Digital Humanities as a Field
No field exists without its history, and no field is merely a reflection of its history. Academic fields are historical, contextual, and dynamic. They are also consistently shaped by institutional, societal, and cultural logics. This chapter looks more closely at the digital humanities as a field, an institutional endeavor, and a historical trajectory, arguing that the field cannot move forward productively without historical sensibility, self-awareness, and genuine openness.
A major reconfiguration of the field has occurred over the past ten years, and this chapter investigates this reconfiguration. It tells the story of a dominant player, humanities computing, that reinvented itself through a series of moves. One critical move was the renaming of the field from humanities computing to digital humanities. For some members of the humanities computing community, this reconfiguration was not much more than a change of names, and in actuality, the epistemic tradition of humanities computing has remained strong in the digital humanities. This has partly been made possible through the major role played by the scholarly associations connected with humanities computing in terms of doing institutional work, hosting conferences, supporting journals, and providing a platform. Indeed, if anything, the associations have increased their footprint through new constituent organizations and a fairly elaborate territorial strategy.
At the same time, the reinvented field and the new name came with certain expectations and responsibilities, which the digital humanities has not necessarily been able to meet. Over the years, the associations in the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations have faced increased pressure to be more inclusive, and one resultant rhetoric has been that of “big-tent digital humanities,” which supposedly would help to open up the field to newcomers. However, the big tent never was truly big, and we need to look at other models.
The chapter begins with an extended discussion of the institutional status of the digital humanities. Is it a field or a discipline? These two main institutional forms offer different possibilities for the development of the digital humanities, and other possible institutional pathways also exist. One way of getting a sense of the variation and development of the field is to look at typologies that have been suggested for the digital humanities. The trajectories of such typologies are often situated in the disciplinary standpoint of the writer and defined by and against such frames of reference.
The chapter explores the role of scholarly associations as a lead-in to an examination of the history of the field and particularly the shift from humanities computing to digital humanities. Furthermore, it traces the epistemic tradition of humanities computing at some length, and contrasts that tradition with the vision presented in this book (big digital humanities). Returning to the current situation, I look at how the territorial ambitions of the digital humanities organizations and of more recent movements such as #transformDH play out.
Even a big-tent notion of digital humanities is restricted and epistemically structured, so it would be wise to eliminate the tent altogether and position digital humanities as an intersectional and liminal field with multiple genealogies.
The field of digital humanities has been emerging for a long time. If we include humanities computing as part of the history of digital humanities, the field was certainly described as emerging as early as in the 1980s. In the initial 1987 welcome message for the Humanist e-mail list, Willard McCarty wrote that “computing in the humanities is an emerging and highly cross-disciplinary field.”1 The quality of being emergent is often associated with the uncertain institutional and disciplinary status of the field as well as with much discussion about what it is and what it can be. It is not surprising, perhaps, that we can detect a certain amount of weariness among old-timers who have been debating these issues for a long time, especially now when there is a sense of a stronger institutional position and the possibility of leaving behind some of the uncertainty and hardships.
The weariness and wanting to move forward are understandable and a worthwhile sentiment, but the tension and associated discussions about the field will not go away anytime soon, if ever. For one thing, the influx of new people to the field is likely to create instability and negotiation as these newcomers will not necessarily subscribe to the same set of core values as people with a long history in the field. If we are going to argue for digital humanities as an inclusive and intersectional project, we need to accommodate newcomers and open up the field not only to a larger constituency but also to new ideas and epistemic traditions. This responsibility accompanies the new, larger territory and substantial investments in the field and applies on one level to anyone involved in the digital humanities. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that some people do not share this vision.
Rafael Alvarado describes the situation aptly as a small town that has recently “been rated as a great place to raise a family.”2 Such a situation is bound to feature tension and negotiation. The original community must be accommodating, while newcomers must be interested enough to acquire a sense of the history of the town and its community. Not every newcomer will function well in the new community, and not every original resident will be willing to adapt to the new situation. On another level, basic structures and rules may be challenged, and in the long run, there may be a need to work toward a new charter or common platform that speaks both to original residents and to newcomers.
We should not take this metaphor too far, but it is true that any inclusive notion of digital humanities is not likely to succeed without a sense of the history of the field and without accommodating a range of different traditions. A unified vision may not be possible, but there should at least be a sense of direction, grounding, and differences. This sense cannot be achieved without a continued discussion of the field both inside and outside the institutions that are most integral to the long tradition of digital humanities and humanities computing. We also need to acknowledge that some traditions close to the digital humanities, such as rhetoric and composition, have not necessarily become part of the genealogy of the field and that other neighboring and overlapping areas exist.
Another way of approaching this issue is to argue that the digital humanities currently gives us a window of opportunity for influencing and shaping our own academic and personal futures. For various reasons, the digital humanities has become a reasonably powerful platform, and it is our responsibility to make the most of it. The 4Humanities Initiative, a website and platform devoted to the advocacy of the humanities drawing on digital technologies, is one example of this kind of thinking.3 We need to look ahead and think ahead, and we need to be aware of different traditions, positions, and trajectories. This chapter provides some of the necessary context and tools for this work.
Unrest and disciplinary debate may not be the best long-term instruments for creating and sustaining a field, but the dynamic character of the digital humanities makes it an exciting and hopeful place for many people. I refer not to polarized debates and harsh exchanges but to the relative openness and exploration that come with something that has not been fully defined and negotiated and that offers a range of positions and possibilities.
Field or Discipline?
Before going into more detail concerning the landscape of the digital humanities, it will be useful to establish some basic concepts. One important question concerns the institutional label of digital humanities. A number of different terms are used, including discipline, field, and area. A simple Google Search on September 3, 2014, gave the following frequencies for the frame “X of /the/ digital humanities”: “discipline” (about 77,700 instances), “field” (216,900), and “area” (142,500). This is not a surprising distribution given that area is the most generic, noninstitutional term and that field has a generic quality while pointing to a stronger institutional structure. According to Julie Thompson Klein, a field is a “descriptor of shared interests across a wider sphere than specialized domains and full-fledged disciplines.”4 Discipline is by far the least frequent term, and it indicates the most institutionalized trajectory.
Again, this is a matter of words and institutional tactics, but it is very relevant to how we think of the digital humanities and future trajectories. The history of digital humanities has been characterized by a certain degree of institutional instability, and there is understandably an accumulated need for a more secure and independent position. We face a major challenge in balancing this legitimate need with the advantages of maintaining an intersectional position, at least if the goal is a broadly conceived and open digital humanities—big digital humanities, in between the humanities and the digital, between disciplines, between the university and outside interests, and between different modes of engagement. But even such a model of the digital humanities obviously also requires a core operation and some of the powers that come with the status of discipline.
Disciplinary formation in the modern sense is a relatively new phenomenon going back to the 1800s, and as Peter Weingart emphasizes, disciplines are social communities as well as historical constructs.5 There is no blueprint as to what actually makes an academic discipline, but the digital humanities fulfills some of the criteria sometimes used to identify disciplines. For example, the digital humanities has scholarly associations, departments at universities, conference and book series, and dedicated funding streams as well as a unified visibility and a sense of a community. We would be hard-pressed, however, to argue that the digital humanities as a whole is characterized by shared methods and theories, a preferred institutional model, or the ability to reproduce itself with the help of educational programs from undergraduate to graduate education.
The lack of a shared conception of the digital humanities is the cause of fervent discussions about the field, frequent territorial negotiations, and reactions from established disciplines and fields. No matter which institutional model is advocated, there is a real need for some kind of demarcation (the digital humanities cannot be everything) and for introducing institutional elements normally associated with academic disciplines. It makes sense that digital humanities institutions can employ and tenure faculty, given that local and national regulations make doing so possible. This does not mean that all digital humanities faculty must be employed by digital humanities institutions. It is quite possible to imagine a dual-affiliation model in which many faculty are based in other institutions and departments.
In fact, the current discussion of the scope and direction of the digital humanities is intimately linked to questions of institutionalization. In other words, our ideas about what the digital humanities should be are likely to align with some but not all institutional models. On one level, this is about what the digital humanities community (or communities) wants, and no broad consensus currently exists, which is one reason why the digital humanities cannot be a discipline, although some observers call for that status:
DH is a discipline now—with universities granting degrees in it, and federal organizations dedicated to funding it—and that brings boundaries, and how the boundaries get drawn sparks turf wars. It’s a boring narrative, really, and I don’t have much stake in any of it; but if we’re going to agree DH is a discipline, we should start having conversations about its disciplinarity at appropriately disciplinary venues. [The Modern Language Association] is not that.6
In this blog entry, written a couple of weeks after the 2013 Conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA), Whitney Trettien argues that this venue is not the best place to discuss the future of the digital humanities. This sentiment is sound in some ways, but the question of whether the digital humanities really is and should be a discipline is not so easy to resolve.
Institutions are complex formations, and there is no clear line between field and discipline. There is no simple checklist of features for disciplinarity because we are concerned with a social-institutional phenomenon. It is fairly easy to recognize a fully developed discipline, however, and the digital humanities simply does not qualify, at least not across the board. There is too much heterogeneity, lack of institutional stability, and at least partial resistance to being a discipline. This is not to say that the digital humanities cannot become a discipline. But is that what we want?
Also, within the digital humanities are various subfields or groups with their own identities, including the text encoding community, library-associated communities, and digital history. These may never become disciplines in their own right, but they have or will acquire certain disciplinary qualities. A less territorial meeting-place model of the digital humanities may well be better placed to align productively with such subfields than a more disciplinary development of the field.
In this book, the term field is used consistently for the digital humanities to indicate a position that is not fully disciplinary. Such a position is compatible with the intersectional and inclusive notion of the digital humanities suggested by big digital humanities, and it would arguably be a mistake to move toward a model where the digital humanities is a discipline on par with other disciplines. This does not mean that the digital humanities should not have disciplinary qualities or that some subfields will not have such qualities, but there is a definite advantage to the field having and maintaining an in-between institutional position.
A Dynamic Landscape Exemplified
The digital humanities as a field has a dynamic and exciting quality that comes from the fact that it is not determined or fully institutionalized and that the communities engage in intense discussion. Some of this discussion may seem like dramatic play and self-promotion, but there is also much well-developed thinking about the state and the future of the field.
Two examples from approximately the same point in time demonstrate some of the dynamic and unsettled status of the field and highlight what is at stake here.
Andrew Prescott, newly appointed director of the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, offered a surprising description of his department in the summer of 2012:
The type of humanities represented by the directory of projects undertaken by the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College is one which would have gladdened the heart of Ronald Crane. Of the 88 content creation projects listed, only 8 are concerned in any way with anything that happened after 1850. The overwhelming majority—some 57 projects—deal with subjects from before 1600, and indeed most of them are concerned with the earliest periods, before 1100. The geographical focus of most of the projects are on the classical world and western Europe. The figures that loom largest are standard cultural icons: Ovid, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Jane Austen, Chopin. This is an old-style humanities, dressed out in bright new clothes for the digital age.
For all the rhetoric about digital technologies changing the humanities, the overwhelming picture presented by the activities of digital humanities centres in Great Britain is that they are busily engaged in turning back the intellectual clock and reinstating a view of the humanities appropriate to the 1950s which would have gladdened the heart of Ronald Crane. One of the great achievements of humanities scholarship in the past fifty years is to have widened our view of culture and to have expanded the subject matter of scholarship beyond conventional cultural icons. There is virtually no sense of this in digital humanities as it is practiced in Britain.7
This is both a far-reaching critique of the current state of the digital humanities as well as a vision for the field and the department. Focusing on Great Britain, Prescott questions many of the cornerstones of digital humanities operations (including his own): the centrality of projects, the importance of collaboration as a distinctive feature of the field, the predominant focus on “core” cultural heritage, and the focus on method. This is an example of a lively discussion of what the field can be, which institutional models may work, and what it means to do humanities work. Prescott’s proposed solution is to develop an intellectual agenda for the digital humanities, to move away from having an auxiliary or service function, to engage more with digitally created material, and to deemphasize the focus on collaboration and interdisciplinarity.
While Prescott’s analysis of the current status is largely convincing if somewhat dogmatic, not all archival work is traditional, not all “new” work is good, and traditional digital humanities has never just been a service function. Despite some hedging, his is still a very sharply articulated position. And the solution Prescott advocates, a stronger intellectual agenda, would indeed seem beneficial.
In a much-discussed column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “No DH, No Interview,” William Pannapacker reflects on the digital humanities after having participated in the 2012 Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria. The Summer Institute is a largely practice-focused activity with a long tradition in the field. The column’s title refers to Pannapacker’s tweet on considering digital humanities competence as a requirement for any humanities job. He juxtaposes digital humanities and critical theory and refers to the keynote speech at the Institute, which was delivered by Laura Mandell, director of the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture at Texas A&M University:
Mandell said DH is partly a turn against the dominance of critical theory, which she called “a PR failure and an intellectual failure: an excessive and unexamined lock-step discipline.” DH provides a rigorous alternative to the seemingly exhausted scholarly approaches of the previous generation. Moreover, DH is a culture of building projects that serve a wide audience rather than—to paraphrase Mandell—engage in knee-jerk denunciations of capitalism while depending on its dwindling largess for our employment.8
Like Prescott, Mandell had recently been appointed, and she, too, was speaking in the summer of 2012. However, their positions differ markedly. While Mandell describes digital humanities as a reaction to critical theory, Prescott suggests that the digital humanities can learn from established disciplines such as media studies. According to Pannapacker, Mandell points to the importance of building and creating accessible projects, while Prescott problematizes a project-based tradition and suggests that the field needs to become more experimental. Although their statements and this comparison may make the differences seem larger than they actually are, they are still two very different visions of the future of the field and specific institutions.
Pannapacker notes the discouraging comments from digital humanists in relation to his tweet about a digital humanities requirement outside of digital humanities programs proper. And he agrees that a core digital humanities requirement may be problematic. This is essentially a question of inclusion and exclusion. What are the boundaries of the field? This question is also evident in Pannapacker’s discussion of young scholars coming to the digital humanities because there may be a better job market here than in other parts of the humanities:
So even though I’ve been excited about the digital humanities since my first visit to the summer institute, I want to urge job candidates: Don’t become a DH’er out of fear that you won’t get a position if you don’t. You may not get a job if you do. There are already many outstanding people in the field, with publications and good postdocs, who are not permanently employed, and the rapidly growing number of DH’ers seems likely to exceed the number of available positions in the foreseeable future.9
On one level, this might seem like sensible advice: do not get into the digital humanities without a keen interest in the field. However, this piece of advice has an unfortunate exclusionary and gatekeeping sentiment. Pannapacker presents both the humanities and the digital humanities as uniform entities, but there is no single type of digital humanist, and not everyone will be equally attractive on the job market. Hence, it is impossible to know whether a junior or incoming scholar with a specific set of qualifications and skills will be competitive. Prescott and his department, for example, might be interested in recruiting outside the traditional field to move in the direction he suggests. It also seems somewhat simplistic to assume that people would change fields or choose a field only based on a projected job market. And if they do, we should probably not be moralistic about it. Whether they come for job opportunities or for other reasons, the result is an influx of potentially interesting scholars.
Most problematic, however, is the protective and conservative stance implied in statements of this kind. Pannapacker is essentially saying that there are already many good (“outstanding”) and deserving people in the digital humanities, and until they have permanent employment, newcomers are not welcome. Pannapacker also indirectly advocates for a closed-off type of digital humanities, since newcomers are likely to come from outside the established community. This type of gatekeeping would seem incompatible with the vision of digital humanities as an inclusive field under competitive pressure.
The Back Story: Humanities Computing
Gatekeeping is related to the history of the field and multiple traditions at play. In particular, the tradition of humanities computing has been quite influential in shaping and influencing contemporary digital humanities. This is a question not just of historical traces but also of the texture and genealogy of contemporary digital humanities. Big digital humanities depends on incorporating many different epistemic traditions and positions, a process that requires discussing the particulars of such traditions.
Moreover, history repeats itself: the current discussion of digital humanities as a field is not at all new. Under the name humanities computing, the field was negotiated and partly institutionalized, as is evidenced by the description of a 1999 panel organized by the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH):
Empirically, humanities computing is easily recognized as a particular academic domain and community. We have our professional organizations, regular conferences, journals, and a number of centers, departments, and other organizational units. A sense for the substance of the field is also fairly easy to come by: one can examine the proceedings of ACH/ALLC conferences, issues of CHum and JALLC, the discussions on HUMANIST, the contents of many books and anthologies which represent themselves as presenting work in humanities computing, and the academic curricula and research programs at humanities computing centers and departments. From such an exercise one easily gets a rough and ready sense of what we are about, and considerable reassurance, if any is needed, that indeed, there is something which we are about.10
The listed achievements are those typically associated with the establishment of a new discipline.11 The final sentence could be read as both asserting communal identity and indicating that an undisputed sense of the practice of humanities computing did not necessarily exist. In other words, humanities computing was never a fully homogenous enterprise, although the discourse surrounding the field may give such an impression. Communal identity is an important factor and is built over time. The foundational narrative of humanities computing is based largely on Father Roberto Busa and work going back to the 1940s:
During World War II, between 1941 and 1946, I began to look for machines for the automation of the linguistic analysis of written texts. I found them, in 1949, at IBM in New York City.12
In her classic study of the printing press, Elizabeth Eisenstein demonstrates that a major change that is often perceived as a technological shift depends on a set of complex circumstances.13 Similarly, much is left out of the standard narrative of the emergence of the digital humanities, although a growing scholarship exists on this matter. Julianne Nyhan points to the role of the operation associated with Busa’s collaboration with IBM, including the punch card operators, most of whom were female.14 Steven Jones addresses the complexities of Busa’s project (and the digital humanities) evident in the coming together of academic and corporate cultures and in the change of technological conditions and platforms over the span of the project.15
This foundational story establishes two important epistemic commitments of humanities computing: the role of information technology as a tool, and written texts as the primary dataset within the framework of linguistic analysis. The automation also required systematic management of materials, pointing to the long-standing interest in the marking-up of materials and methodology as an organizing principle. Such commitments contribute to framing what are legitimate types of questions and study objects for the field and how work and relevant institutions are organized.
This heritage is evident in the programs of the annual Digital Humanities Conferences. An earlier study shows that the conferences were dominated by workshops and papers on textual analysis, methodology, tagging, and tools.16 A simple frequency analysis of conferences based on titles of papers and sessions from 1996 to 2004 showed that frequent content words included text (56, total number 1996–2004), electronic (53), language (30), markup (28), encoding (27), TEI (23), corpus (22), authorship (18), XML (18), database (13), and multimedia (11). A follow-up investigation of the programs of the 2011–12 conferences largely confirmed this pattern, although only a fairly small amount of material is analyzed. The most common content words are text (23), tool (17), project (15), language (14), and edition (12).17 A decrease in references to tagging and markup may be occurring, however, since the 2011–12 material contains only a few uses of markup (5), TEI (4), encoding (3), and XML (1). It may be that this activity has partly moved to more specialized contexts and venues.
Scholarly journals play an important role in establishing a field or discipline, and the journal Computers and the Humanities was started in 1966. Early issues were not as textually oriented as might have been assumed, featuring articles such as, “PL/I: A Programming Language for Humanities Research,” “Art, Art History, and the Computer,” and “Musicology and the Computer in New Orleans” (all from 1966–67). The journal seems to have become more textual over time, but the sample from 1966–77 certainly invokes a big-tent notion of the field.18
Another significant journal, Literary and Linguistic Computing (LLC), has from its inception focused on textual and text-based literary analysis, as would be expected from its title. It was established in 1986 by the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC). In 2008, the publication’s name was changed to LLC: The Journal of Digital Scholarship in the Humanities; since the beginning of 2015, the journal has been known as Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (DSH).
This journal has clearly played an important role in establishing the field of humanities computing, not only by offering a publication venue, institutional structure, and academic exchange but also by publishing reflective articles on the role, organization, and future of humanities computing. The journal has been used to define the digital humanities in calls for the Digital Humanities Conference, thus in a sense transferring the epistemic culture of the journal and associated field to the “new” field. LLC/DSH has a partnership with the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), meaning that subscribers to the journal are ADHO members. So there is a strong economic-administrative rationale for the institutional place for this journal.
LLC remained very text-oriented, and the editors were impressively resilient. In a 2008 report to the ADHO, ALLC, and ACH, editor Marilyn Deegan wrote, “We do tend to focus on text primarily, we don’t publish too much on music, art, archaeology, or even history.”19 However, the equivalent document from 2012 suggests a more open focus, with a stronger commitment to the total field of digital humanities and interdisciplinary work across the humanities as well as a note that the main focus will “reside with the textual, visual, artefactual, and performative disciplines.”20 The initial position of text is not surprising, and this focus can be exemplified by four articles listed on the journal’s website on September 8, 2013. They deal with log-normal distributions of shot lengths in films, language and gender in congressional speech, a word sense disambiguation system, and a review of a book that makes use of word frequency and distribution data for work in social psychology.21 The article on filmshot length is the only one that does not focus on textual analysis, but it uses some of the methods and discourse of such articles.
While DSH, with its central role for ADHO, remains fairly traditional and text-centered, the development of Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ) is one of the best examples of institutional digital humanities successfully adapting to an expanding and different digital humanities. DHQ is an open-access journal also supported by ADHO, but with a freer role and not as institutionally laden. It started out with a strong engagement with the tradition of humanities computing,22 and has retained that focus while expanding the territory of the journal significantly. This has partly been done through special issues curated by scholars in the field. Examples include “The Literary” (2013), Feminisms in Digital Humanities (2015), and “Comics as Scholarship” (2015). Early ambitions included becoming an experimental publishing platform, but it seems that the journal has found a place through maintaining a relatively traditional online journal format and building strong academic credentials while also slowly and naturally engaging with new perspectives in the field.
While journals, conferences, and academic associations play an important role in creating and maintaining an academic field and community, another important factor is the ways in which a field has been organized and institutionalized in academe. In the case of humanities computing, this long and partly uncertain process has clearly shaped the field. The most common institutional configuration has been different kinds of centers, which are often institutionally different and in some cases unstable, leading to recurring challenges regarding questions of tenure, career pathways for experts, and evaluation of alternative types of scholarship. Stephen Ramsay usefully illustrates the issues when he says that for most of the history of humanities computing and digital humanities, there has been “an incredible amount of anxiety over whether our activities would be accepted in academia.”23 And in terms of institutional anxiety and institutional pressures, many centers have struggled to survive.
Some of these centers, however, have existed for a comparatively long time. They tend to have an acronym, physical premises, a fairly inclusive mission (not just one specialty area), an infrastructural function, resource personnel, and a range of programming activities. The activities vary but often include seminars, fellowship programs, and ways of initiating new projects and external applications. Examples include the Center for Computing in the Humanities at the University of Toronto (started in 1986), the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College (1991), the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia (1992), and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland (1999). An earlier and more computationally focused institution is the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at the University of Cambridge (1963).
Several of the principal institutions for contemporary digital humanities thus come from a humanities computing tradition. They are not the same, of course, but the historical trajectory is highly relevant, not least because many key people in digital humanities come from this tradition.
Interlude 3: Academic Road Trips and Textured Visitors
There are many ways of finding out about the emergence of a field and how work can be done in between the humanities and the digital. This chapter employs several strategies, including tracing historical materials, looking at ways of categorizing the field, and analyzing epistemic commitments. Another, more personal approach that I have developed over the past fifteen years has been to connect with people by visiting different types of digital humanities institutions and having visitors to HUMlab.
While road trips and visits can be seen as a personal approach, they have also represented in part an institutional engagement. When HUMlab was started, connections with milieus such as the Santa Fe Institute and ACTlab at the University of Texas were important. Sensibilities from these and other environments became part of our operation, and people from these and other institutes came to visit us in Umeå. This exchange is neither surprising nor unique—it is how these things often work when institutions have the resources to pay for travel and invite guests (a privileged position). For an intersectional field, the number of possible visitors and places to visit is larger than for a discipline, and territorial demarcation somehow becomes more difficult to uphold at the level of individuals and specific initiatives.
In October 2012, HUMlab’s visitors included Molly Wright Steenson, an architecture historian and IT entrepreneur; Fred Turner, a communication studies scholar; Jake Coolidge and Ryan Heuser from the Center for Spatial and Literary Analysis at Stanford University; Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic; Jennifer Brook, the experience designer responsible for the New York Times iPad app; and Gethin Rees from the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies at the University of Cambridge.
This may seem like a rather esoteric collection of people, but they can also be seen as part of the digital humanities. Turner’s work on the history of American multimedia is highly relevant to the field, and he did a multiple-screen installation in the lab during his visit. Sarkeesian’s online videos on popular culture and gender can certainly inform all of us about digital media, gender, and how academia can use digital media to reach beyond the university. Her talk was attended by 140 people, and while Coolidge and Heuser’s workshops on spatial history and network analysis attracted smaller crowds, they were productive and exciting events. The tweets during Brook’s workshop on prototyping for touch demonstrated how humanistic researchers, design students, and people from industry all found the exchange productive. If we see the digital humanities as a meeting place, such perspectives are part and parcel of the development of the field, even though the individuals themselves may not necessarily be seen as digital humanists.
In any case, they will certainly be involved in shaping and developing HUMlab, and I hope that they, too, have benefited from the exchange. We increasingly bring them back into the physical space through distributed means, such as Skype in full-screen mode. I like to think of guests leaving imprints in the lab and becoming part of the texture of the lab. The process works differently with different people, of course, but there really is something to the strong connection that even short-term visits build. I have also learned that showing interest in people and their work makes them likely to want to meet me, and by visiting them, I also get to see specific milieus and the modes of interaction supported by these environments. One way of building the digital humanities is to meet interesting people, see how different institutions work, and learn from others. Genuine interest in people, ideas, and meetings manifested over time is not only a good strategy but more importantly a sensible idea.
Learning how to cast a wide net takes time and openness. For example, it is often safer to go for established scholars and experts than junior people. Giving opportunities to upcoming talents is critical and good both for the individuals and the inviting institution. HUMlab has been good at supporting junior-level contributors over the years. The opening keynote speaker for one of our first large events in HUMlab (in 2005) was an MIT MA student, Ravi Purushotma. HUMlab has also always had a fairly even distribution between male and female invitees (looking at major events organized 2010–2015, the distribution is even). Beyond metrics, one learning experience for me was to negotiate single-sex events, which to me did not easily fit with the basic idea of the lab as an open meeting place. I remember how a discussion with the organizers of the Eclectic Tech Carnival (2009) made it clear why single-sex events can make sense. The organizers explained their experience of gendered roles in participating in technology-rich learning situations, which made me see the event in a different way. The event was successfully carried out the way it has been planned by the organizers, although the lab was not closed to male (nonparticipating) users during the event. This experience made me better understand how the idea of openness can sometimes conceal layered power structures and also made me appreciate the value of running an institution where rules can be bent.
HUMlab has favored Anglo-American and, to some degree, European participation in terms of geographical distribution. HUMlab is not an exception in this respect, but there is room for development and I am glad to see a clear change toward more diversity over the last couple of years. For me personally it continues to be a learning experience to understand what deep inclusivity and diversity can be in the context of digital humanities.
Scholarly Associations and the Digital Humanities
While academic road trips may be useful, we could not do without more formal networking possibilities offered by conferences and organized networks. Here academic associations often play an important role, for the digital humanities as well as for other disciplines. Discussing some of the field’s major associations helps explain the development of the field as well as some of the tensions and possible directions associated with the digital humanities.
The primary scholarly association for the digital humanities is the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), an international umbrella organization founded in 2005. The ADHO and its constituent organizations control the annual Digital Humanities Conferences as well as journals such as Digital Humanities Quarterly. The organization also represents the digital humanities in different contexts. In other words, ADHO is a very powerful player in the institutional life of the digital humanities.
According to the ADHO’s website,
Members in ADHO societies are those at the forefront of areas such as textual analysis, electronic publication, document encoding, textual studies and theory, new media studies and multimedia, digital libraries, applied augmented reality, interactive gaming, and beyond. We are researchers and lecturers in humanities computing and in academic departments such as English, History, French, Modern Languages, Philosophy, Theatre, Music, Computer Science, and Visual Arts. We are resource specialists working in libraries, archival centres, and with humanities computing groups. We are academic administrators, and members of the private and public sectors. We are independent scholars, students, graduate students, and research assistants. We are from countries in every hemisphere.24
The ADHO is describing the members of their societies and their work rather than the digital humanities. The distinction may seem slight, since the ADHO is so significant in the digital humanities, but is nevertheless quite significant. The ADHO organizes three societies that form a very important part of the tradition of humanities computing and consequently present-day digital humanities: the European Association for Digital Humanities (EADH), the ACH, and the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities. It also organizes three newer organizations: centerNet, the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities, and the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities. This does not mean, however, that the ADHO represents the digital humanities in its entirety.
The ADHO sees itself as having a constituency with considerable range and breadth and offers worthwhile inclusive rhetoric. If the ordering of items in such lists carries significance, which seems likely, text analytical work (textual analysis, electronic publishing, and document encoding) seems most prominent. The same is true of the disciplines listed first, including English, history, and modern languages. This pattern partly reflects a historical development—these areas and disciplines have been important in building the field of humanities computing and digital humanities—but it also reflects the type of digital humanities represented by the ADHO. However, the ADHO must work with its constituent organizations, and multiple positions exist within the community, including that of a more traditional flavor of humanities computing. The ADHO uses the term humanities computing, which is largely an older moniker replaced by digital humanities, in the phrase humanities computing groups. It is very unlikely that newcomers to the digital humanities would use this term; indeed, many may not even know it.
Of course, the ADHO is not the only scholarly association relevant to the digital humanities. Disciplinary organizations such as the American Historical Association and the MLA also have a considerable digital engagement. This engagement, however, is typically not their core mission. Other organizations, such as the Humanities Arts Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), sit closer to the intersection of technology and the humanities. HASTAC’s website asks,
What would our research, technology design, and thinking look like if we took seriously the momentous opportunities and challenges for learning posed by our digital era? What happens when we stop privileging traditional ways of organizing knowledge (by fields, disciplines, and majors or minors) and turn attention instead to alternative modes of creating, innovating, and critiquing that better address the interconnected, interactive global nature of knowledge today, both in the classroom and beyond?25
The ADHO and HASTAC text excerpts are not quite comparable, and they clearly reflect rather different starting points. The HASTAC description largely operates on a strategic level, and it features a transformative sentiment that is not very prevalent in most descriptions associated with the ADHO. In some ways, HASTAC represents big-tent digital humanities without the sharpness of trying to define a field or a territory. Technology receives considerable agency, and to some degree, HASTAC sets out to reform the academy using the digital as a lever. The ADHO also operates on a strategic level but resists the large-scale revolutionary sentiment often present in texts about HASTAC.26
Despite attempts to become more international, both the ADHO and HASTAC are fairly restricted in this sense. HASTAC is predominantly an American organization, and ADHO has historically been primarily based in the United States and Europe, although it has international ambitions. Both organizations have become more active globally over the last couple of years. More generally, the digital humanities is an Anglo-American endeavor, not only in terms of current discourse on the field but also in terms of Anglo-American models serving as a template for international ambitions and initiatives.27 Here, I focus to a large extent on developments in America and Europe, partly as a result of the field’s history and contemporary configuration. In addition, we need to be aware that humanities computing is not the only tradition or genealogy relevant to the digital humanities.
Two comments from a 2013 online discussion illustrate how the past and present of the digital humanities connect. David Golumbia published a blog entry on defining the digital humanities.28 The associated discussion related to the term digital humanities and the development of the field. Ramsay claimed that the term came about as a way of trying to distinguish digital humanities from other fields such as game studies, media studies, and hypertext theory but became more attractive than the names of those fields.29 Ramsay’s statements essentially resist a broadly conceived digital humanities:
So, yes: we’re all stuck with it now. it would be nice, though, to go back to a term that actually makes a useful distinction between, say, media studies and the-activity-formally-known-as-humanities-computing. because there *is* a distinction there, and in my opinion, it’s a very useful one.30
Whether he also favors recalibrating the digital humanities as humanities computing is not clear from this comment, but it is certainly a possibility. Another commentator, Alex Reid, points out that other traditions go back in time:
The association of “big tent” dh with “newcomers” is one of these points of contention for me. as a digital rhetorician coming out of a field of computers and writing that is several decades old (and having been in the field for nearly two decades myself), i don’t view myself as a newcomer to doing digital work in the humanities. at the same time, i’m not doing the same kind of work as the once-and-future humanities computing folks. i don’t know that we need to be grouped under a single tent. my only complaint is that when humanities computing adopted the digital humanities name, they implied, intentionally or not, that their work encompassed the entirety of digital work being done in the humanities. now we are all stuck with the term. i don’t think of myself as a digital humanist, but when others outside of humanities computing hear what i do they identify me as a digital humanist. when i want to convince my dean and provost to support the kind of work i do, they will be viewing me as a digital humanist.31
Reid presumably does not share most of the epistemic commitments of humanities computing. Since humanities computing can be seen as making up the principal epistemic tradition of digital humanities, Reid is thus an outsider because he does not identify with this tradition, although he does not consider himself a newcomer because he has done this kind of work for a long time. He is also an outsider because he does not want to be grouped with the newcomers. And despite his discomfort with being identified as a digital humanist, outsiders—and his dean and provost—will identify him as such. It seems likely that Reid would capitulate and use the term about his work to align with the leadership of his school or with funding agencies. Reid’s and Ramsay’s comments distinguish between identity and practice, a point that Reid specifically makes. His practice places him within the digital humanities, but he does not identify with the field. Ramsay clearly identifies with the field but not necessarily with its current practice and direction.
Typologies of the Digital Humanities
One way of closing in on some of these tensions and on the digital humanities as a field is to describe it in terms of its history and evolution. A number of attempts—many of them fairly cursory—have been made to identify evolutionary stages, waves, or types of the digital humanities. Kirsch’s distinction between maximalist and minimalist versions of the digital humanities (chapter 1) exemplifies a simple typology. It is useful in that it points to the difference between a strong investment in technology used for traditional scholarly work and a wish to change the humanities at its core. Nevertheless, it lacks nuance in tracing these traditions and overlapping layers, and the dogmatic nature of the typology lessens its usefulness. However, if successful, typologies add a systemic and historical sensibility to the analysis, help us understand why we are where we are, and can support us in thinking about the future of the field. Different typologies can also be contrasted, discussed, and critiqued in relation to each other. They manifest different disciplinary positions and can hence be used as a lens on the landscape of digital humanities.
Such models typically presuppose a direction of change and a moving from one stage to another, often toward something stronger and more evolved. This trajectory will differ depending on where one originates and one’s basic perspective. It is part of the epistemic texture of specific positions and can sometimes be fairly subtle. For example, in a general discussion of the digital humanities, Katherine Hayles writes, “I posit the Digital Humanities as a diverse field of practices associated with computational techniques and reaching beyond print in its modes of inquiry, research, publication, and dissemination.”32 Hayles essentially advocates an inclusive notion of the field, but the trajectory she posits foregrounds “print-based” disciplines. The enterprise of moving beyond print is relevant to all of the humanities but is by far most relevant and far-reaching in relation to disciplines such as comparative literature and English. Here, print is clearly integral to what is being studied. Hayles may privilege these disciplines in the sense that she believes they have a fuller engagement with the digital framed in relation to a print tradition. The computational techniques to which she refers are presumably more general, but they arguably are less deep and diverse.
Hayles suggests a model of the digital humanities according to which some of the humanities engage on the level of text encoding, digital editions, 3-D models, archives, and spatial representations but where other parts of the humanities have a more extensive engagement. She singles out electronic literature and digital art in this respect because they have a “vibrant conversation between scholarly and creative work . . . that draws on or remediates humanities traditions.”33 This example shows some of the complexity at play here. From the point of view of another epistemic position, disciplines such as linguistics, architecture, and archeology have or could have a similarly rich engagement with the digital and could certainly host vibrant conversations. This engagement, however, might not be as fundamentally based on the notion of moving beyond print.
A somewhat similar trajectory can be found in Burdick et al.’s Digital_Humanities (2012). The book sketches computational developments beginning with World War II, and the narrative uses the past to emphasize how “the digital revolution entered a new phase” and how there are now “transformed possibilities.”34 At the same time, contingency across traditions is acknowledged:
Building on the first generation of computational humanities work, more recent Digital Humanities activity seeks to revitalize liberal arts traditions in the electronically inflected language of the 21st century: a language in which, uprooted from its longstanding paper support, text is increasingly wedded to still and moving images as well as to sound, and supports have become increasingly mobile, open, and extensible.35
Just like Hayles, the authors refer to print culture, although they have a stronger focus on text rather than on print. This difference is significant: Hayles maintains a stronger link to print culture through using it as a distinct frame of reference. The authors of Digital_Humanities argue in favor of a less text-centered trajectory:
And the notion of the primacy of text itself is being challenged. Whereas the initial waves of computational humanities concentrated on everything from word frequency studies and textual analysis (classification systems, mark-up, encoding) to hypertext editing and textual database construction, contemporary Digital Humanities marks a move beyond a privileging of the textual, emphasizing graphical methods of knowledge production and organization, design as an integral component of research, transmedia crisscrossings, and an expanded concept of the sensorium of humanistic knowledge.36
The difference in these perspectives partly comes from the different disciplinary contexts of the writers. Hayles comes from English as a discipline, whereas the authors of Digital_Humanities are more strongly situated in design, aesthetics, curatorial work, and information studies. This orientation helps to explain Digital_Humanities’s considerably stronger emphasis on design and the visual, not only as a part of the text but as a distinct category different from text.
In 2009, Tara McPherson suggested a typology that also emphasizes production and design. She distinguishes among the computing humanities, blogging humanities, and multimodal humanities.37 According to McPherson, the computing humanities focuses on building tools, infrastructure, standards, and collections, whereas the blogging humanities is concerned with the production of networked media and peer-to-peer writing. The multimodal humanities brings together scholarly tools, databases, networked writing, and peer-to-peer commentary while leveraging the potential of the visual and aural media that are part of contemporary life. McPherson’s base in media and cinema studies provides a frame for this typology: media studies has not traditionally engaged with the production of multimodal expressions.
When Cathy Davidson identifies two phases of digital humanities as Humanities 1.0 and Humanities 2.0, her reference point is not so much her own discipline, English, but rather the humanities at large and higher education policy. More specifically, she is concerned that the humanities has lost its intellectual centrality at a time when it is dearly needed. This is reflected in her description of the development of Humanities 2.0 (or digital humanities): “Humanities 2.0 is distinguished from monumental, first-generation, data-based projects not just by its interactivity but also by openness about participation grounded in a different set of theoretical premises, which decenter knowledge and authority.”38 Davidson presents a well-articulated vision for the humanities where technology is a key participant in the decentering of authorship, credentialing practices, reward systems, interdisciplinarity, and collaboration. The argument extends far beyond technology and basically concerns the situation and future for the humanities more generally:
In a time of paradigm shifts, moral and political treachery, historical amnesia, and psychic and spiritual turmoil, humanistic issues are central—if only funding agencies, media interests, and we humanists ourselves will recognize the momentousness of this era for our discipline and take seriously the need for our intellectual centrality.39
All of these typologies feature a general sense of the necessity of change, not just about a forward-looking variety of the digital humanities but also about the future of the humanities and the academy. At the same time, the typologies reflect particular disciplinary or academic positions. There is a sense of clear forward trajectory, and there is a risk that this trajectory conflates different epistemic traditions and goals. One particular risk is that the value of the work and epistemic tradition associated with humanities computing is downplayed because it represents an earlier iteration of the field. For example, Davidson implicitly seems to assume that Humanities 1.0 did not decenter knowledge and authority. Some of these descriptions also seem to imply that humanities computing was absorbed by newer varieties of digital humanities, which is simply not the case. For example, the tools used by the computing humanists described by McPherson are likely to different substantially from most of the tools used by multimodal humanists. And the description of Humanities 2.0 may not converge with how most members in the digital humanities community think of the future of the field.
Yet another typology more clearly addresses this issue from the point of view of the tradition of humanities computing. Ramsay proposes a division between Type I and Type II digital humanities (DH). The first category largely refers to what used to be called “humanities computing” and has been quite important in shaping present-day digital humanities. The ALLC and other organizations have played a significant role in the development of this community, and as Ramsay points out, a set of practices, including text encoding and historical GIS, is associated with humanities computing. Type II digital humanities emerged sometime after 2000 not as a community label but as a signifier both for “a very broad constellation of scholarly endeavors, and for a certain revolutionary disposition that had overtaken the academy.” Ramsay argues that since this split, an ideological war has taken place between the two types.40
Ramsay’s stance is problematic in several ways (although also usefully provocative). It seems like an attempt at turning back the clock to a time when humanities computing was digital humanities and claiming that everything outside of the communal effort of humanities computing can be separated into a type of its own. It also overlooks the fact that digital humanities as we see it today is largely a product of the humanities computing community and that the recent discussion of gender and ethnicity in relation to the field is relevant (because it is mainly driven by people outside Type I DH). Furthermore, digital humanities’ current traction partly comes from a broader and more inclusive notion of the field as well as a revolutionary sentiment. Nevertheless, Ramsay’s typology is helpful because it describes a very real set of tensions in the field and takes seriously the humanities computing community. It also usefully problematizes the evolutionary trajectory suggested by the other typologies presented in this section.
These typologies demonstrate the existence of a complex landscape with several concurrent epistemic traditions, associated visions, and possible trajectories. This is exactly the type of complexity that could feed fruitfully into the digital humanities as a meeting place. The challenge for big digital humanities lies not in negotiating the range of traditions or perspectives or replacing one tradition with another but rather in creating conditions for dialogue and change across traditions and perspectives that will enable rich and engaging work. This, in turn, requires a good sense of the history and development of the field.
Appropriating the Digital Humanities
The term humanities computing has been a strong common denominator for much of the work and community described here. In Humanities Computing, Willard McCarty describes the development of the field in relation to key mileposts: from “when the relationship was desired but largely unrealized” (computers and the humanities) via “once entry has been gained” (computing in the humanities) to “confident but enigmatic” (humanities computing).41 In this 2005 book, the term digital humanities is not used once. According to Edward Vanhoutte, one of the first mentions of humanities computing in this sense was in 1966.42 Since the publication of McCarty’s book in 2005, however, humanities computing has gradually disappeared as an institutional label and been replaced by digital humanities.
Ten years after the publication of Humanities Computing, McCarty uses his own book and the Blackwell Companion to the Digital Humanities (2004) to describe the point at which the discipline of digital humanities (using that term) became self-aware.43 While these works are important, they are still very much set in the tradition of humanities computing, and I argue that the most important factor here is how the adaption of the term digital humanities (in its social and institutional context) eventually opened up a new, epistemically more diverse space for renegotiating the field. This negotiation, which is still going on, has been characterized by significant external and internal pressure, and also by resistance to change. Leadership-level strategic work in the humanities computing community led to the introduction of the new name (and implicitly, new territory) in the mid-2000s, but the thinking was still strongly embedded in the epistemic tradition of humanities computing.
This change can thus be read as humanities computing strategically and rhetorically shifting to the term digital humanities. Matthew Kirschenbaum explains the backstory via conversations with a few key people. For example, according to John Unsworth, the term came from 2001 discussions about what to title the book that eventually became A Companion to Digital Humanities. The publisher, Blackwell, pressured the authors not to use humanities computing. Similarly, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) opted for digital humanities when starting a new initiative in 2006. According to the agency’s Brett Bobley, digital humanities was chosen partly because it “cast a wider net than ‘humanities computing’” and because it came with “a form of humanism” that would make it easier to sell to the humanities community.44 This means that it is simply wrong to claim, as Ramsay does, that the change in scope was “completely unintentional” and that “they were trying to come up with a name to describe a particular community of practitioners of the sort exemplified in the first Blackwell companion.”45
Much of the current tension in the digital humanities comes from precisely this development. Some members of the community may have seen the shift in terminology as merely a change in name, but others certainly offered resistance since a great deal of identity had come to be associated with the term humanities computing. As Ramsay wrote, humanities computing is “the community that I’ve identified with throughout my entire career.”46 Community members had worked hard to develop their practice, identity, and position, and many saw increased leverage as a continuation of and reward for that work. Bobley’s rationale, however, has a very different flavor, and the change came not solely from the NEH or Blackwell but from part of the humanities computing leadership. A small group of people from the humanities computing organizations were intimately involved in these processes. In this context, then, the change in name is not just about names but about indicating a larger scope for the field. Such change clearly comes with additional responsibilities. Indeed, the NEH could probably not have created an office for something framed as humanities computing was regardless of the name used. The name change signaled a major development in the field’s direction; it was much more than a matter of cosmetics.
Kirschenbaum also retells an earlier part of the backstory involving the creation of the ADHO. John Unsworth and Harold Short came up with the idea in the summer of 2002, although the organization was not created until 2005. On August 16, 2002, John Unsworth got the ball rolling when he sent a message to an e-mail list for the Allied Digital Humanities Organizations Committee. The process was not entirely smooth, although most of the participants were key members in existing associations and presumably agreed with the basic idea of a creating a consortium. Issues raised at the time included governance, the naming of the organization, the naming of the conference, a time frame, and voting arrangements. And despite a discussion of a number of different monikers for the organization, the name selected, the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, was very close to the committee’s original name, the Allied Digital Humanities Organizations Committee.47
An example of the spread of the new term digital humanities is the change in name of the annual conference, which beginning in 1989 was run by the ALLC and the ACH. Previously known as the joint International Conference of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing and the Association for Computers and the Humanities, the gathering was renamed the Digital Humanities Conference in 2006. We also started to see new book series such as Topics in Digital Humanities (University of Illinois Press), websites such as www.digitalhumanities.org, and a range of other digital-humanities-labeled initiatives. The Canadian-based Consortium for Computers in the Humanities was renamed to the Society for Digital Humanities. The name digital humanities had certainly been used before—at the University of Virginia, among other places—but it came to be employed more broadly and in more official and premeditated contexts. The launch of the NEH’s Initiative for Digital Humanities provided a very significant indicator of the spread of the term, and this significance was reinforced when the NEH established the Office of Digital Humanities in 2008.
The relative slowness of the process is also supported through data from the long-standing e-mail list Humanist. Here humanities computing remained more common than digital humanities as late as 2006–7.48 The retained and frequent use of the older term points to a discrepancy between the across-the-board institutional renaming of the field and the community’s use of the term. One of the members of the Allied Digital Humanities Organizations Committee was outspoken about her concerns about digital humanities as late as in April 2005:
First of all, what does “digital humanities” mean? Does it mean that we are only concerned with those aspects of humanities that already are digital? whatever they are. Or isn’t it the case that we are interested in any humanities and how computing can enhance the understanding of humanities?49
This phenomenon clearly represents something more than just a name change or a simple repackaging of the field. As Kirschenbaum commented in 2011, the idea that digital humanities includes all people in the humanities doing digital work is true semantically and tautologically but not socially, materially, historically, or institutionally.50 Kirschenbaum’s response may be understood in relation to the nominal and conceptual move from humanities computing to digital humanities.
The renaming work continues: in 2012, the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing became ALLC: The European Association for Digital Humanities.51 As with the journal’s name, LLC, the acronym initially was kept as a connection to the organization’s past,52 although it now seems largely to have been dropped. According to the EADH website,
As the range of available and relevant computing techniques in the humanities increased, the interests of the association’s members have broadened substantially and encompass not only text analysis and language corpora, but also history, art history, music, manuscript studies, image processing and electronic editions. The association’s new name, which was adopted in 2012, reflects this signiﬁcant widening of scope. Today the EADH’s mission is to represent European Digital Humanities across all disciplines.53
The name change is linked to a change of scope, although the list of new areas (such as manuscript studies) does not seem inclusive in any new or radical way. The reference to European digital humanities emphasizes the regional aspect of EADH and is part of the far-reaching regionalization of the ADHO associations. This development could be read as dividing up the world between different digital humanities organizations under the ADHO umbrella. The ALLC came into existence after two conferences in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s, and the organization definitely possesses European core,54 but participants also came from other parts of the world, and the subsequent conference series alternated between Europe and the United States. In fact, in 2014, a significant number of the EADH members came from the United States,55 which means that the link to Europe is not quite as strong as the group’s name may indicate. However, a regionalized logic makes it easier to include national charters. At a 2011 ALLC meeting, Vanhoutte said that “if people want to make their own organizations, let them do so. And if they succeed, the ALLC has failed.”56 This is undoubtedly a territorial stance.
Creating the Digital Humanities
A number of strategic choices played a role in creating digital humanities as an institutional construct. The use of digital humanities is thus not just a question of marketing and renaming the field but also a conscious institutional move and a kind of flocking behavior as the field has gained momentum. The editors of the Blackwell volume were not just any digital humanists: they have held a number of key positions in different humanities computing and digital humanities organizations and thus wield considerable strategic power and leverage. For example, two of the editors have chaired the ADHO Steering Committee.
Domenico Fiormonte has researched the overlapping involvement of certain people in the organizational construct of digital humanities.57 Some key scholars hold as many as five committee and board appointments. Melissa Terras, for example, has appointments in the mother organization, the ADHO, as well as in two member organizations and the two main journals supported by the ADHO. Fiormonte’s data are current, but it would be quite interesting to also look at appointment patterns over time, as many of the people he lists have served on these boards and committees for a very long time. Fiormonte does not, however, clearly acknowledge that this overlapping occurs partly because the ADHO is made up of the constituent organizations, which have seats on the ADHO board and committees. Nevertheless, the distribution of power is important regardless of the exact organizational structure or history.
The clubby nature of the ADHO could be seen as an obstacle to organizational power for newcomers to the digital humanities. The only way to get on the ADHO board is through one of the constituent organizations, and the executive committees (or their equivalents) of those organizations proposes board members.58 In other words, it is an indirect procedure. One cannot get elected to the ADHO board.
So while the field has seen considerable expansion both inside and outside the institutional umbrella of traditional digital humanities, much of the organizational anchorage is still provided by the ADHO and its member organizations. A considerable part of the digital humanities is not organized by the ADHO, however, creating tensions between the organization’s main epistemic tradition and the epistemic traditions and expectations that have entered the field since the mid-2000s. The ADHO has the opportunity to admit new blood, but doing so will require more far-reaching measures than creating a big tent through fairly small actions. For example, the board structure could be changed to provide representation for other communities.
Evidence indicates that the name change from humanities computing to digital humanities occurred from the top down and that acceptance of the new moniker did not occur quite as quickly as the organizational renamings might indicate. The community held on to humanities computing for some time. The landmark Companion to Digital Humanities contains about twice as many instances of humanities computing as digital humanities. The name that appears on the cover page does not reflect the dominant usage in the book itself. In addition, the distribution of these two terms in the volume supports the view that the old term remained more important at this time. Humanities computing predominates in the section describing the contributors, whereas digital humanities primarily appears in the introduction. The former section is a place for self-representation more likely to be controlled by the individual authors, whereas the introduction is controlled by the editors. Both sections are concerned with identity and its creation, but in different ways.
A number of processes and choices, some of them strongly driven by humanities computing leaders, led to a markedly changed situation just a few years later. Each of these steps alone may not seem dramatic, but together they contributed to a new landscape. The fact that observers believed that a title without humanities computing for the Blackwell volume might increase readership is significant. Similarly, while the NEH’s decision to start a new initiative for the digital humanities constituted a great step forward for the humanities computing community, the case that had to be made within the agency was one for the humanities rather than for a particular community. The resultant office predictably did not fully map the interests of the humanities computing community. The establishment of funding agency structures helped increase interest among university leaders, which strengthened the field in some ways but also meant that the digital humanities was being negotiated and renegotiated. An influx of new community members occurred, some from traditions and disciplines other than those traditionally associated with humanities computing. These and other factors put pressure on digital humanities as humanities computing.
So while humanities computing leaders strategically appropriated digital humanities, their actions have increased the difficulty of maintaining the epistemic tradition of humanities computing in light of external pressure and the field’s much more heterogeneous configuration.
Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities
The heritage of humanities computing is quite visible throughout the organizational nomenclature of the digital humanities. For example, the EADH website states that the association seeks “to represent and bring together the Digital Humanities in Europe across the entire spectrum of disciplines that apply, develop and research digital humanities methods and technology.”59 Wikipedia states that “digital humanities embrace a variety of topics, from curating online collections to data mining large cultural data sets.”60
There is a basic assumption here that the heart of digital humanities is humanities methods and technologies rather than humanistic research challenges. This position can be traced back to the tradition of humanities computing but may not harmonize with other conceptions of the field. Although interest in these challenges may exist, they are not the entry point or what is foregrounded discursively. This section examines four primary epistemic commitments of humanities computing: the instrumental focus of the tradition, a methodological orientation, the privileging of text, and the tradition’s engagement with digitized cultural heritage as opposed to other study objects and materials. While this is partly a historical exercise, it is relevant to the future shaping of the field.
First, humanities computing as a whole maintained a very instrumental approach to technology in the humanities. In her introductory chapter to A Companion to Digital Humanities, Susan Hockey argues that this is not the place to define humanities computing: “Suffice it to say, that we are concerned with the applications of computing to research and teaching within the subjects that are loosely defined as ‘the humanities,’ or in British English, ‘the arts.’”61 Hockey’s description indicates a paradigm in which information technology is typically not seen as an object of study, or an expressive medium. Rather, technology has this basic and epistemically grounded role as a tool, and much of humanities computing involves using these tools, helping others to use them, and to some extent developing new tools and methodologies.
Many of these tools, such as concordance programs, have a rather long and distinguished history have not necessarily changed radically over time. Traditional humanities computing focused not on innovating new tools but rather on using and developing existing ones (some of them based on analog systems). In addition, a fair proportion of the development occurred on a structural or metadata level, such as text encoding and markup systems. Of course, work on this level has fundamental implications for the development and use of tools.
Text encoding is typically seen as a core element of the tradition of humanities computing. According to Koenraad de Smedt, “Text encoding seems to create the foundation for almost any use of computers in the humanities.”62 Despite the major role that text encoding and markup have played in humanities computing, limited interest seems to have existed in critical work on encoding in the sense of reflecting on the worldviews built into such classifications (relating to factors such as gender, race, power, and epistemic traditions). Martha Nell Smith makes the important point that humanities computing “seemed to offer a space free from all this messiness and a return to objective questions of representations.”63 And even with digital humanities projects that would seem to have a clear critical potential in this regard, such as the Victorian Women Writers Project, there is a tendency not to see the encoding as an interpretative or even an “inflected” mechanism.64 The goal becomes more a question of making accessible and building on the structure provided by the text encoding initiative than seeing the technological systems as critical devices. There are online “exhibitions” connected to the project that do important critical work,65 but these still mostly read as critical texts at some distance from the actual encoding and data structures.
A second epistemic commitment comes from the interest in technology and methodology in humanities computing. Observers have often pointed out that what brought together humanities computing is largely a common interest in methods, methodology, tools, and technology.66 Vanhoutte writes, “Methodology is at the basis of any transfer of knowledge about computing in the humanities, which is where Terras and McCarty locate the problem for a fruitful debate about the interdisciplinarity of the field.”67 This partly follows from the field’s instrumental orientation, and there is no reason to question the methodological commons as a valuable interdisciplinary focus and productive collaborative sentiment. However, this strong methodological focus fundamentally affected the way humanities computing operated and related to other disciplines. The most serious implication was that a predominantly methodological link to other disciplines might not integrate many of the specific issues that lie at the core of these disciplines, making it more difficult for humanities computing to reach out more broadly and intellectually to traditional humanities departments and scholars. While interest will always exist in methods and technology, the actual target group—humanities scholars with an active interest in humanities computing tools and perspectives—is relatively limited. Many scholars would like to have experts help develop databases and web interfaces, but there is a risk that such engagement will involve service and technological solutions rather than a strong intellectual-material engagement. Patrick Juola argues that digital humanities has been emerging as a discipline for decades and that there is a perceived neglect on the part of the broader humanities community. While he appreciates the work done in humanities computing, he also finds that
for the past forty years, humanities computing have more or less languished in the background of traditional scholarship. Scholars lack incentive to participate (or even to learn about) the results of humanities computing.68
Juola shows that citation scores for humanities computing journals are very low and points out that the American Ivy League universities are sparsely represented in humanities computing publications and at humanities computing conferences. The lack of citations can, however, result partly from the fact that humanities scholars who use humanities computing tools might not be inclined to cite the creators of these tools, especially if no written work on associated methodology or theories has been employed in the research. Also, the fact that Ivy League universities have generally been slow to engage with humanities computing and the digital humanities could reflect a certain level of traditionalism.
And although the methodological connection between the digital humanities and the humanities is important to the vision of the field advocated in this book, it is not as central as in humanities computing and many contemporary descriptions of the field. Big digital humanities sees methodology as an important boundary object and competence area but also emphasizes the research questions and intellectual challenges, whether or not they are strongly anchored in methodology, as a key connective core of the field.
The third epistemic commitment is the pronounced textual focus of humanities computing. Traditional text is clearly a privileged level of description and analysis. In her partly corpus-based study of humanities computing from 2006, Terras states, “Humanities Computing research is predominantly about text.”69 While this is true, interest in multimedia and nontextual material has certainly increased over the years. In addition to the textual focus, a tendency existed to handle other media in the same way as text (that is, to view them as different object types to encode) or to see them as merely subservient to text. Blackwell’s A Companion to Digital Humanities offers a rather text-focused discussion of images in relation to the history (and future) of humanities computing:
There are of course many advantages in having access to images of source material over the Web, but humanities computing practitioners, having grown used to the flexibility offered by searchable text, again tended to regard imaging projects as not really their thing, unless, like the Beowulf Project . . . , the images could be manipulated and enhanced in some way. Interesting research has been carried out on linking images to text, down to the level of the word . . . . When most of this can be done automatically we will be in a position to reconceptualize some aspects of manuscript studies.70
There is nothing wrong with a textual focus, but it affected the scope and penetration of humanities computing. Neither the visual turn nor the postvisual turn seemed to have a major impact on humanities computing, probably because little interaction occurred between these communities because of the difficulty of conceptualizing and developing tools for these kinds of frameworks. This does not mean that the visual has not been relevant to humanities computing (and the digital humanities), but the field has often had a text-centered and archival engagement with the visual rather than a theoretical and expressive engagement. A similar pattern exists with aural materials and perspectives. As we have seen, Jonathan Sterne notes the digital humanities’ limited engagement with sound and sound studies.71 In a promising development, however, the 2014 Digital Humanities Conference featured two panels on sound studies, and these connections should be thoroughly explored. Such exploration and negotiation across modalities and knowledge communities are essential to big digital humanities.
The final point relates to data and material used in humanities computing: the objects of study of humanities computing and associated disciplines. In his discussion of a methodological commons, McCarty distinguishes among four data types: text, image, number, and sound. He reduces the source materials and approaches of the disciplines to these four data types and a “finite (but not fixed) set of tools for manipulating them.” It is essentially a formal system, and McCarty adds that these tools are derived from formal methods and that their applications are governed by such methods.72 This viewpoint touches on the tendency to subscribe to formal and science-driven models of knowledge production in humanities computing (where text is the principal object of study):
Applications involving textual sources have taken center stage within the development of humanities computing as defined by its major publications and thus it is inevitable that this essay concentrates on this area. Nor is it the place here to attempt to define “interdisciplinarity,” but by its very nature, humanities computing has had to embrace “the two cultures,” to bring the rigor and systematic unambiguous procedural methodologies characteristic of the sciences to address problems within the humanities that had hitherto been most often treated in a serendipitous fashion.73
Furthermore, humanities computing was interested primarily in digitized texts (or in some cases, digitized historical sites, and so forth) and not in digitally created material such as computer games, blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook data, e-mail collections, websites, surveillance footage, YouTube films, and digital art. Most of these “objects” are studied and analyzed in different kinds of new media settings and increasingly in the digital humanities, and this is another productive intersection between the digital humanities and other fields that warrants continued exploration. However, such work—important to big digital humanities—needs to question the assumption of “systematic unambiguous procedural methodologies” as put forward by McCarty as well as the tendency of media studies to avoid deep engagements with data structures.
The organizations associated with humanities computing and these epistemic commitments play an important role in relation to an expansive notion of the digital humanities. Scholarly organizations are part of the fabric of academic life and institutional ecology, and building such organizations is part of establishing a field or discipline. Disciplines can be established without such organizations, but they tend to be an important tool for doing this type of work. They are useful because they operate on a strategic level and can represent their constituent members as well as help organize and create an identity for communities. Their role can be more administrative and organizational or more directly linked to scholarship and content. Digital humanities has coevolved with a set of scholarly organizations that have played a significant part in building the field since the early 1970s.
Members of such organizations often accept even parts of the organizational agenda that may not fully conform to their own views. For example, many ADHO members likely do not care much for the idea of digital humanities as presented through the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (formerly Linguistic and Literary Computing), but they nevertheless understand that the journal is both a historical artifact and a practical mechanism for securing and managing membership fees. Conflicts may arise between organizational-level strategies and the sentiment and views of scholars and constituent institutions. For people who want to take on a leadership role and work strategically, scholarly organizations can function as a platform. And for the discipline or area in question, that platform can be used to create legitimacy and leverage for further development and possibly expansion.
The three principal humanities computing organizations and later the ADHO have played an important role in shaping the field of digital humanities. On many levels, the ADHO has succeeded, and it reflects a fairly clear ambition to expand territorially. This is a worthwhile ambition for a scholarly society, but it makes the question of what type of digital humanities the ADHO represents even more important. If the ADHO is essentially an extension of humanities computing, the territorial ambitions would equate with spreading an updated version of humanities computing under the name digital humanities.
The ADHO originally had two member associations, the ALLC and the ACH, with what is now the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities joining in 2007. Two other, partly overlapping initiatives were involved in the early discussions: the National Initiative for Networked Cultural Heritage and the Text Encoding Initiative Consortium.74 In 2012, centerNet and the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities joined the ADHO as full constituent organizations, followed by the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities in January 2013. The change in name from the Association of Literary and Linguistic Computing to the European Association for Digital Humanities in 2012 represented another strategic move.75 Two of the three original member associations have regionalized their names, and apart from centerNet and the ACH, all organizations now have regional names. Indeed, the ADHO Admissions Protocol from 2008 requires that new constituent organizations represent “a digital humanities community that has a definable geographical scope at country level or larger.”76 The ACH’s name was discussed at the association’s June 2011 general meeting, when the executive council had recognized that the current name “may not be as expressive of contemporary digital humanities scholarship and teaching as it might be.”77 Some discussants noted the risk that the current name might keep new people away, however, meeting participants decided to retain the old name despite its anachronistic sentiment. ACH leaders, much like those of most of the other organizations, likely wanted to adapt to the new digital humanities landscape. It is noteworthy that the only ADHO organization without a regionalized “digital humanities” name has come to include more newcomers in its leadership structure. In any case, the overall regionalization of the names of the digital humanities organizations is evidence of international growth and territorial ambitions as well as of productive and legitimate efforts to strengthen the digital humanities.
One of the recently added constituent organizations, centerNet, was affiliated with the ADHO before becoming a member. CenterNet is an “international network of digital humanities centers,” leaving “the definition of ‘digital humanities’ up to you.”78 However, centerNet’s organization around the idea of centers may impose a bias. Centers have been important in the history of digital humanities and are a common structure in some parts of the world (notably North America and the United Kingdom), but they are certainly not the only possible way of implementing the digital humanities. The centerNet website mentions labs and projects, but the main rhetoric takes centers as an institutional model.79 This orientation is also clear in descriptions offered by Neil Freistat, a key person in the centerNet’s establishment, of the digital humanities, centers and centerNet. According to Freistat, centerNet’s initiatives are grounded in a “strategic vision of the place of the digital humanities center in the institutional history of the academy,” and such centers can be “invaluable community resources.”80
However, as Mark Sample pointed out in 2010, many people doing digital humanities will not have access to a center:
And fortunately too, a digital humanities center is not the digital humanities. The digital humanities—or I should say, digital humanists—are much more diverse, much more dispersed, and stunningly resourceful to boot.81
Digital humanities work can be organized in many ways, including different types of network models and collaborations. And it is not clear that digital humanities centers are optimal platforms in every way. As Diane Zorich points out the many advantages of digital humanities centers as well as potential problems, such as the risks that centers will become silos, have too many resources, become unconnected to community resources, and not be ready for resource integration across geographical, disciplinary, and departmental lines.82 A critical discussion of the built-in biases of a center model would seem to be important for an initiative such as centerNet.
Furthermore, centerNet’s placement within the ADHO carries significance. What does it mean that an international network of digital humanities centers has such a strong link to the ADHO? It is a matter of epistemic alignment, as it is probably difficult to be a constituent organization without subscribing to the umbrella group’s basic values. For example, the subscription model also applies to centerNet:
In order to preserve the “subscription” principle, centerNet has agreed that from 1 January 2012 centres wishing to join centerNet will do so on the basis of an institutional subscription to LLC [now DSH].83
It is possible to become a member without subscribing to DSH, but this membership type is also administered through Oxford University Press. The webpage that lists the benefits of centerNet membership demonstrates that the organization has a long heritage. Among the benefits listed are eligibility for participation in the Digital Humanities Conference at a discounted rate and access to the centerNet Listserv and website, and ADHO benefits include DSH; the “seminal edited collections” A Companion to Digital Humanities and A Companion to Digital Literary Studies; and “prestigious digital humanities awards.”84 These benefits possess a substantial humanities computing flavor.
Another important part of the centerNet website is a list of roughly 200 centers (as of March 2015).85 The criteria for inclusion on the list are somewhat unclear—my institution, HUMlab, appears even though it is not formally a centerNet member (to my knowledge). The list included 183 centers with geographical information, plus a few others (most of them organizations such as the ADHO based in the United States or Europe). Of those centers, 163 were located in the United States and Europe, with 10 in Australia and New Zealand. CenterNet’s model thus comes from an Anglo-American context. More generally, it seems that much of the discussion about the field starts out from a U.S. context. Andrew Prescott points to the preoccupation with tenure and securing digital outputs in discussions of the digital humanities and sees this bias as a major problem for the field:
I think this is possibly the true dark side of the Digital Humanities—that there is a risk that DH becomes one of the means by which an Anglophone globalization of world culture is implemented.86
In addition, as Domenico Fiormonte’s work details, a number of problems are associated with this kind of centrism, among them the lack of multilingualism and the built-in biases of platforms such as the Text Encoding Initiative.87 These very real concerns need to influence our thinking about the field and its future.
CenterNet is also a platform for authenticating the digital humanities and for strategically aligning with other organizations. In this way, centerNet promotes the digital humanities in different contexts. It is affiliated with the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI), which organizes humanities centers. According to the CHCI website,
The rubric “Digital Humanities” has broadened and grown substantially in recent years to encompass an ever-widening range of practices including software for textual analysis, visualization, analysis of new media, multimedia publications, and collaborative research conducted via the internet. This CHCI affinity group is intended for member organizations that are either engaged with digital humanities or interested in developing an approach to the area. Among other projects, CHCI is developing a program-focused relationship with our affiliate consortium, centerNet.88
CenterNet thus represents the digital humanities in the context of the CHCI. The CHCI seems to focus primarily on software and infrastructure, adopting a view of the digital humanities that is fairly compatible with that of the ADHO and centerNet, but this is not the only conception of the field. There is much potential in digital humanities and humanities centers working more closely together, and instead of using infrastructure as the primary link, I suggest that establishing a common intellectual and material agenda around scholarly themes with some kind of digital inflection would be a richer strategy.
Organizational structures can help to shape a field and an agenda, sometimes is fairly subtle ways. Tensions may arise if such organizations advocate directions that are not compatible with other conceptions of the field or if those organizations represent the field in various contexts.
The question of the international footprint of the digital humanities is naturally a concern beyond centerNet. In 2013, the ADHO formed a special interest group. Global Outlook::Digital Humanities (GO::DH) was formed to serve as
the successor to various “outreach” and “North-South” initiatives proposed by ADHO members and Constituent Organisations, including SDH-SEMI (as it then was), ACH, and the ALLC (while this is its heritage, it is important to note that the initiative does not share all of the assumptions and goals of these previous initiatives: in particular, experience has shown how important it is that an initiative of this type be a peer-to-peer community rather than an “outreach” or “aid” programme).89
Though this description calls on and critically discusses the heritage, it offers less discussion of what kinds of digital humanities are included. Ben Brumfield addressed this question in a tweet about a GO::DH initiative, Around DH in 80 Days, that documented centers and projects worldwide: “Is #aroundDH featuring small-tent #digitalhumanities from a geographically diverse background? Which periphery is the dance around?”90 This question also applies to centerNet. What type of digital humanities is advocated and possibly exported? These organizations tend to use a more restricted, small-tent digital humanities as a model. GO::DH is a very worthwhile initiative, and neither it nor centerNet should become a way of simply projecting a very specific model of the digital humanities to the rest of the world. The risk would seem much smaller with GO::DH than with centerNet, and engaging in dialogue with other parts of the world and other types of digital humanities clearly has enormous benefits. Furthermore, GO::DH has gradually developed into a strong platform as a Special Interest Group within ADHO with a considerable buy-in both within and outside traditional digital humanities. The position statement articulated by Élika Ortega in a 2016 paper describes an ideationally grounded, mature and self-reflective organization that struggles productively with questions of Western-ness, institutional position, and making actual change possible.91 CenterNet has experienced a diversification and renewal that will almost certainly move the organization in a more open direction.
The #transformDH Movement as Territory
The #transformDH movement is also intended to influence and shape the digital humanities. Although #transformDH is very different, it shares some similarities in terms of territorial ambitions with the organizations discussed previously. Movements such as #transformDH are likely to be less persistent over time, although they also change to some extent. Related movements with considerable overlap in terms of people and grounding include Postcolonial Digital Humanities and Disrupting the Digital Humanities. I use movement to describe these initiatives to distinguish them from traditional scholarly organizations.
The #transformDH movement arose from a series of discussions but seems to have started at a roundtable session at the American Studies Association 2011 Conference, Transformative Mediations? Queer and Ethnic Studies and the Politics of the Digital. Participants perceived a lack of critical engagement in the digital humanities in relation to race/ethnic studies and gender/sexuality studies.92 The call for the panel was framed against these areas or disciplines (studies) rather than merely issues of gender, race, and so forth, and the panel organizers unsurprisingly had backgrounds in ethnic studies and queer studies. The push, therefore, came partly from another organizational complex and of course from individuals active in both worlds.
As with older digital humanities organizations, the naming of the movement was of some concern. According to Alexis Lothian, one of six panel organizers, various hashtags were considered, but #queerDH was rejected because it took away race, while #criticalDH was deemed inappropriate because it implied that most DH was not critical. #transformDH was selected because “it seemed memorable and provocative, and because it linked to the title of our panel.”93 According to the original Tumblr description,
#transformDH is an academic guerrilla movement seeking to (re)define capital-letter Digital Humanities as a force for transformative scholarship by collecting, sharing, and highlighting projects that push at its boundaries and work for social justice, accessibility, and inclusion.94
As Google confirms, the descriptor movement is very rarely used about the ADHO, whereas it seems appropriate with #transformDH.95 The term implies a desire for change, and #transformDH has a clear connection to THATcamp meetings (where humanists and technologists build together in sessions that are proposed on the spot), which are also often described as a movement.96 #transformDH challenges digital humanities as manifested by the ADHO in a way that few other voices and initiatives have managed. Junior scholars are launching fairly strong attacks, not completely buying either the big-tent implementation or the idea that the digital humanities is nice. This kind of push benefits the digital humanities, which sometimes seems to hide under a “niceness” cover. Some reactions have been negative. Roger Whitson, for one, has stated that movements such as #transformDH “baffle him”:
Do we really need guerrilla movements? Are war metaphors, or concepts of overturning and redefining, truly the right kind of metaphors to use when talking about change in the digital humanities?97
In Whitson’s view, the collaborative and social nature of digital humanities contributed to changing the atmosphere of the Modern Language Association conference. In this light, the talk about warfare seems unnecessary. Collaboration and “niceness” are important, of course, but surely the digital humanities offers much more than just this sentiment. And while there is much discussion in the digital humanities about how to evaluate digital scholarship, practitioners remain reluctant to profoundly criticize work produced within the field and consequently hesitate to single out people, groups, or projects. This tendency could be ascribed to the collaborative and collective ethos that is part of the tradition of the digital humanities. Another factor is probably the field’s historical sense of being an outsider, as it has had to construct and defend its production institutionally for a long time.
So who is conducting this war, and what does the #transformDH idea of digital humanities actually look like? And is #transformDH a strategic move from fields such as queer studies that have found themselves in more dire straits to insert themselves into the digital humanities? Or can #transformDH be seen as a more general attempt to rebrand digital cultural studies as digital humanities? As Prescott says,
#transformDH perhaps looks too much like an attempt to turn digital humanities into another form of cultural or media studies.98
Despite such tendencies, it seems unlikely that #transformDH actually seeks to take over the digital humanities. Rather, the movement appears to seek to make the digital humanities more critical and to insert specific perspectives and disciplinary traditions into the field. This process should also work both ways, so that change occurs in ethnic, gender and queer studies—for example, by emphasizing the importance of digital making—as well as an honest interest in relating to and learning from digital humanities as a tradition and epistemic framework. This two-way (or multiple-way) exchange is an important prerequisite of big digital humanities.
While digital humanities has a long history and a sometimes seemingly reluctant engagement with digital media, the #transformDH community was in a sense born into the digital expressions and channels that come with the territory of digital humanities. In contrast, the ADHO’s first organizational tweet did not occur until February 12, 2013.99
As a movement, #transformDH is not only significant but also part of a much-needed activist critique of the digital humanities as an organized effort and project. As Prescott points out, #transformDH is “fundamentally about reconnecting digital humanities with fundamental themes of current scholarship in the humanities.”100 This does not mean that #transform DH is not a territorial effort or that it covers a full range of critical perspectives. It does not appear to be explicitly exclusionary, but the subtitle of the #transformDH Tumblr site carries a clear message: “This is the Digital Humanities.”101
One way the digital humanities community has tried to come to grips with the expansion of the field has been to use the metaphor of “big tent” digital humanities. This was the theme of the 2011 Digital Humanities Conference at Stanford University. While a March 2011 Google search for “small tent digital humanities” yielded no results, it seems clear that the alternative to the big-tent model is a smaller-tent model, as evidenced in Brumfield’s tweet referenced earlier. Big-tent digital humanities is sometimes invoked as describing a problematic and overly large expansion of humanities computing. Vanhoutte, for example, suggests that “Digital Humanities as a term does not refer to such a specialized activity, but provides a big tent for all digital scholarship in the humanities.”102 This statement, however, does not acknowledge that the big tent is not all-inclusive and definitely does not encompass all the digitally inclined scholarship in the humanities.
The size of the big tent relates both to the disciplines or areas involved and the geographical dispersion of the field, as is evident in the call for proposals for the Stanford conference: “With the Big Tent theme in mind, we especially invite submissions from Latin American scholars, scholars in the digital arts and music, in spatial history, and in the public humanities.”103 The connection between the public humanities and the digital humanities appears to be growing, but this linkage is not normally emphasized in the tradition of the digital humanities that the annual conference represents. The examples mentioned in the call might be related to ongoing work at Stanford University, but other perspectives and questions also would have invoked big-tent digital humanities, including gender research, rhetoric, and the interface between critical studies and digital humanities.
And despite the inclusive theme of the Stanford conference and the fact that this call was more open than its predecessors, it continues to exclude.104 According to Alex Reid, who comes from a rhetorician’s perspective, the call contains “no mention of the significant digital technologies and practices that are transforming human experience on a global scale.” He continues, “No, instead, we’re going to talk about writing software to analyze hundreds of out of print literary texts that no one can even name.”105 Similarly, Hugh Cayless notes, “From reading my (possibly) representative sample of DH proposals, I’d say the main theme of the conference will not be ‘Big Tent Digital Humanities’ but ‘data integration.’”106 These comments illustrate some of the tension and range involved.
No matter how big the tent becomes, it cannot be infinite, and the border between inside the tent and outside it is fairly distinct. Tent comes from the Latin tentus, meaning “stretched.” Whitney Trettien asks how much the big digital humanities tent can be stretched: “I’m not sure Digital Humanities, even a big-tent Digital Humanities, has room for all these digital humanists.”107 The discussion of the digital humanities tent focuses mainly on the size of the tent, but a more inclusive tent does not necessarily translate into more far-reaching structural change. The bringing together of different epistemic traditions will lead to change, but the metaphor and the associated discussion may not highlight these more radical aspects or, for that matter, a different basic stance. As articulated by this conference call, big-tent digital humanities remains grounded in a particular epistemic tradition.
The pressure on ADHO and institutional digital humanities has increased since the 2011 conference. The weakness of the big tent model can be traced in the minutes from the 2015 ADHO Steering Committee meeting.108 Such documents naturally do not give the full story, in particular with regards to conflicts and institutional problematics, but can provide a useful impression of the state of health of an institution. The chair of the steering committee references fatigue in the committee and one of the committee members states that “if we don’t change something, we’re headed for a train wreck.”
One key challenge is the growth of membership and the stress put on the organization by the overall institutional success in terms of handling increasingly large annual conferences (“Do we want to let the conference become arbitrarily large?”), journal backlogs (“excessively long turnaround time”), and new aspiring member associations (“Asks what a DH organization must do, what must its mission be, to see it as part of ADHO”). This situation cannot just be attributed to increased workload because of the larger organization; it is also about deep-going structural factors and multiple major challenges. For example, the issue of governance reform and other reform efforts runs through most of the minutes and a recurring view is that the reform process is too slow. How is representation handled? What mission should ADHO constituent organizations have? What beliefs about the digital humanities underlie ADHO decisions?
There is acknowledgment that the steering committee is seen as an insider forum and ADHO as a black box, and there is a consequent emphasis on the need for transparency, structural change, and the necessity to bring in new people. All in all, the minutes give the impression of an organization under duress whose template and model are being challenged substantially. It is clear that the big tent has not succeeded as a means of managing a larger footprint and support for more inclusivity. There are calls for more far-reaching and structural change in the document, and to some degree there seems to be a real realization of this need. Importantly, there is humility and critical reflection reflected in the minutes, which will hopefully help the organization to adapt and be more inclusive in terms of epistemic traditions and perspectives.
Their task is by no means an easy one. There is no form of digital humanities free of epistemic tradition, and we do not necessarily need to find a model that includes everyone and everything. However, the big tent is not an appropriate metaphor in arguing for an intersectional role for the digital humanities and an inclusive notion of the field—big digital humanities. I use intersectional in a broad sense, denoting the intellectual-material coming together of multiple epistemic traditions and perspectives around issues and challenges with some kind of digital or technological inflection. Drawing on intersectionality in the more specific sense often used in critical theory—to describe how oppression manifests through multiple categories at the same time (e.g., gender, race, and class)—Roopika Risam argues that such work must also be painful:
This includes looking more closely at digital humanities projects, opening the black boxes to examine the imprints of intersectionality on archive, code, metadata, database, and more. In the writing and rewriting of these histories, digital humanities practitioners must situate them in the histories of Afrofuturism, digital textual recovery, new media studies, and science and technology studies, being careful not to erase or write over the contributions that scholars of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, or other forms of difference are making to the digital humanities – or risk reaffirming the power of Western academic hegemony.109
Such intersectionality goes beyond the big tent and begs more far-reaching interventions. The digital humanities cannot be everything, but it can be a meeting place and contact zone centered on the digital that incorporates a broad intersectional capacity and engagement with the perspectives that Risam and others list (including those from environmental humanities and animal studies). Liminal work of this kind is both challenging and exciting. And while the emphasis is often on the digital humanities changing as a result of such work—which it will and should—the power of contact zones lies in change across epistemic traditions and perspectives including gender studies and environmental humanities.
We must respect and build on tradition, but stretching an existing tradition may not be enough to create the kind of digital humanities that engages broadly across the humanities, has integrity, is involved in reconfiguring the humanities, and allows for maximum connectivity and multiple modes of engagement with the digital.
Digital humanities draws on the tradition and organizational structure of humanities computing, meaning that the epistemic tradition of humanities computing has served to some extent and continues to serve as a blueprint for digital humanities. With increased interest in the field and more resources, this blueprint has faced pressure at the same time that it has been promoted through organizational structures such as the ADHO and centerNet. The dominant paradigm for digital humanities comes with a number of epistemic commitments. Over time, the digital humanities as an operation has adapted, but the question is whether a bigger tent is sufficient or whether a more major reorientation is required to help the field reach its full potential and range.