Kimon Keramidas, Bard Graduate Center
While reading through this chronicle of our experiences , there is a particular term that may be conspicuously absent depending on the particular realms of academic discourse you follow: digital humanities. Digital humanities as a concept has rocketed to national prominence in recent years as both a legitimate movement and a buzzword of questionable deployment. While I don’t want to fully engage with the complexities of its history or the nuances of its varied interpretations,1 I want to explicate a little of why it is absent, because its absence is intentional, and it relates to the sense of considered timeframes I touched upon when discussing the challenges of the digital-born QP.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of truly penetrating digital media to the far edges of an institution is eliminating a sense that work done using digital media is distant and apart from the work people have done and are doing. This type of work needs to seem new and exciting, but it also needs to seem natural and progressing from a historical arc that has weathered many similar evolutions in technology and academic practice. Digital media are just a new set of tools after all, and different sets of new tools have had an impact on teaching and learning for as long as there have been such things.2
This desire for widespread acceptance and wholesale institutional integration is unfortunately at odds with a good part of digital humanities rhetoric, which in a political move is often situated in a position distant or apart from, and in some cases even antagonistically against, more traditional humanities work. Take for instance the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, which claims that digital humanities as a phrase should be rejected “to whatever degree it implies a digital turn that might somehow leave the Humanities intact: as operating within same stable disciplinary boundaries with respect to society or to the social and natural sciences that have prevailed over the past century.”3 In this sense, digital humanities can be seen as a movement that seeks a break, and the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 as a document meant to invigorate the frustrations that wish to shatter traditional humanities work.
Even in its more harmless incarnations, digital humanities can come to be an umbrella term for issues that are impacting all of academia but have been particularly vexing and/or interesting to humanities scholars frustrated with dominant traditional humanities practice. In an interview on HASTAC.org, Brett Bobley, Director of the Office of the Digital Humanities for the National Endowment for the Humanities includes these things as activities that constitute digital humanities practice:
open access to materials, intellectual property rights, tool development, digital libraries, data mining, born-digital preservation, multimedia publication, visualization, GIS, digital reconstruction, study of the impact of technology on numerous fields, technology for teaching and learning, sustainability models, media studies, and many others.4
Notably this list includes few activities that are applicable specifically to humanities research questions, and in fact reads more like a list of pan-disciplinary concerns and technologically impacted possibilities that are equally relevant to the sciences and social sciences, and in fact to practices outside of the academy as well.
This is not to say that there is not good work being done under the banner of digital humanities. Work on curricular and community development in the digital humanities by researchers such as Lisa Spiro5 is helpful in establishing practices similar to those we have developed at the BGC. There is also a wide array of centers and initiatives, such as George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM) and HASTAC, that fall under the umbrella of digital humanities and have very similar missions and distinguished records of accomplishment.
But the term remains too contested, too fractured, and too frequently held up as a banner for radical change to be safe enough in the development of digital practice across an entire institution and with a wide range of constituencies. Because of its connections to such particular ideologies, it can become one of those dangerous flashpoints that inadvertently turns people away from a project that is focused more on the evolution of humanities methodologies and forms of practice than a radical dissolution and reconception of humanities research. So, no how matter how much I find work done by a self-labeled digital humanist useful in helping to shape our program or deploy tools, such as Zotero and Omeka, that are developed by digital humanities centers such as CHNM’s, we continue to use the term sparingly and cautiously at the BGC.
This is a time ripe for radical rethinking of many aspects of academic structures, and digital tools may in fact help hasten that process and be the impetus for real structural change. But our local mission is to provide the humane cyberinfrastructure within which the BGC community can learn to master those digital tools, rather than to champion a specific ideology or stance within that change. We may have opinions as to where those tools might lead academic practice, but the most powerful pedagogical move we can actually make is providing individuals in our community with the resources and knowledge to explore the field on their own and make their own decision about the direction in which they would like academia to head.
About the Author
Kimon Keramidas is Assistant Director for the Digital Media Lab at the Bard Graduate Center where he is responsible for the development and implementation of digital media practices across academic programs. His research focuses on digital media through the lenses of political economy and sociology of culture, and he is currently working on a book project about contemporary corporate theatrical production and a gallery project on the materiality of computer interface design. Kimon received his PhD in Theatre from the CUNY Graduate Center where he also completed the CUNY Graduate Center’s Certificate in Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.
- To get such a lay of the landscape of digital humanities see Patrik Svensson, “The Landscape of Digital Humanities,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 4, no. 1 (2010), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/4/1/000080/000080.html. ↩
- Plato’s concerns about writing Phaedrus, the impact of the Gutenberg press, and more recent anxieties over how Microsoft Word would change writing all show that there is a long history of concerns about how tools and technological capabilities change academia and society. ↩
- Jeffrey Schnapp et al., “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” June 22, 2009, http://www.humanitiesblast.com/manifesto/Manifesto_V2.pdf. ↩
- Kathleen Smith, “Q&A with Brett Bobley, Director of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) | HASTAC,” HASTAC, February 1, 2009, http://hastac.org/node/1934. ↩
- See Lisa Spiro, “Getting Started in Digital Humanities,” Journal of Digital Humanities, March 10, 2012, http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/getting-started-in-digital-humanities-by-lisa-spiro/ and Lisa Spiro, “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2012), 16-35. ↩