- Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Hitting the Wall and Bouncing Back
The essays in this issue point to possibilities. It is possible to bring new technologies, and more important still, new ways of thinking about the objects of humanities study, into our classrooms. In so doing, we will often find ourselves reinforcing the skills and strategies that are hallmarks of humanities education, especially in English. Teaching digital humanities means asking our students to exercise critical thinking both with and upon the technologies and media that have so quickly become part of our everyday lives. Sarah Ficke begins her discussion by highlighting the development of “fundamental reading and analytical skills” through an introduction to digital humanities work, and Amanda Gailey observes that in her class, from a pedagogical standpoint, “the computers are really incidental, and simply serve as an invitation to create research projects that ask students to think differently, discover, and create.”
To the extent that digital humanities offers something both valuable and different to humanities teaching, however, it may do so most compellingly not in terms of possibilities but of limits, or rather, the odd mixture of gain and loss that digital technologies often present. I am thinking of such things as the capacity of digital humanities to expose limits in the process of trying to surpass them; the value of “breaking” technology in the effort to enact or improve it; and the foolishness of assuming that old, old problems can be fixed in a click, or vanquished via a string of code—an assumption, I must add, which is less characteristic of digital humanities practitioners than of those who critique the field from outside.
The authors in this issue often indicate the ways in which digital humanities addresses or, more often exposes limits of our existing disciplinary methods and pedagogical tools—especially the texts that we teach and study. Wesley Raabe’s exposure of the “unruly” textuality of works “domesticated for literary anthologies” exemplifies the power of digital tools to reveal the limits of our existing pedagogical infrastructure: anthologies flatten literary works that exist in variant forms. Digital surrogates of manuscripts or multiple printed versions reanimate the messy histories of texts in the wild and allow students to grapple with their complexity. But digital text itself is, paradoxically, both a way to expand our understanding of texts and an often surprising reminder of the way that our technologies distance us from textual objects at the very moments that they seem to [End Page 221] bring us closer. Of course, textual studies as a field has always been mindful of this: Peter Shillingsburg reminds us that transcription, in any form, is “always interpretive,” and in this respect, there is little difference between the methodology and outcomes of a paperback reprint of a classic novel and a digital surrogate of that same book or any other digital scholarly activity. As Sarah Ficke affirms: “[T]he act of building a digital product or working tool is always an act of interpretation.” But digital technologies for transcribing and imaging text add a new layer of mediation to the process. As Gailey explains, the underlying assumptions about textual structures (OHCO) within HTML and XML result in “technological limitations” that are “frustrating” to her and to others who work with TEI encoding. For Gailey and her students, that frustration is outweighed by the opportunity to “inscribe a view of the text onto the text itself,” a view that is shaped by the students’ immersion in textual details that might otherwise never have been noticed. Shillingsburg suggests that that same opportunity for textual immersion, expressed as interpretive inscription, is an instance of potential limitation: what happens if texts that are inscribed by one scholar’s markup prove to be of limited use to other scholars? Digital facsimiles and transcriptions can open doors to discovery. They can also pull them closed before our very eyes in those moments when we realize that we do not actually know what it is that we are seeing, either because of absent or faulty metadata, or because images can only convey so much. As Shillingsburg notes, even the most faithful reproductions are incomplete: “[I]mages have no weight, depth...