Why Do We Need to Define it?

It is in human nature to want to put a direct definition to every entity we encounter. For various reasons one might say that this is in fact the correct way to go about life, especially when diving into the world of academics. Without a clear cut agenda of what a field of study is trying to convey, how can one begin to understand it? Or rather how might one begin to define it? This seems to be the main issue in the DH department that I’ve come to find out in my readings- an ongoing debate on what it is to be a digital humanist and what can they contribute to this contemporary way of learning and teaching.

In Matthew K. Gold’s essay “The Digital Humanities Moment” in Debates in the Digital Humanities (2012) he brings up the controversial debate sparked by University of Nebraska scholar Stephen Ramsey. His talk titled “Who’s in and Who’s Out” brazenly included the statement of “If you are not making anything, you are not …a digital humanist” this is in addition to him proclaiming that one must be able to code in order to be considered a digital humanist. Gold brings up that this declaration had brought out intense debate during the session and online discussions as well. This situation in itself has proven the conundrum of DH. Some individuals are hard set on viewing it through a strictly technological standpoint but for others DH is more. This is discussed further into Gold’s essay when discussing what compromises Digital Humanities. Is it a place for theory? Politics? Can social media be an asset to it or does it trivialize it? All these questions up for discussion but with that comes inevitable arguments.

In trying to find a solution an interesting but relatively weak metaphor that was proposed at the 2011 ADHO annual conference featured the idea of DH being viewed as a “big tent”. However much like everything else in this field, this too was also up for debate and criticism. In Matthew K.Gold and Lauren F.Klein’s “Digital Humanities: The Expanded Field” in Debated and the Digital Humanities (2016) they showcase examples of these critiques. Melissa Terras in ‘Peering inside the Big Tent’  “expressed concern that the big tent of DH, like those employed by the evangelical groups of the nineteenth-century United States, whose outdoor revival meetings inspired the phrase, might be less welcoming—due to scholarly status, institutional support, and financial resources—than those already on the inside would hope or believe”. Gold and Klein address the disapproval of the metaphor and bring up the fact that Digital Humanities is being practiced more and more as an ever growing field and thus must be perceived in a broader context. However the problem of scale then arises, how much can one subject area withstand? This goes back to the initial issue I brought it up concerning definition. If DH addresses more than one thing at a time, how can it be defined?

Lisa Spiro in “This is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities” dives into this topic but her solution to it goes beyond a standard definition. Rather she suggests creating a core set of values. These values were split up into 5 sections- Openness, Collaboration, Collegiality and Connectedness, Diversity and Experimentation. Through these values Spiro advocates for the Digital Humanities to work together to promote a community that is open to cooperation and unity so that multiple tools and ideas can all be processed and shared through one outlet. She admits that in doing so ideas may clash and get complicated but in her own words she believes that “by developing a core values statement, the digital humanities community can craft a more coherent identity, use these values as guiding principles, and pass them on as part of DH education”.

With Spiro’s notion of a collaborative project in mind I checked out the multiple projects/websites provided to us and I found that her ideas were tangible if one is willing to do put forth the effort to do so. One titled the ” The Early Caribbean Digital Archive” features an open collection of poetry, diaries and novels as well as a collection of maps and images. Already we see a partnership between literary elements and those concerning visual aspects. In addition to this the site also aims to “remix” the archives found with digital tools to get a more accurate reading of the materials found since most of it was primarily authored and published by Europeans. Similarly we see this with “The Colored Conventions Project”, the purpose of which is to bring forth the buried history of the 19th century Black organizing to a an interdisciplinary research hub for anyone to access. The CCP explains they go about this through the use of partnerships that help with a variety of things such as locating, transcribing and archiving. The site also organizes and produces digital exhibits which feature a look at areas of interest that are not discussed as much, such as the contributions of black women towards the economy during the 1830’s delegate conventions or the early activism of Black Californians that challenged laws and policies used against them. On paper an inclusive hub of different outlets of information may seem disjointed and scattered, but my personal experience on these sites say otherwise. Instead of expounding on the issues that were presented to me in the readings, I was proved that it could be done if values of teamwork are applied.

In all I believe the issue of defining in the DH community is one that doesn’t necessarily need to be solved. To pigeon hole and gate keep this field is only doing a disservice to those who participate in it. In my personal opinion, the more informational sources you can tap into the better, and if that means collaborating with those who specialize in a different field than you, so be it. I don’t think DH needs a limit or a certain set of skills to qualify someone. That thinking seems archaic and with the ever changing world we live in we must think outside the box (or tent) if we really want DH to be used to it’s full potential.