Debates in the Digital Humanities explores the relatively new field in its title. It proves, if nothing else, how nebulous the term “Digital Humanities” has become. Many of the authors in the volume felt the need to define it, and the questions and definitions they posed varied greatly. Matthew Kirschenbaum seemed to take the position that the digital humanities were actually a methodology spawned from the convergence of technology and traditional humanities that focused on scholarship and public visibility, buttressed by networks of people who collaborated in a common field (4-5); whereas, Kathleen Fitzpatrick clearly views the field far more narrowly. She goes so far as to say that “there are scholars who work with digital materials (that) remain outside of the traditions and assumptions of the digital humanities,” implying that there is a tradition (which I’m not sure I agree with) and that there is more to digital humanities than just utilizing new media to study the humanities (14). I mention this only to show an example of how fundamentally the contributors disagree with one another and to point out how quick scholars are to categorize what is in and what is out of their fields. If I were to be honest, I would say it reminds me of a dog who feels the need to mark the yard as his territory, despite the fact he obviously owns neither the yard nor the house. He just wants to settle down himself and doesn’t think about how he actually fits into the greater scheme of things.
Nevertheless, the collection of essays within the book are very interesting as they show how a new field coalesces and defines itself. Many people get into arguments over definitions and other foundational issues, but others try to pragmatically move forward and sidestep the difficulties. These later people are perhaps the most interesting as they act under the impression that by moving forward they can better the field more so than if they entered the existing fray. Scholars like Lisa Spiro see the definitional debates as self-destructive and desire more than anything else to unite the community by creating tenants that most can fall behind. It is the contention of Spiro that by creating a common set of values the field can transcend the issues it currently stumbles to address and progress in multiple, useful directions (16-30).
Besides this primary debate, the essays also addresses other issues regarding the teaching, developing, and practicing of the digital humanities. The book is incredibly comprehensive in this respect. Of particular interest to me was the teaching section. How do you teach a field you can’t define? Further, how do you prepare students for a digital world that doesn’t yet exist? These questions are fairly simple, but their answers aren’t.
Academics like Alexander Reid posit that even the ethics of the scholarly community must adapt to the modern, digital world. For instance, Reid argues it is unfair to ask graduate students to be asked to be the vanguard of “inventing new digital scholarly practices” (362). He thinks this an unfair burden to place on the untrained. Graduate students who teach are often put into an unfamiliar world of blogs and digital assignments, making decisions about copyrighted and open sourced materials, without so much as a cursory amount of training in their backgrounds (Reid, 358-9). How is this appropriate?
If digital work is a modern reality of the humanities, shouldn’t all students be trained in its elementary practices? Reid focuses on the teacher more than the student, but the ethical question remains the same if posed from the opposite perspective- is it fair for students to have to be asked to do digital tasks without a background in the digital sciences? Should it be an element of primary education, like math or English? I thought Stephen Brier’s essay was particularly interesting because it acknowledges and hopes to help correct this gap between field expectations and teaching. Indeed, I laughed a little at how apt his title was- “Where is the Pedagogy?” Seriously, where is it? Brier pointed out that the community has “tended to focus too narrowly… on the academic research and publication aspects of the digital humanities,” while ignoring the big questions about training the future (Brier, 390). His examination of CUNY’s attempts to fix this issue are exemplary of what many researchers and most professors should be doing more generally- rethinking their methods of teaching and collaborating.
Gold, Matthew K. . Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota, 2012.