historian, author, film producer

Tag: Digital Humanities (page 1 of 2)

Trends in Digital Humanities: remarks at the CIC Digital Humanities Summit (“the keynote in the dark”)

These remarks were presented April 19, 2012 at the CIC Digital Humanities Summit. I have removed and modified some comments which were relevant to the local context of the summit. The power went out and stayed out, so this became instantly “the keynote in the dark”. Thanks to Stephen Ramsay for lending me his penlight. See also his remarks at the CIC on Centers Are People.

As you may know, at the University of Nebraska we have been engaged in the last year in a multi-disciplinary hiring initiative, and we have learned a great deal about the trends in the field of digital humanities from the search process. I have been asked to speak today on “Trends in Digital Humanities” and I want to give you an inside view the field, where it might be going, and perhaps give us some ways to frame our CIC Digital Humanities Summit discussion today and tomorrow. As a department chair in history, I am looking to the future and it seems to me it is full of promise. Our vision at the University of Nebraska is informed by having been in the field a long time and having watched what makes digital projects like those of my colleagues Stephen Ramsay, Ken Price, Amanda Gailey, Brian Pytlik-Zillig, and others, thrive.

First, though, I would like to start with a story from an early experience with the Valley of the Shadow Project, when a group of students and project team leaders traveled from the University of Virginia up to Franklin County, Pa. to look for Civil War materials in the Kittichotinny Historical Society. This local historical society made its home in the old county jail, as in the 19th century jail, with its low arched doorways and cubbyhole cells. The society stored its treasures on the floor in the old cells in no particular order. When we asked to see the Civil War materials, our patron said generously that we should look in all of the corners of the various cells. Late in the day, near closing time, deep in one of the cells, a Valley Project team member miraculously uncovered a collection of original editions of the Franklin Repository, the long missing Republican newspaper from the county edited by a prominent Lincoln supporter and national committee member. This discovery made the project in fundamental ways and provided the Republican voice, so necessary for this comparative study of two communities in the coming, fighting, and aftermath of the Civil War.

There are important, sometimes invaluable scholarly materials in old jail cells, it seemed to us, and it was our duty to liberate them. These were beautifully bound leather volumes, nothing an x-acto knife and a digital camera could not liberate. The originals were then deposited with the Library of Congress, only later to be bundled with other newspapers for decommissioning, and then were apparently taken by Nicholson Baker and saved for posterity (see Association of Research Libraries). Later, after reading about our project in the local paper, and our visit to the Kittichotinny Historical Society, one man sent us, in the regular mail, 26 original civil war letters.

The Keynote in the Dark, CIC Digital Humanities Summit, April 2012

The lesson in almost every digital history project is that people have materials to contribute, and they also have expertise. In the Digital Humanities we have been mildly receptive to the former, while we have been, at least in history, often actively resistant to the latter. Perhaps, we might reconsider both positions. In fact, in every project I have been involved with, people have come forward, literally walking into the library with boxes of materials relevant to the project. We have been sent or given: railroad timetables, photographs, books, letters, newspapers, and diaries. This urge to contribute to knowledge, to culture, to the humanities, is important for us to recognize, respect, and understand.

In fact, in the 1990s the animating spirit behind much of our work in digital humanities was democratization. Bear in mind that “Digital Humanities” did not then really exist as a named field–instead there were various associations of computing in the humanities and a small group of like-minded libraries, scholars, technology professionals working along similar lines. The physical proximity of the offices and centers in the library made a significant difference in the development of these connections and collaborations.

These people–some of them in this room today, including Dean Rehberger and Martin Meuller–saw early on that the World Wide Web opened up new possibilities for scholars to communicate not only with one another but also with the public, with an audience largely unmediated by traditional gatekeepers.

Our ambitions then were only secondarily to experiment with new forms of scholarship. They were primarily to democratize history: to transform the way history was understood by changing the way it was produced and accessed. In fact, we cannot change the way history is understood without changing the way it is produced and accessed.

We are in danger of losing that animating spirit, and we need to recover the democratization at the heart of the Digital Humanities movement.

Two developments, at least, threaten the vision of Digital Humanities as inherently democratizing. One is fundamentally technological. The other is of our own making in Digital Humanities.

The fundamental change in technology is the movement from PCs to mobile devices. In the 1990s there was much debate and hand wringing over the digital divide, though little was done. To be on the web required a PC and Internet access. Democratization could only go so far. Access has broadened and many schools have computers and high-speed access, but just as scholars are beginning to stir themselves to engage with Digital Humanities and create digital works, the ground has shifted. The majority of the world is rapidly moving or has already moved to cell phones and mobile devices as the primary means of interface to digital information. The Neilsen group released an important study in 2011 titled “New Mobile Obsession.” Neilsen found that teens (age 13-17) tripled their data consumption on mobile devices in one year (2010). These young people sent an average of seven text messages per waking hour: girls sent 3,952 text messages per month and boys 2,815. The use of the phone as a voice communication device plummeted, and the use of mobile Internet and apps became predominate in this age group. Other reports on mobile phone sales reveal that there are 800 million cell phone users in China and 223 million in the U.S; two-thirds of the U.S. population has cell phones; and in 2009-2010 nearly half of all cell phones sold were smart phones. Taiwan has 106.45 mobile phones per 100 people, an astonishing degree of penetration. In the U.S. the Obama administration has set a goal of 98 % of Americans to have high-speed Internet access in five years. The 2012 data from the federal government (in the National Broadband Map) indicates, however, that 5-10 % of Americans still lack access to basic broadband and that as much as one-third of Americans do not have Internet or use the Internet, mostly lower income Americans. So, there is still a significant digital divide in the U.S., at the same time as there is a movement to mobile devices.

Indeed, the era of the PC/World Wide Web’s dominance may be already over just when many humanities scholars are seeing its potential, or perhaps its potential as apparent in 1999.

This shift to mobile devices deserves our close attention. They are closed systems, and the experience of a self-contained “app” fundamentally more restricted than the hypertextual World Wide Web. This trend marks a fundamental change that challenges Digital Humanities scholars to consider new modes of production at the same time as it provides enormous opportunities to reach wider audiences and alter the form of our scholarly communication.

In Digital Humanities we have recently been engaged in important debates over theories of building, and over the problem of big data. Greg Crane has famously asked, “what do you do with a million books?” and Stephen Ramsay has famously responded, “screw around” with them. These are vital questions but to the extent that they become esoteric concerns we lose sight of the early engagement digital humanities had with broadening access to the tools and practices of scholarship in the humanities. When we talk about doing digital humanities, but do not do digital humanities, we lose something in the exchange.

One of trends in Digital Humanities is to renew our model of engagement between the public and scholars in an open, reciprocal collaboration. I am impressed with the University of Iowa’s civil war letters crowd sourcing project. And here at the University of Nebraska we have started a new project called The History Harvest–in which our students work with a community to collect, digitize, and understand the meaning of family and personal artifacts, to in effect make an invisible archive visible and usable.

We have the opportunity to organize not only a digital library of books in the Hathi Trust but also perhaps to arrange the largest public bestowal of the record of the human past since the New Deal and to provide the foundation for a new generation of scholarship.

One area of clear opportunity and challenge for us is to diversify these records in ways that take us beyond the digitization of old printed records and books. Many scholars working in the history of slavery or of the cultural genocide of Native Americans have viewed mass digitization of old texts with some measure of skepticism and concern. Will outdated theories find new leases on life? What can be learned from further access to the Bureau of Indian Affairs annual printed reports justifying fraudulent treaties?

A good example of the task before us came up at the recent conference at the University of Nebraska on “1862: The Shaping of the Great Plains” when Daniel Wildcat, a scholar at Haskell Indian Nations University, urged us to enter into more sustained and serious dialogue with Native scholars and students: to be willing to listen to and respect what he called “indigenuity” or “indigenous ingenuity.” That is, ways of knowing about and organizing the world, including its knowledge and information. Could we envision a CIC commitment to broaden and democratize the Digital Humanities in ways that take up other forms of humanistic records? And that move beyond the digital divides we still see around us?

Another exciting and important trend in digital humanities has been the development of new models for peer review and publication of scholarship and CIC institutions are already key leaders. The University of Michigan has been out front, experimenting with open review publication, such as Writing History in the Digital Age. But, The Journal of Digital Humanities at George Mason University caught my attention when it released its first issue as an experiment in post-review publication. This journal will publish in digital form any blog posts or web postings that get substantial traffic, mention, and circulation through other media, such as Twitter. We need more experimentation with peer review and publication in open access format.

In the area of shared data and infrastructure, finally, there is still much to do in Digital Humanities and scholars and librarians need to work together. One of the great opportunities before us is “deep encoding” tagging for names, dates, and places. Digital projects emphasize “connections” among individuals in history that we could not see otherwise and that are difficult to see, those of families and relationships among families. In digital projects the life of the individual in history becomes more visible, and despite the complexity of history and the scale of something like the Civil War, or the industrial revolution, or slavery, digital history projects manage to create an environment in which the individual always emerges somehow for readers. We can see these individuals in multiple dimensions and “rebuild” or “reconstitute” their lives and experiences. This is powerful history, full of complexity, agency, and contingency not easily pulled off in narrative form.

Finally, one of the most important new trends in Digital Humanities concerns teaching and pedagogy. In our recent Digital Humanities job search, we observed that the vast majority of applicants had had no opportunity to teach Digital Humanities. In the U.S. just a handful of graduate programs in this field exist and courses in any area of Digital Humanities are a rarity. We are developing at the University of Nebraska a Certificate in Digital Humanities at the graduate level, and we have been teaching Digital History graduate seminars since 2006. There is clearly a significant need for collaborative experimentation in teaching Digital Humanities. We do not yet know what the pedagogical tools and structures are for this field, and it will be up to us to define and shape them.

Joseph Schumpeter, the great innovation scholar, wrote, “All knowledge and habit once acquired becomes as firmly rooted in ourselves as a railway embankment in the earth.” He was especially concerned that “fixed habits of thinking” restrict and trap people and squelch innovation. Let us not end up being a “railway embankment.”

Clearly, we need to break, indeed subvert, “fixed habits of thinking” in our departments and associations. From academic publishing to peer review and to tenure and promotion, we need more dynamic thinking, more possibilities, and more experimentation. Our gathering here today at the CIC Digital Humanities Summit can provide just the necessary opportunity for us to engage in new thinking.

Doing Humanities in the Digital Age

Today our Digital Humanities graduate readings seminar met with Stefan Sinclair via Skype. This was the third guest visit in our class. We had an earlier session with Robert Nelson on topic modeling and another with Lisa Spiro on the the pedagogy of digital humanities. Sinclair raised an issue at the end of our meeting that we have been struggling with through the semester: whether and how digital humanists should make arguments.

Sinclair put the matter plainly for our students: we must not only build things but also make arguments. Then, he went a step further. The form of our arguments does not need to change. Scholarly journal articles, monographs, essays, and chapters, all are equally viable and should remain so. Even with born digital sources, Sinclair suggested, the scholar remains obligated to create, sustain, breathe life into his or her subject via argument and interpretation. This, he suggested, is what distinctly characterizes the humanities. Where the sciences and social sciences, on the other hand, proceed to “prove” a “finding,” the humanities by definition and by contrast ventures an argument.

This distinction is worth dwelling on. What does it mean to do humanities in the digital age?

Our class reading today was Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and last week we read and discussed Tim Wu’s The Master Switch. Both indicate in quite different ways that the humanities’ modus operandi, privileging creative argument and interpretation, faces increasing pressures and obstacles.

Turkle makes the point that “the Internet is more than old wine in new bottles.” Our brains, she argues, are rewired every time we surf or search the Net, and she concludes, we need to reclaim our concentration, our attention, our capacity for argument, interpretation, intimacy, and authenticity. Some people find what she calls “refreshment on the Web” and are “replenished in its cool shade.” (275) The Web’s disparate information and links are a “jungle” and, according to Turkle, there is little about it that allows us to be “deliberate.” Moreover, our selves, she suggests, are becoming ever more calibrated to the pace of the Net, “on the basis of what technology proposes, by what it makes easy.” Turkle finds little comforting about this paradoxical state of affairs: “We insist that our world is increasingly complex, yet we have created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think uninterrupted.” (166) We are losing the capacity “to consider complicated problems.”

This state of affairs seems especially troubling for the humanities. But idea of the Web as alluringly untamed, as wild and attractive in its narrative, as not a place to be deliberate, might in fact be its greatest quality for doing humanities in the digital age. Tim Wu, in The Master Switch, characterizes the Internet as “deeply counterintuitive.” (266) He cites Joseph Schumpeter’s analogy of “knowledge and habit once acquired” as “firmly rooted in ourselves as a railway embankment in the earth.” The Internet, unlike previous communication mediums, “abdicates control to the individual: that is its special allure, its power to be endlessly surprising, as well as its founding principle.”

Humanities scholars take note! It may be that digital humanities projects–the best of them–suit this environment peculiarly well, as they make no attempt to make the digital space more “deliberate.” In attempting to graft interpretive text onto web sites, for example, we might mistake the nature of the Internet, miss its counterintuitive quality. No wonder some of our web sites take on the character of the jungle, freeing our readers to walk through the morass link by link as they see fit.

Finally, what of Stefan Sinclair’s point that scholars might want to pause before discarding traditional means of scholarly publication? Sinclair’s larger point was to encourage experimentation. But he takes seriously the place of interpretive argument for the humanities. We need now more than ever to walk the knife’s edge–on one side there is the abyss of scientific positivism and “verification” of results, as we miss the special quality of the humanities, on the other side there is the abyss of irrelevancy, as we miss the underlying structure of the Net. Sinclair has walked that edge and lived to tell the tale, so to speak, and he has sage advice from the experience.

Interdisciplinary Readings in Digital Humanities Seminar Syllabus

Today I start teaching a new course at the University of Nebraska in the graduate program. We have started a Certificate in Digital Humanities program for graduate students in History, English, and Modern Languages. With twelve hours of coursework and practicum, students earning an M.A. or Ph.D. in these disciplines may also earn the Certificate in Digital Humanities. The Readings in Digital Humanities Seminar is the first course in the sequence and is followed by a practicum at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. Students then may take one of a number of electives, such as our Digital History Seminar (HIST 970).

The seminar is intended as a readings course in which students are engaged in discussion with one another about the key works in digital humanities. Some of these works will be texts–but others will reside in the digital medium. Thanks to a College of Arts and Sciences Interdisciplinary Seed grant, we were able to bring some outside consultants to Nebraska in May to consider the best pedagogical approaches to take in a DH program. Geoffrey Rockwell and Steven Jones spent two days here and some of their ideas have influenced my thinking about the course. We will have 3 guest virtual presenters in the course because we wanted students to have the opportunity to meet, hear from, and interact with leaders in the field of Digital Humanities and to draw on their expertise and perspective. Robert Nelson (University of Richmond), Stefan Sinclair (McGill University), and Lisa Spiro (NITLE Labs) will all join us at different times.

Finally, there is a key, team-building, intensive experience built into this course at the front end: the challenge is significant, the bar quite high. We will ask the class as a whole to work together, organize themselves, figure out the possibilities, come to some agreement, program and design and find resources to help them meet the challenge.

I plan to post blog entries on each week’s discussion as a record of this first seminar experience. Here’s the syllabus for HIST/MODL/ENGL 946: Interdisciplinary Readings in Digital Humanities Seminar.

Multi-Dimensional History: Digging into Data NEH presentation, June 9, 2011

Railroads and the Making of Modern America: Tools for Spatio-Temporal Visualization
Report to the National Endowment for the Humanities
Digging into Data Challenge
June 9, 2011

[note: Richard G. Healey, University of Portsmouth, began our presentation with a discussion of the overall goals of the project and the GIS effort; Ian Cottingham, University of Nebraska, followed with a detailed description of the Aurora Engine and our “Apps” being developed in our software framework for integrating and visualizing large-scale data. This talk was shortened considerably at the NEH in the interest of time but presented here in full.]

From our Richmond Daily Dispatch “App”, I think you can see that we are interested in using spatial visualization to allow deeper research, to make connections by seeing historical processes unfold at various scales. This tool, we hope, helps us read newspapers differently–with spatio-temporal context in the foreground.

I want to point out that in the four years of the Dispatch (100,000 articles, 24 million words) we found 8,300 unique place names, and these places were mentioned in 292,000 occurrences.

When we combine rich and accurate geocoding with sentence-level keyword searching, we are able to look at occurrences in a different, perhaps more revealing way. We can find, for example, a pattern in newspaper mentions of “contraband” places that we may not have fully seen or considered, especially when mapped over time in the Civil War. There were numerous references to what were called “contrabandville”s. And we can begin to map their locations, which ones were near railroads. We can we trace African American names of railroad workers, extract those and relate them to other data in our system, including payroll records and census records.

Now, 10 years ago, before setting out on my “railroad journey,” I wrote with youthful enthusiasm the following optimistic assessment of where I was going with the Aurora project:

“We have what earlier generations of social science historians could not imagine: a high speed and widely accessible network linked to cheap and powerful computers running common software with well-established standards for the handling of numbers, texts, and images. Now we need to design the portals into that network that let people collaborate in a disciplined, cumulative, and verifiable way. . . . The data exists all over the country in easily accessible form.”

I admit that this was a rather breezy assessment of the state-of-the-field in digital humanities.

The data in fact exists all over the country, but it is not in an easily accessible form.

We do, however, have tools now that earlier social scientists would envy. On a recent trip to the Newberry Library, I saw an entry in the Burlington Railroad finding aid: for a CDROM of all employees blacklisted between 1877 and 1892. This was the work of Paul Black, an economic historian at University of California, Long Beach, who studied railroad workers back in the 1970s. The CD contained a pdf of the computer ascii print out of Black’s data set in QLISTFORMAT–in fields by last name, occupation, place, date, and reason or cause for dismissal, as well as whether they were reinstated. This is a 200 MB file with over 8,000 railroad workers listed.

Black could do a great deal with this database, and he was at the time one of the leading quantitative historians. He could sort it by place or location and use location as a variable.

But there was much that he could not do, could not discover. He could not spatially relate his data–to the census data you just saw, to the Freedmen’s Bureau data we’ve assembled, to other railroad occupational data, to county-level political data. And he could not easily visualize these data and their spatial relationships.

Black largely worked on this alone and published a single, very useful scholarly journal article from it.

But the model for this scholarship has changed. We do need to “collaborate in a disciplined, cumulative, and verifiable way.” This is one of the main goals of our project, it turned out, and to me it’s lasting importance.

Our team partners at Stanford’s Spatial History Lab (Richard White, Kathy Harris, and Erik Steiner) have been working with us to use Black’s list and produce visualization models. They were able to bring in the As and Bs (over 400 records) as a sample. Here are several of the tableau visualizations of this data produced at Stanford in collaboration with us:

C.B.&Q. Railroad Discharges by Top Ten Occupations:
C.B.&Q. Railroad Discharges by Year by Occupation:
C.B.&Q. Railroad Discharges by Month by Occupation:
C.B.&Q. Railroad Discharges Trend Line by Occupation:

At this point I would like to thank Ian Cottingham, our software architect, but also Leslie Working, our project manager, and the undergraduate students who have worked on this project, Miles, Luci, and Brian.

This is the most exciting prospect of the project for us: changing the pattern of humanistic work to enable focused scholarly teams to improve the quality and usability of large-scale data. Students for example in a Civil War course would learn much more about the war, its geography, social experience, and political conflicts by mapping and encoding places and semantic concepts in newspapers, using our Aurora framework, than by more traditional means. And the coding they do can then can be gradually machine assisted to work on larger data sets.

It seems to us that this model is the way forward. We want to mobilize an intensive expert base necessary to prepare, analyze, and visualize data, a tool set necessary to work within and among these data, and a scholarly community necessary to scale-up wider applications for the data.

If we are to make our digital work “cumulative and verifiable,” we face a social question: how do we allow, reward, encourage, and review historians who work in teams? The large scale data in the Digging into Data challenge requires us to work in larger scholarly networks of experts and colleagues. This in itself will require substantial change in behavior, in patterns of scholarly work, in promotion and tenure. We can imagine that the future of digital history and digital humanities will look something like the work of physicists in the Large Haldron Collider in which thousands of investigators work together and write papers.

Indeed, we might think of large-scale data visualization for history as something like a particle in an accelerator: we cannot see the particles themselves, but we can see the patterns they make in a medium. In the spatial medium, the latent becomes manifest, invisible becomes visible. As Marc Bloch wrote, time is ‘the very plasma in which events are immersed, and the field within which they become intelligible.'”

By working together, by bringing expertise together, we discovered patterns once not visible but suddenly apparent: the widespread absence and geographic distribution of African American railroad workers in the North and, conversely, the extent, depth, and geographic distribution of African American railroad workers in the South. We now have an occupational and geographic profile of black railroad workers that we did not have before. And we are producing journal articles now with five authors–not quite the thousands in the LHC project, but many more than usual in the humanities.

Other patterns too came forward as new areas to investigate. African American post emancipation mobility and its relationship to the railroads and rail employment appeared surprisingly disconnected. We found almost no railroad labor contracts in the Freedmen’s Bureau series for important rail centers, such as Petersburg, Virginia, Memphis, Tennessee, Alexandria, Virginia, and Louisville, Kentucky. Perhaps, black railroad workers stayed with their companies through emancipation. Perhaps, the jobs were contracted through other more local means, such as word of mouth, family relationships, or patronage. This raises important questions about the transition from slavery into emancipation and the process in industry and urban settings.

In 1861 Charles Joseph Minard developed a path-breaking graph of the Napoleonic War which combined weather, casualties, terrain, and time. His representation of the attrition on Napoleon’s army has become an iconic classic in the art of visual complexity. The graph related the different data in an elegant visual narrative of such power that it has influenced scholars ever since–from historians to computer scientists. The leading scholar of visual information, Edward R. Tufte, considered it possibly “the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” Yet, Minard drew his first such graphs for railroads in France and developed his technique in works combining traffic and distances. In 1845 he published what he called his first “figurative map” (“cartes figuratives”) describing the effects of the railway between Dijon and Mulhouse in France. “It is by sight alone,” Minard explained in 1861, “that this map, which was found to be eloquent, made visible the relationship between the numbers of travelers, because it will be noticed that it does not carry a single numeral.”

Minard’s work, however much the product of his genius, was also part of the modern railway culture. The railroad inaugurated fresh approaches to visual information. One should be able to “glance at a map” and extrapolate quickly the time, distance, and world one might encounter. Minard, more than perhaps anyone of his generation, experimented with the forms for conveying multiple sources of information. The practices that railroads and telegraphs helped shape in the United States (and Europe) continued long after the Civil War, and so did the incongruities they also generated. Railroads especially affected conceptions of time and personal mobility, boosted confidence in empirical and statistical information, and reinforced ideas about the ways modern societies controlled nature. They created and sustained increasingly complex interfaces–atlases, bridges, tunnels, and timetables to name a few. Using digital sources and techniques, we have assembled some lost histories of these data in nineteenth-century American society.

All of this is to say that until quite recently historians had no or limited means of spatial discovery, only illustration. We are on the cusp of not only new discoveries, maps of our history never created before, and we are on the cusp of a new shape to our scholarly practice.

Notes: Charles Joseph Minard, Des Tableaux Graphiques et des Cartes Figuratives (Paris, 1862) translated by Dawn Finley. < http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/minard-maps>. Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Cheshire, Ct.: Graphics Press, 1983): 40-45. About Minard’s Napoleonic War map, Tufte points out that “viewers are hardly aware that they are looking into a world of four or five dimensions.” Also Edward R. Tufte, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (Cheshire, Ct.: Graphics Press, 1997).

On “Cyberargument” in Digital Humanities

We need a new genre of argument in digital form, one that I’ll name “cyberargument” or “cyberscholarship.” And here’s why. The Digital Humanities field has grown over the last decade and, indeed, prospered. The National Endowment for the Humanities created a new office dedicated to Digital Humanities and began awarding “start up” grants for dozens and dozens of projects. Scholars from a range of disciplines have jumped into the field, seeing in it new ways of reaching an audience, conducting research, teaching, and creating new knowledge. They have formed a new journal, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and a re-formulated a scholarly organization (the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations). The movement, and it is a scholarly movement, has every reason to be confident.

But there is a unsettling concern, a nagging “who are we?” question among ourselves and a skeptical “why digital humanities?” challenge from our peers. Melissa Terras at Digital Humanities 2011 explained, “If we think that no-one is watching us and making value judgements about our community, our research, our relevance, and our output, then we are misguided.” She’s right. Terras encouraged digital humanities scholars among other things to start paying attention to publication, research results, and outputs. “We need to learn to play the academic game with regard to publications.” She’s right again.

More recently, Wendell Piez in “Impractical Applications” wisely observes that digital humanities does need to stop, look, and listen. “Our dilemma is that, on the one hand, we have sometimes felt unwelcome even in institutions where the humanities are studied, facing persistent questions, often from those we respect most, about what we are for and whether we belong. Yet on the other hand — this is some kind of irony — in society at large, and even from academic administrations on occasion, we have heard the same questions regarding the humanities in general.” He recognizes that department chairs and deans are waiting, actually with eager anticipation, for the digital humanities movement to bring itself forward, to explain itself more fully. “We do not help matters when we respond only with a counter-critique, seeking to deconstruct the terms in which questions are asked, only to discover again the old lesson that at least when unbalanced by any compensating affirmation, critique tends to be demoralizing,” Piez writes, “Yet we also cannot justify ourselves entirely in the terms presented to us.” Piez encourages us to defend the “practical” in our work, and to make “common cause, indeed, between the ‘digital humanities’, the humanities writ large, and the economy and culture that sustain them.”

So, how do we “justify ourselves”? This seems an important moment in Digital Humanities to take stock and, indeed, a number of leaders in the field are. Rafael Alvarado in a smart post on his blog has attempted to sketch who we are as digital humanists by focusing on our “on-going, playful encounter with dig­ital representation itself.” He is surely right in observing that “without this play—to the extent that the scholar has a stand-off, do-this-for-me attitude toward the medium—then, no, she is not a digital humanist.” And Stephen Ramsay has also explained in a polemical piece that digital humanists code by definition, and they engage a priori in “building.” Both offer useful and important justifications in this regard. But the wider debate on whether to code or not, whether play unites digital humanities as a discipline or not, misses an important practical question that Terras (and Piez) confronted.

We in digital humanities are embedded in particular disciplines, universities, humanities associations and professional societies. We can hardly go forward for tenure and promotion on the basis of “playful encounter” or “code” (although I know that an argument for this could be made) without interpretation or the development of new knowledge. But there is a skepticism about the digital humanities we need to address more directly. And a reason for the anxiety of the current moment. And I think our “undertheorizing” is not as important in this regard as what I will call our “underinterpretation.”

We may be so busy building things, so drawn in by the praxis of what I have elsewhere called “assemblages”–and understandably–that we have not constructed arguments our colleagues understand. More to the point, that they must engage with, that they simply cannot ignore.

I propose that we need interpretative arguments as a genre more fully integrated into the digital humanities. We need to recover the rhetoric of interpretation and weave it into the digital form more intentionally and more publicly. This is perhaps particularly true of history where the division between “digital archive” projects and “code” projects has prompted few interpretative revolutions. This may explain why Alvarado is right to observe “To a disconcertingly large number of outsiders, the digital humanities qua humanities remains interesting but irrelevant.” Historians, perhaps more than others, judge relevance in the discipline by interpretative value, by an argument’s architecture, relevance, and longevity. In this regard we need to answer Terras’ call to publish, to produce, and to engage our colleagues. Can we use our “play” and our “building” to create new knowledge and then to intervene in the broader humanistic scholarship of argument and interpretation? I think so. And we might consider what constitutes “cyberscholarship,” what are its qualities, its structures, and how can it be assessed. For that another post.