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Little dh and Planting Seeds

The following is reposting of an entry I contributed to the THATCamp New England blog:

I am excited to have the opportunity to join THATCamp New England this November and look forward to learning from everyone I meet there. I was asked to post an entry here about the issues that I hope will be discussed at the event. I have no doubt many of the main themes I’m interested in will receive plentiful attention but I would like to bring up two issues that I find of particular importance: 1) the continued need for the appreciation of and promotion of what I’ll call the “little dh” of the digital humanities and 2) an action oriented discussion about the need to plant seeds within each and every department that promotes the cultivation of both real skills and the requisite appreciation for a spirit of experimentation with technology in the humanities not merely among the faculty but even more importantly as a part of the graduate curriculum.

Little dh

I have been unable to keep up with the ever-growing body of scholarship on the digital humanities but what I have read suggests that much of the work that has been done focuses upon the development of new techniques and new tools that assist us in conducting research and teaching in the humanities in roughly four areas: the organization of sources and data (for example Zotero, metadata practices), the analysis of data (e.g. using GIS, statistical text analysis), the delivery and representation of sources and research results (e.g. Omeka) and effective means for promoting student learning (e.g. teaching with clickers, promoting diverse online interactions).

I’m confident that these areas should and will remain the core of Digital Humanities for the foreseeable future. I do hope, however, that there continues to be an appreciation for digital humanities with a small “d” or little dh, if you will, that has a much longer history and I believe will continue to remain important as we go forward. So what do I mean by little dh? I mean the creation of limited, often unscalable, and usually quickly assembled ad hoc solutions tailored to the problems of individual academics or specific projects. In other words, hacks. These solutions might consist of helping a professor, student, or specific research project effectively use a particular combination of software applications, the writing of short scripts to process data or assist in creating workflows to move information smoothly from one application to another, the creation of customized web sites for highly specialized tasks, and so on. These tasks might be very simple such as helping a classics professor develop a particular keyboard layout for a group of students or particular project. It might be more complex, for example, involve helping a Chinese literature professor create a workflow to extract passages from an old and outdated database, perform certain repetitive tasks on the resulting text using regular expressions, and then transform that text into a clean website with automatic annotations in particular places.

The skill set needed to perform “little dh” tasks is such that it is impossible to train all graduate students or academics for them, especially if they have little interest or time to tinker with technology. “Little dh” is usually performed by an inside amateur, for example, the departmental geek, or with the assistance of technology services at an educational institution that are willing to go beyond the normal bounds of “technical support” defined as “fixing things that go wrong.” Unfortunately, my own experience suggests that sometimes the creation of specialized institutes that focus on innovation and technology in education has actually reduced accessibility for scholars to resources that can provide little dh instead of increased it because it is far more sexy to produce larger tools that can be widely distributed than it is to provide simple customized solutions for the problems of individual scholars or projects. One such center to promote innovative uses of technology in education I have seen in action, for example, started out providing very open-ended help to scholars but very quickly shifted to creating and customizing a very small set of tools that may or may not have been useful for the specific needs of the diverse kinds of scholarship being carried out in humanities. There is a genuine need for both, even though one is far less glamorous.

I hope that we can discuss how it is possible to continue to provide and expand the availability of technical competence that can provide help with little dh solutions within our departments and recognize the wide diversity of needs within the academic community, even as we celebrate and increasingly adopt more generalized tools and techniques for our research and teaching.

Planting Seeds

I have been impressed with progress in the digital humanities amongst more stubborn professors that I’ve come across in three areas: 1) an increasing awareness of open access and its benefits to the academic community, 2) an appreciation for the importance of utilizing online resources and online sites of interaction, and 3) the spread of use of bibliographic software amongst the older generation of scholars. This is, to be honest, the only areas of digital humanities that I have really seen begin to widely penetrate the departments I’ve interacted with both as a graduate student and earlier as a technology consultant within a university. I’m now convinced the biggest challenge we face is not in teaching the skills needed to use the software and techniques themselves to the professors and scholars of our academic community, but the pressing need for us to, as it were, “poison the young,” and infect them with a curiosity for the opportunities that the digital humanities offer to change our field in the three key areas of research, teaching, and most threateningly for the status quo, publishing.

There are a growing number of centers dedicated to the digital humanities but I wonder if we might discuss the opening of an additional front, (and perhaps such a front has already been opened and I would love to learn more of it) that attempts to plant a seed of digital humanities within every university humanities department, by asking graduate students to take, or at least offering them the opportunity to take, courses or extended workshops on the digital humanities that focus on: some basic training in self-chosen areas of digital humanities techniques and tools, the cultivation of a spirit of experimentation among students, and finally a more theoretical discussion on the implications of the use of digital humanities for the humanities in general (particularly on professional practices such as publishing, peer review, and the interaction of academics with the broader community of the the intellectually curious public). Promoting the incorporation of such an element into the graduate curriculum will, of course, be a department by department battle, but there are surely preparations that can be made by us as a community, that can help arm sympathetic scholars with the arguments and pedagogical tools needed to bring that struggle into committee meetings at the university and department level.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Jain | 2010.12.9 at 15:52 | Permalink

    재미있는 글쓰기가 있어서 타싸이트 따라왔다가 잘보고갑니다 ^^;
    Thank you for sharing your interesting experiences while you were in Korea. I’m pretty sure I’ll come your blog again to check out other postings .Because there are bunch of postings not only about Korea but about other countries.