Then & Now: Past Forms and Future Possibilites

Photo by cammykillerbee on DeviantArt (CC BY 3.0)

Reading Burdick et al.’s Digital_Humanities has been a bit of a struggle for me, and I’m sure that such an admission would delight the authors to no end. To be fair, I’m not unhappy about it either, but there are some issues that I feel need to be addressed before I simply accept what the book has to say in wholesale manner.  I’ll only speak about one here, though, since this is going to go long, regardless.

In essence, it boils down to this: for all their rhetoric about the Digital Humanities being nothing more than a different method to accomplish similar work, the book at times seems openly hostile to the idea that the “analog” world, if I am indeed allowed to use that term in opposition to “the digital,” still has a great deal of importance to our learning.  For example, on page 16, the text claims that “Digital Humanities is an extension of traditional knowledge skills and methods, not a replacement for them. Its distinctive contributions do not obliterate the insights of the past, but add and supplement the humanities’ long-standing commitment to scholarly interpretation, informed research, structured argument, and dialogue within communities of practice.”  Nonetheless, in the role of teaching, at least, there seems to be little patience for the non-digital, as the introduction to chapter 4, “Provocations,” declares: “Two decades ago, working with digital documents was the exception. Today it is the norm.  The ‘natural’ environment for carrying out research, teaching, and reading.  Wireless networks have consigned the off-the-grid, off-line classroom to the dustbin of history” (101). There is, thus, a breakdown in the value system here: if the Digital Humanities is merely an extension of the way things were done before computers proliferated in our society, then can any of that be said to be ready to put out to pasture?

Again, in all fairness, the point of chapter 4 is to push for what amounts to constant innovation, and the most effective way to do that is to put the advancements we currently enjoy into some sort of juxtaposition with the system they replaced.  Still, the phrase “dustbin of history” certainly says a great deal about what these individuals think about one of my favorite methods of instruction: sitting in a classroom full of students with open books and open minds, nary an activated screen to be seen. Indeed, to understand what the value of Digital Humanities can provide, those self-same students will themselves need to deal with the idea of “analog” humanities as an abstract construct. What did it mean to search through thousands of cards in a card catalog in order to find a particular book? To be relegated to the Library while doing research? To manually scan for a particular entry because Google Books is not yet created and cannot do it for you?  I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to that system myself, don’t get me wrong, but the fact that it is part of my educational upbringing certainly provides the very groundwork necessary for creating and sharing anything in the Digital Humanities: a sense of how the world did this sort of work in the past and, as a result, an appreciation for what that work means.

I know what this sounds like, but the problem is that it’s not just me being old and grumpy. I have absolutely no real sense of how the world did business before the telephone, and neither do you.  The fact that people like you and I have always had access to instantaneous contact with another human being in a remote location makes that sort of technology integral to how we think about communication itself.  None of us remembers life before the typewriter, much less life before movable type; as a result, any understanding we have of manuscript culture is artificial and filtered; we really can’t know how well we understand it. Like Heisenberg’s principle on its head, we can’t change without altering how we observe our change. For our students, who will never have had to consider the problems of examining texts side-by-side without running the books through computer analysis, the question of Humanities will be radically different from what we see ourselves.

Ultimately, though, the truth is that such a transformation isn’t really even a bad thing.  I can’t say that my life has been cheapened because I grew up being able to watch television instead of only being able to listen to the radio or read a book. My life is different, of course, but I have been enriched in ways that those who came before me also did not have the opportunity to experience.  The important point, however, is that I would also not be able to appreciate the advancements we have without at some point embracing them and leaving the past to occupy the future. If they want to toss the instruction and methodology behind traditional Humanities study on the rubbish tip, that’s fine, but don’t keep returning to the outdated in an effort to stay “old school” while changing things up.  That ends up being like trying to use the machinery of the past as spare parts in the machinery of the future.  They’ll prove a poor fit, even if they were made to last.


On a final note, I would like to add one word of warning to this post. In an effort to keep things interesting, I usually try to include some Creative Commons-licensed images in these posts, and I have learned something very important as a result:

Never enter the word “hedgefox” into a Google Images search, especially while on the University’s network.

Just trust me.  You have been warned.

Wæs þu, Woruld, hal!

Photo: Neal Sanche on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I should perhaps begin this journey by mentioning that this is not the first blog of which I’ve attempted to be a part.  Whether on my own, ill-formed attempt at a blog or as a guest writer on someone else’s, I’ve always seemed to struggle with what amounts to the same points: I never know what to write, I find other things to do instead of writing, and I have absolutely no real idea of the value of what I have to say. Yes, I have a Master’s degree in English, and yes, I’m in the dissertation stage of my PhD, but somehow it has never quite become real to me that anything I have to say might actually be worth reading, and certainly finding that thing to write about is one of my greatest difficulties.

For that reason, I’m thrilled to be a part of Dr. Fred Gibbs’ Digital Methods class.  Much like being stuck in a writing camp, I’ll be given the necessary encouragement to get the writing done, and with that writing comes the thinking that informs the truly interesting writing that will eventually come forth.

So hello, world! This small post will be the first of many as the semester goes on and I struggle to learn the important lessons that will shape me into a digital humanist ready for the future. With all of the Twitter posts, online readings, project work, and deep introspection necessary to truly understand the depths of the changes wrought by the digital transformation in our education systems, I’ll certainly not lack anything to write about.