Can vs. Should: A Subtle Distinction (?)

Our examination in class of the Digital Humanities has shown the difference between visions of what this movement might mean to the Discipline of English.  The makers of digital tools, the old guard of Humanities Computing, still provide a compelling case for the need to actually create something in order to consider yourself a Digital Humanist.  Users of existing digital tools show how reading and scholarship are rapidly shifting due to technological advances.  And Critics, well, they are struggling to catch up.  What would a critical theory of the Digital Humanities look like and is it needed?

Although there are many objections to the Digital Humanities as a field of study, I think one major point of contention is the rapidity with which digital projects come and go.  To the less technically inclined this seems a waste of scarce resources of both time and money.  Why go to such great lengths to create literary algorithms and electronic collections if you are going to move on swiftly to the next new thing?

So far the only answer that Digital Humanities makers have had to offer to potential users and critics alike is: experimentation is the point.  Try it out.  See what happens.  This is a very different vision of humanities scholarship where articles can sometimes take years before the exit the editorial cue and see publication in a print journal.  If this vision of English scholarship is to shift, then a more compelling case needs to be made for why that is the case.  A new tenure dossier model would be a good start.  A way to get senior faculty more involved in these projects.  As for non-tenured faculty such as myself, perhaps a performance bonus system would be in order.  Just saying……

To give you a sense of the wide variety of projects being experimented on by Digital Humanists associated with English Departments, here is a list of links worth checking out.

The first is  This is a mapping project hosted at the University of Virginia.  Among the many interesting maps they have created is one of Faulkner’s fictional county of Yoknapatawpha.

A second project is the fake literary Twitter account.  Although there are many, “Tweets of Grass” by Walt Whitman is perhaps the best.  You can read his 21st century couplet in 140 characters or less here

Other Twitter based Digital Humanities Projects involve Tweet BOTS or computers that are given the literary stylistics of an author and then programmed to create Tweets as that author.  Mark Sample, a Professor of Contemporary Literature and New Media Studies, has created many of these.  This one is my favorite

Infographics are a third way Digital Humanities are exploring how technology might enhance our understanding of literature.  Here is a link to an infographic on Shakespearean insults

And, of course, there is literary analysis by computer or as it is being called today “data mining” of texts.  This sophisticated example from Whitman College in Massachusetts (what they call Lexomics) was used to determine what parts of the play Mule Bone had been written by Langston Hughs and which parts had been written by Zora Neale Hurston:

A lot is left to be decided about Digital Humanities as a movement, but one thing is clear–the ways in which we read and write will never be the same.  Stay tuned……


About johnacaseyjr

A PhD graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. My research focuses on how the experiences of veterans shaped American culture in the Gilded Age. Currently I am a Lecturer and Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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