[Humanist] 26.696 pubs: crowd-sourcing; what is the digital humanities?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Jan 18 08:59:09 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 696.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>         (130)
        Subject: a handy what-is

  [2]   From:    Stuart Dunn <stuart.dunn at kcl.ac.uk>                       (31)
        Subject: Engaging the Crowd with Humanities Research

        Date: Thu, 17 Jan 2013 14:46:39 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: a handy what-is

A colleague has pointed me to the final section of Burdick et al, Digital
Humanities (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2012), "A Short Guide to the
(http://jeffreyschnapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/D_H_ShortGuide.pdf) as
providing a handy statement for answering the commonplace question, what is
it? You will know this question, from colleagues, parents, friends, who have
heard the hype and now want to get to the reality, or at least to an

This statement is very good to have. I suggest, however, that while as handy
as advertised it needs, at least among practitioners, to be more of that
fuel for the ongoing fire we have been stoking for years. It needs to be
read and commented on critically. That's what I want to do here, in a
preliminary sort of way, to invite further attempts to take it seriously.

For years we've been attempting to locate the digital humanities under this
and former names amidst the disciplines of the humanities, and like our
colleagues in computer science worrying the question of whether it is one
thing, namely a discipline, or an amalgam of various things, or merely a
ragbag collection. Usually we do this with the implicit belief that the
academic company we're wanting to join and be respected by consists of
established and principled entities that if not given by God at the
foundation of the world are at least permanent, coherent, stable members of
the academy. According to some they are quite old-fashioned, perhaps even
decrepit, in bad need of rejuvenation by upstart technologies, but still
they occupy a venerable place in the academic taxonomy. But testimony from
the greats of these disciplines, e.g. Clifford Geertz's contribution to the
Charles Homer Haskins lecture series of the American Council of Learned
Societies (www.acls.org/pubs/haskins/), tell us that  disciplines are not
like that; they are starting points, sets of conventions, epistemic
cultures, if you will, that are in constant development, and as we know are
historically contingent entities -- if "entity" is not too ontologically
firm for them.

The anxieties we in the digital humanities have over getting institutionally
recognized, as individuals even more of getting hired by an institution to
do something scholarly, drive us, I'd suppose, to rush possessively at
definitive statements of identity and fervently embrace them. I diagnose a
widespread fever to put on the blazer emblazoned with its badge of identity
on the breast pocket, talk about who is in, who out etc. Having written more
than one of these manifestos of identity myself (I think my earliest, fully
conscious one dates to September 1996) and having shared those anxieties
personally for many years, I am deeply sympathetic to the drive and one's
susceptibility to it. But I think, for what it's worth, that we are capable
of more than being driven. We're capable of reflecting critically on the
tempting stimuli.

Let me start things off with a few quotations and suggestions for further
discussion, starting with the question of disciplinary coherence.

>  Digital Humanities is less a unified field than an array of convergent
> practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the primary
>  medium in which knowledge is produced and disseminated.

Is English a unified field, for example? Looking in from the outside, for
those of us who have only an outside view, does this solidly established
discipline make sense? (There's a vast literature worrying this question,
testifying that it is a question.) Whatever may be meant by "a universe", is
this an adequate characterisation of what is done under the name digital
humanities? Perhaps "practices" includes thinking, reasoning in a certain
way or ways, theorising and the like? Is knowledge a thing that we produce
in a medium? And I wonder, is the perceived dis-unity of the digital
humanities a particular reflection of the fact that especially in some
places it's much easier to colonise it from the security of an established
discipline than to grow it on its own.

> Digital tools, techniques, and media have expanded traditional concepts
> of knowledge in the arts, humanities and social sciences

Ok, this occurs in the context of a statement that for good reasons of
brevity has no room for drawing out the implications of the claim so
confidently asserted, for saying how these traditional concepts have been
expanded, indeed what these concepts are. But we have all witnessed such
claims being made as if they were simply and obviously true (which they are
not, either simply or obviously). So, I'd think, we should be working hard
to figure out what can actually be attributed to our tools, techniques and
media. And as almost always it's exceedingly difficult to avoid
technological determinism: tools, techniques and media don't do anything on
their own. What about the effects going the other way, from the disciplines
to the technologies? What about effects affecting both but coming from

>  the humanities as traditionally understood

Here, as in the preceding, the word "traditional" jumps out at me -- I'd
call it, with reference to Firth, a negatively magic word in some contexts.
In particular, what do we mean when in the context of a progressivist
statement we call something "traditional"? Here is the danger that we read
in or read into what is said the suggestion that the modified thing is
passé, outmoded, in need of help, repair, renewal etc. Of course all
knowledge practices, being not things but ways of acting, need renewal as
much as living creatures do, though perhaps not at the same pace. What
implications are we accepting that we'd probably not own up to if they were
made explicit?

> The challenges include addressing fundamental questions such as: How can
> skills traditionally used in the humanities be reshaped in multimedia
> terms?

That's a question. But what about this one: how can our current
manifestations of multimedia environments be reshaped better to respond to
and aid skills traditionally used in the humanities? Not one-way traffic,
indeed not even primarily, I'd think.

> What is the place of humanitas in a networked world?

How does the networking of the world sort with and affect our
guiding ideal of humanitas? "What is the place of..." leaves open the
possibility that humanity (named in Latin, with implications interesting to
ponder) has no place in the networked world. Now *that's* something worth
picking apart, the more so as the implications get more fearful.

> Building on the first generation of computational humanities work, more
> recent Digital Humanities activity seeks to revitalize liberal arts
> traditions...

If a generation marks a ca 30 year period, then indeed a generation has
passed, though not all of those of that generation have packed up and gone
away. And, as noted, the widespread use of the Web (from the mid 1990s,
though it was introduced almost simultaneously with the end of the Cold War)
made an enormous change. But I think that while the new name for the
activity, coined in 2004 or so, is useful, the tendency to relegate the
previous activity under its old names to an unimportant past, a few of whose
time-lined achievements are mentioned in this statement, is a serious if not
fatal blow to disciplinary self-understanding. We need and don't yet have a
genuine history of the field. Indeed, parts of that history would be truly
inspirational if they were known, e.g. early computer art.

And again, I am very wary indeed of statements to the effect that the
digital humanities will revitalise the humanities, or as here, the liberal
arts traditions. Whenever I hear this said, I wonder if those who say it
have much appreciation for the wonderful, mind-changing, revitalising work
going on in the traditional fields unaffected in any obvious way by the
digital humanities. I would argue that the digital humanities might just
come alive in the intellectual sense if it paid attention to the life in
those humanities.

Enough from me, perhaps more than enough. But let the arguing commence.

Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, School of Humanities and Communication Arts,
University of Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist (dhhumanist.org);

        Date: Thu, 17 Jan 2013 19:15:51 +0000
        From: Stuart Dunn <stuart.dunn at kcl.ac.uk>
        Subject: Engaging the Crowd with Humanities Research

Dear all,

Last month we published  a research review for the AHRC's Connected 
Communities programme, 'Crowd-Sourcing Scoping Study: Engaging the Crowd 
with Humanities Research': 


The aim was to assess the impact of crowd-sourcing methods and 
technologies in the humanities, most or all of which have been enabled 
by the Web, and to consider what kind of scholarly outcomes they have 
enabled. It seemed that such activities work best when they succeed in 
developing thriving and interacting communities with a shared purpose. 
The premise of our argument is that it is possible to observe patterns 
in which such communities thrive (although we did not seek to make 
definitive statements about what these patterns are), and that they are 
in turn dependent on the correct combinations of asset type (the content 
or data forming the subject of the activity), process type (what is done 
with that content), task type (how it is done), and the output type (the 
thing produced) desired.

We would be very happy to have any feedback on the report.

Stuart Dunn


Dr Stuart Dunn
Centre for e-Research, Department of Digital Humanities
King's College London

26-29 Drury Lane
London, WC2B 5RL

Tel: +44 (0)20 7848 2709
Fax: +44 (0)20 7848 2980
Email: stuart.dunn at kcl.ac.uk

Blog: http://www.stuartdunn.wordpress.com

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