It’s OK to Call It ‘Digital Humanities’

I’ve been meaning to post something about William Pannapackers’s article “Stop Calling It ‘Digital Humanities’” for a couple of days, but my teaching schedule is stacked towards the beginning of the week, so it had to wait. Now that Rafael Alvarado’s response has appeared as an Editor’s Choice on Digital Humanities Now, I thought I’d set my fingers to typing.

Pannapacker laments the way that pedagogy has lagged behind research in the development of the Digital Humanities His main point seems to be that the identity of the Digital Humanities has developed so one-sidedly around research activity that it is difficulty to transfer to more teaching-oriented institutions, whether that means faculty lacking the resources to engage in Digital Humanities scholarship or faculty wishing to teach something called the Digital Humanities to their students.

Pannapacker is not advising us to give up.* Overall, his suggestions are helpful hints for how to overcome the barriers in certain kinds of institutions. But therein lies the problem. Pannapacker has primarily the small liberal arts college in mind, and he is unconsciously making the same mistake he critiques—proposing that the Digital Humanities be defined in terms of the mission of a particular type of institution. Nowhere is this clearer than in his suggestion that the Digital Humanities be renamed the Digital Liberal Arts. I certainly believe that such a move would be politically savvy at many liberal arts colleges, but at my state comprehensive university it would achieve nothing. Although my university’s mission includes the statement that “we seek to foster a rigorous and contemporary understanding of the liberal arts, sciences, and professional disciplines,” I have never heard any reference to the liberal arts during my entire career at CSUN. Talking about the liberal arts simply does not resonate here the way it does elsewhere. As a longtime advocate of the liberal arts, I sincerely wish it did. I don’t find the name “Digital Liberal Arts” objectionable; rather, I think it raises important questions about the scope of the field currently referred to as Digital Humanities.

There are several important points here. I have certainly noticed that large state comprehensive universities are often (I’m tempted to say mostly) left out of conversations about the Digital Humanities, perhaps because their missions are too diverse to relate closely to Digital Humanities (or liberal arts) ideals. We clearly need to expand our notion of Digital Humanities activity to embrace what is achievable in a variety of institutional settings (including those with a stronger focus on undergraduate pedagogy), and we clearly need to keep in mind these settings when we talk about disciplinary identity.

This is why Pannapacker’s suggestion that we “stop calling it ‘Digital Humanities’” is likely to provoke the strongest response, as it did for me. (It didn’t help that the Chronicle chose to make this the headline for an article with many less controversial statements.) Digital Humanities is a term of convenience, and we shouldn’t read too much into it. Take it from a professor who works in a department of “English”. It is true that outsiders will have trouble making sense of this shorthand due to the Digital Humanities’ lack of an historical institutional presence. That puts some pressure on digital humanists to explain what it is they do. But no other term will explain such a large and diverse field any better.

Internally, digital humanists agonise over the name because they are struggling with important questions of disciplinary identity. This is to be expected for a new field emerging from multiple disciplines within the Humanities–and that’s not even considering the contributions of disciplines that don’t normally fall under that rubric. Unfortunately, the dialogue over how the Digital Humanities should be identified is becoming a cliché, and we probably should shift the ground of the debate if that is not already happening (and I think it is). We must always keep in mind that this debate is the beginning of a dialogue about the theory of the Digital Humanities, and it is a dialogue since this theory has to be integrated with the theoretical frameworks of the various contributing disciplines.

The Digital Humanities is really a community in which this dialogue can take place, and it is rapidly developing institutional structures that—along with its growing discourse about the nature and use of the digital—can make it a support mechanism for those who wish to take advantage of it in their research, teaching, or support capacities. If the Digital Humanities has something to offer you, you can be a digital humanist. If the community isn’t big enough in your sub-specialisation, start a conversation, and others will likely jump on board. Don’t stress about whether the term Digital Humanities includes or excludes you and what you do. The hallmark of a digital humanist is a willingness to read, make use of, and join in the discussions of others who are creating, using, and analysing digital tools and methods to study aspects of human experience we associate with the Humanities. If you are building the Digital Humanities on your campus, let this be the definition to bring people into the fold.

* Update: The asterisked sentence above originally read “Pannapacker is advising us to give up.” This was a typo. Apologies that it took me so long to discover it.