Digital Humanities: A Beginner’s Guide

If you are new to digital humanities methods and scholarship like me, coming to a general understanding of what comprises the digital humanities can often feel like an overwhelming task. In this article, I survey a few introductory texts that help us grasp some of the basics defining the digital humanities and its goals.

First, “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0” can be downloaded from Todd Presner’s blog Humanities Blast: Engaged Digital Humanities Scholarship. This text is vital to anyone new to the area, as it outlines what the digital humanities is, and is not, and why it is important. The manifesto, which has multiple authors and over 100 contributors, stresses that the digital humanities is “an array of convergent practices” rather than “a unified field,” one that involves digital tools and techniques but cannot merely be reduced to the digital (2). Contextualizing the digital humanities, it describes two waves of scholarship. In contrast to the first quantitative wave, the manifesto describes the second wave as “qualitative, interpretative, experiential, emotive, generative in character” and identifies the methodological strengths of the digital humanities as “attention to complexity, medium specificity, historical context, analytical depth, critique and interpretation,” maintaining that the use of digital toolkits supports the humanities’ key methodological advantages (2). Rather than discounting quantitative analysis, these authors see the potential of the second wave of the digital humanities in its capacity to “imagine new couplings and scalings” (2). The manifesto refers to a number of distinctive features characterizing the digital humanities: its “utopian core” and dedication to open source; the importance of co-creation and having a mass audience; the key role of process instead of final product; its potential global reach; and its questioning of disciplinary boundaries. Overall, these authors explain how the digital humanities serves “as an umbrella under which to group both people and projects seeking to reshape and reinvigorate contemporary arts and humanities practices, and expand their boundaries” (13 emphasis in original).

A second important text to consider when navigating digital humanities terrain is “A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities,” the final section of Digital_Humanities by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp. While its introduction is similar to the manifesto, it offers more historical background, identifying computation humanities as the precursor to digital humanities and highlighting the impact of the World Wide Web in its growth (SG3). In the next section, the authors present a series of questions and answers, where queries concerning the relationship between the digital humanities and more traditional forms of scholarship are addressed and explored. For example, the authors elucidate the use of projects, as both a structuring unit and as scholarship that projects. That is, “projects are projective, involving iterative processes and many dimensions of coordination, experimentation, and production” (SG4). They explain who is involved in such projects and how they are organized, funded, and (dis)continuous with “traditional forms of research and teaching in the humanities” (SG5). This section further investigates the relations and interconnections between the digital humanities and other institutions (e.g., libraries, museums, archives, institutions outside of the academy). Importantly, the authors then discuss the evaluative criteria in assessing digital scholarship (SG8); provide a list that can be utilized in writing a grant proposal (SG10); describe the basic skills necessary for undertaking digital humanities scholarship (SG12); identify the main learning outcomes for digital humanities research (SG14); and conclude by listing the cultural significance of such research (SG15).

In “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments,” Matthew Kirschenbaum jokes that articles contemplating “what is digital humanities” have become “genre pieces” (1). Yet, Kirschenbaum’s article contributes additional insights into the digital humanities. He first defines the digital humanities as “more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies,” emphasizing that this methodological outlook can be both quantitative and/or qualitative (2). Second, he considers how the digital humanities operates as a “social undertaking,” involving “networks of people who have been working together, sharing research, arguing, competing, and collaborating for many years” (2). Similarly situating its roots in humanities computing, Kirschenbaum notes how in a span of five years it has grown from “a term of convenience” to the equivalent of a movement (4). Here, he attributes the role played by social media, such as Twitter, and the growing popularity among younger academics to experiment with digital technology in their research, especially in a period of academic change and uncertainty, to the development and acceleration of the digital humanities (4-5). He concludes:

Whatever else it might be then, the digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed, a scholarship and pedagogy that are bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people and that live an active 24/7 life online. (6)

Finally, of special interest to media historians, Bob Nicholson’s article on the digital turn forms a fascinating account of how “both qualitative and quantitative digital methodologies can be applied to the field of media history” (60). He begins by presenting some of the dominant debates on the pitfalls of digital research, which raise a number of concerns: missing important texts because they are not digitized, loss of access and materiality, proper contextualization, problems surrounding multiple remediation, and so forth. Turning to the advantages and new opportunities afforded by digital methods, Nicholson observes that they often lack the attention they deserve. By contrast, Nicholson’s discussion illuminates how digitalization permitted him to take new directions in his research, ask new questions, bring to light new connections, and map out “a relatively unexplored area of transatlantic popular culture” (71).

Other texts to consider include: Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees and Distant Reading; Matthew Jocker’s blog and his book Macroanalysis; Matthew Gold’s edited collection Debates in the Digital Humanities, and the full version of Digital_Humanities. Some useful web resources are the Journal of Digital Humanities, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and various blogs written by scholars in the area. Undoubtedly, becoming acquainted with digital humanities scholarship and methods is a fruitful but sometimes challenging task. The discussion here offers just an introductory glimpse into this expanding field.


Works Cited

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp. “A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities.” Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press,  2012. SG 1-16.

“Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0.” 2009. Web. 8 May 2015.

Gold, Matthew, ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012.

Jockers, Matthew. Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2013.

—. Matthew L. Jockers. Blog. Web. 8 May 2015.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English  Departments?” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 1-7.

Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. New York: Verso, 2013.

—. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. New York: Verso, 2005.

Nicholson, Bob. “The Digital Turn.” Media History 19.1 (2013): 59-73.

Presner, Todd. Humanities Blast: Engaged Digital Humanities Scholarship. 2011. Blog. Web. 8 May 2015.