Half-Baked: The State of Evaluation in the Digital Humanities
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Half-Baked:
The State of Evaluation in the Digital Humanities
The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age, Edited by Amy E. Earheart and Andy Jewell. University of Michigan Press and University of Michigan Library, 2011.
Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts, Edited by Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover. University of Chicago Press, 2011.

[Erratum]

These two very different books tell us much about a current tension in the humanities concerning how we define and evaluate digital scholarship. Certainly, writing about such matters in digital humanities (DH)1 is not new: Debates in the Digital Humanities (2011) considers how we have currently and historically defined the field; A Companion to Digital Humanities (2004) and A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (2007) consider how technology has changed access, infrastructure, methodologies, and the nature of research in literary study; journals such as Literary and Linguistic Computing and digital humanities quarterly, as well as more traditional journals such as the Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Modernism/Modernity, and now PMLA, among others, have published articles on innovative theories and practices in literary scholarship in the digital age—many for almost a decade now.2 Yet The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age and Switching Codes are unique and valuable as collections whose historicizing illuminates current fissures in discussions about the ways that the academic community can evaluate digital scholarship in the humanities.

To set this conversation in context, we might first consider the most recent collection of articles titled "Evaluating Digital Scholarship" in a special section of Profession (2011), edited by Susan Schreibman, Laura Mandell, and Stephen Olsen. This collection describes two essential yet difficult-to-assess aspects of digital scholarship, which help to frame why appreciating the work of The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age and Switching Codes may be difficult. First, The American Literature [End Page 876] Scholar in the Digital Age is primarily about digitization and increased access, or the development of digital infrastructure. Indeed, large parts of The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age describe access to an incredible wealth of literary cultural artifacts, including versions of Walt Whitman's poems as they appeared in periodicals (Susan Belasco), various editions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (Wesley Rabbe), "Concord-related documentation" from the Concord Public Library (Leslie Perrin Wilson), illustrations by Joel Chandler Harris (Amanda Gailey), unpublished versions of Herman Melville's Typee (John Bryant), novels by Willa Cather (Andrew Jewell and Brian L. Pytlik Zillig), never-before-heard stories based on Ojibwe traditional teachings (Timothy B. Powell and Larry P. Aitken), and a range of aggregate websites, including sermons in the Church in the Southern Black Community collection, poetry in the Modern American Poetry site, and the first-person slave narratives in the Documenting the American South collection (Stephanie Browner). But the fact is that The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age does not go much beyond "the creation of digital infrastructure for scholarly inquiry" that, as Schreibman, Mandell, and Olsen note, "relies on the traditions of scholarly editing, bibliography, and philology long relegated to second-class status in our profession" (125).

The second aspect of evaluating digital scholarship that makes discussing these books problematic is that these new forms of scholarship that comprise the subject matter of these texts—"the digital archives, the databases, the visualizations, the scholarly tools"—have few or no standards for evaluation (Schreibman et al. 124). In Switching Codes, for instance, editors Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover have designed a book "to promote cross-disciplinary conversation" about information technologies in the humanities in which "scholars and artists respond to IT specialists and vice versa" (3). To facilitate the conversation between the arts and IT, the chapters are set up as dialogues in four sections: "Research, Sense, Structure"; "Ontology, Semantic Web, Creativity"; "Panorama Interactivity, Embodiment"; and "Re/presentations: Language and Facsimile." Comprising each section are multiple chapters written by practitioners and scholars from a variety of perspectives describing various projects, and each chapter concludes with a response by another scholar or practitioner. The structure is useful for interrogating the work that comprises collaborative approaches in...