Are You a Digital Humanist?

A few weeks ago, I called out a student for using her cell phone in class. I had noticed that she always seemed to be on her phone while I was lecturing (which I found not only disrespectful but very distracting) and felt that it was time to remind her of our syllabus policy against use of cell phones and texting in class. The student immediately emailed me back claiming that her phone was also a PDA, and that she was using it to take notes. Whether this was true or just a convenient excuse, it got me thinking about some of the challenges of digital humanities/digital pedagogy. For instance, if I elect to use technology in my classrooms, can I penalize students for doing the same? How much room should we allow technology to have in academic life?

Digital Humanities is becoming an increasingly visible and popular community. Aimée Morrison posted a great set of questions  a few weeks ago regarding what graduate students need from DH efforts, and what kinds of changes we may be concerned about (hint: there are about as many things to be excited about as there are things to figure out). Diane Jakacki similarly posted an engaging reflection on what it means to identify oneself as a Digital Humanist. (I found both of these posts through Twitter, by the way, in my efforts to become more connected to the DH world and more visible as a DHer) One of my tweets in response to  Aimée (@digiwonk) addressed the question of how to best prepare future DH grads: We need more DH profs. But this is a very complex claim. What is, after all, a DH professor? Is it someone who works solely on digital projects and teaches others how to make them? Is it someone who is transitioning from more traditional academic formats to become a digi-print hybrid? Am I a digital humanist? Are you?

Sometimes technology catches me off guard–and I’m not even talking about times when computers crash, or projectors refuse to turn on. The cell phone incident with my student made it clear that I haven’t thought through some of the ways the digital medium both participates in and interferes with pedagogy. I know there are instructors who use Twitter in their classrooms. I have to admit that, while I find the idea fascinating, I fear the lack of control it would bring along–and, of course, that’s the whole point: scary though it may be, decentralization of authority brings something unique to the student-teacher interaction and the learning process as a whole. A social media approach can give a clear purpose to devices most students already feel tempted to use (let’s be honest: devices most of us feel tempted to use). What’s more: placing the technology in our students’ hands challenges us to practice what we preach. But it still scares me.

In my research, I deal with another frightful balance: making sure my project is at once literary, critical, multidisciplinary, AND digital. Sometimes the digital slips through the cracks. Do I earn my DH badge by simply performing digital research? By using these tools to produce new knowledge? During “Reading Publics” we talked a lot about what the digital can and cannot achieve, and we all came to the conclusion that the digital does not (and is not meant to) replace the material object. But there’s another side to this conversation, which has to do with our research, and how much we’re willing to depend on, challenge, support, build, and empower digital tools to become just as respectable as traditional scholarship.

Part of the challenge is just to keep up with the new developments. The academic production process tends to be slow and time-consuming–most dissertations take one to two years to complete; publishing an article can take anywhere from three months to a year. How can we keep up with the ever-changing DH practices by adhering to traditional academic timing? Can we ever claim to be making cutting-edge work unless this work is producing real-time, online results?

As graduate students, we face the traditional vs. digital divide most strongly. I have met new grad students who confidently assert themselves as DHers and whose dissertation is firmly devoted to digital projects. I find that beyond exciting! But I can’t say I ever thought of myself as a Digital Humanist until recently–certainly not when I started grad school–and I wonder how many other grads feel unsure about their place in the community. Even though I have used wikis, videos, prezi, and even Facebook to design my classes, I didn’t think to give that practice a name. Even though my own dissertation proposes a database at its conclusion, I wasn’t thinking about how that defined my niche as a scholar. I thought of myself as a (slightly frustrated) traditional scholar who liked using technology for research and to make classes more engaging. By declaring to be DH, I formally admit that my “guilty pleasure” improves my academic production. By saying that I apply technology to pedagogy, I force myself to be more aware of great new projects and engage in work that is only made possible through online tools.  In my work, I try to address some of this by evaluating and reading about new trends, and planning future uses for my dissertation project. Yet, most of the time I can’t see ever “catching up.” Perhaps that’s what makes this work so exciting.

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3 thoughts on “Are You a Digital Humanist?

  1. Thanks for your comments Andie. I am so glad to see more DH students in the Detroit-area. I am at the University of Maryland studying DH but I am living and writing my dissertation in Farmington, MI. I also work at Lawrence Tech. I think a large part of DH is about new models of textual representation, publication, and dissemination. Being a digital humanist is also being invested in digital social networks. There are, of course, as many definitions of DH as there are digital humanists.

    I take issue with one part of your post that suggests that “the digital does not (and is not meant to) replace the material object” because I think the distinction is a false dichotomy. Digital objects are every bit as material as other types of objects (see, for instance, Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms). Your point is well-taken though that digital things often do not replace their counterparts. Certainly, we are not tossing out any Shakespeare folios now that they’re scanned into computers.

    You also raise an excellent point here that we DH graduate students feel very acutely. It’s *hard* to be a digital humanist sometimes because it feels like twice the work. At the same time, the networks created by digital humanities are exactly the type democratizing agent which we graduate students need to be heard. Academic publishing has, in some senses, become more open and that means our voices travel farther. On the other hand, it also means that all voices are speaking at once and sorting signals from noise has become more difficult than ever before.

  2. Fascinating post, Andie. I had never regarded myself as a digital humanist, even though I love using technology for every possible aspect of literary scholarship. In regards to teaching practice, I have found that using media students are already familiar with is extremely helpful. I always try to use at least 2-3 different kinds of media in each class I teach, since a function of our digital age is a much shorter monomediatic attention span. I love using youtube and wordpress (did you know students can phone in a post?). That being said, I won’t use facebook or twitter since I think social networking sites should be just that: social. I have a few colleagues who use facebook groups since one can set greater privacy settings, though they encourage their students to create a “professional” profile which is different from their normal login. Regarding the student with her phone, however, that’s a tricky line to walk. I always let students use laptops in class only so long as it doesn’t distract from the discussion. I think it’s important that students learn to gain the willpower to not be distracted by the world beyond their screen, and a great way to do that is to institute cold calls whenever a student doesn’t seem to be paying attention.

    In regards to my research, I only wish my project were as digital and exciting as the ones you’re describing. I think, though, that for any of us to have cutting-edge research, there must be some kind of digital element. These could be as simple as using library databases (such as edit16 or other online resources) as blunt instruments to map a certain sub-field, or as complex as databases with heavy statistical analyses. What worries me, however, since I identify with a rather traditional literary methodology, is that statistics never tell the whole story. As we use these tools with increasing frequency, I think it’s important to note that in some fields direct interaction and interpretation of a text is the best tool we have and that good —no, great— scholarship distinguishes itself by its strong and convincing narrative. As we become digital humanists, let us never forget that we are storytellers (albeit educated and informative) first and foremost.

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