate curriculum is as a naturalized part of what literary scholars or historians or other humanists do. Teach distant reading alongside close reading and don’t worry about proving how revolutionary the former is. Such an approach also lowers the barrier for “doing dh” in the undergraduate classroom. You don’t have to be a DH expert to create — or better yet steal — a few exciting DH assignments.

Cordell then lists his four principles for integrating DH in the classroom – start small, integrate when possible, scaffold everything, and think locally – and ends with contemplating the future of DH:

Perhaps “digital humanities” will one day fall away, as some have predicted. If it falls away because DH methodologies have become widely-accepted as possible ways (among many) to study literature, history, and other humanities subjects, this seems to me a fine outcome. But that is not the DH situation right now. Despite the attention the field has received over the past few years, it remains a very small cohort.


Along that line of thinking, I’d like to draw attention to how the working, crowd-sourced  definition of “digital humanities” has changed in just six years. Wikipedia’s definition, according to Kirschenbaum’s 2010 article, was as follows:

The digital humanities, also known as humanities computing, is a field of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. It is methodological by nature and interdisciplinary in scope. It involves investigation, analysis, synthesis and presentation of information in electronic form. It studies how these media affect the disciplines in which they are used and what these disciplines have to contribute to our knowledge of computing.”

But let’s look at the definition today, Sept. 26, 2016, a mere six years later:


We notice the “humanities computing” term has fallen off, and while the 2010 definition is a rather straightforward and scholarly one, the newer Wikipedia entry acknowledges there are a range of definitions of the field, “from it being a collection of methods to being a distinct epistemology and a kind of science.”

It will certainly be interesting to see how the “digital humanities” will continue to evolve over the next several years and how we, as scholars and educators, will continue to effectively leverage technology and media in the classroom.

2 thoughts on “Why Should I Care About Digital Humanities?

  1. It will be interesting. It’s already a question for me about how these tools, for they are essentially tools of expression, like a pen or a paint brush continue to change what we express. Different types of pens, different possible typefaces. This technology moves beyond person expression, however, into communications, which broaden the possibilities for sharing and for collaboration in ways that weren’t possible before. The possibility of collaboration had already tapped into the existing desire for collaboration within the humanities. I think we’ve been moving this way for a while and we’ve now created ways to make the broad communication we needed possible. I’m remembering Leonardo Da Vinci came up with the idea of a helicopter before the methods and materials were available to make it possible. Now it’s possible.

    Liked by 1 person

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