In the spring of 2008, the National Endowment for the Humanities converted its Digital Humanities Initiative to the more permanent Office of Digital Humanities. Along with other leadership organizations like the Mellon Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies, the NEH actively promotes new digitally enabled forms of research, publication, and pedagogy. Such emerging paradigms respond to ongoing shifts in an increasingly (if unevenly) networked public culture, seeking to adapt for scholarly gains the core technologies and social practices unfolding in online spaces ranging from Wikipedia to YouTube to Second Life.
Of course, what is now called the "digital humanities" is not a new development. Indeed, a small subset of humanities scholars have been actively engaged in working with computer technology for over twenty years. Nonetheless, these "computing humanists" sometimes labored in relative isolation from the questions that animated research in other aspects of their home disciplines, particularly work derived from interpretative frameworks or from poststructuralist theories. Their efforts often concentrated on archiving, digitizing, and preserving the human record, i.e., on large infrastructural projects that could seem more the terrain of libraries than of "scholarship proper." More recently, we have seen an explosion of what I might call the "blogging humanists"—folks very interested in the hopes for participation promised by emerging Web 2.0 technologies. Faced with severe cutbacks at academic presses and dated systems for peer review, this second breed of digital humanists port the words and monographs of humanities scholarship to networked spaces of conversation and dialogue. They envision new modes of connection and peer-to-peer conversation, and text often remains the lingua franca of their scholarly productions.
Through the decades, this humanities computing work has been quietly building momentum; the scholarly fields of media studies, visual studies, and digital studies have exploded, producing valuable insights into the epistemological, phenomenological, ethical, and cultural dimensions of the visually intense and media-rich worlds we inhabit. Indeed, some of today's most cutting-edge humanities research takes up questions of visual and aural culture and of the emotions. Nonetheless, we have been slow to explore the potential of interactive, immersive, and multimedia expression for our own thinking and scholarship, even as we dabble with such forms in our teaching. With a few exceptions, we remain content to comment about technology and media, rather than to participate more actively in constructing knowledge in and through our objects of study.
The time is now ripe to join the insights of decades of film and media studies with the new modes of information management, visualization, and dissemination that digital technologies are enabling. Who better to reimagine the relationship of scholarly form to content than those who have devoted their careers to studying narrative structure, representation and meaning, or the aesthetics of visuality? Who better to address the utopian registers of much popular commentary on technology than historians of media and scholars of political economy? In the late 1990s, fueled by the siren call and profit-driven dreams of "distance learning," administrators at many of our universities reduced the role of the humanities scholar to "content provider" for the digitally enhanced university. In this scenario, our lectures and research would populate their information systems. I am here suggesting that we should reject this limited role for the humanities scholar and instead fully engage with the platforms and tools of the digital era. This will require new forms of collaboration and engagement that may push us beyond our scholarly comfort zones. It also means rethinking our allegiance to print as the only (or even the primary) outcome of our scholarly endeavors.
One potentially rich space for action for the media studies professor is in a third variant of the digital humanities, the multimodal scholar. This third type of digital humanist in effect blends many of the desires and goals of the other "early adopters," the computing humanist and blogging humanist. This emergent breed, the multimodal humanist, brings together databases, scholarly tools, networked writing, and peer-to-peer commentary while also leveraging the potential of visual and aural media that so dominate contemporary life. This multimodal scholar complements rather than replaces other types of digital humanists, expanding the scope and reach of...