Friday, July 20, 2018

The Practical Humanities Failure? The Critique of the Digital Humanities

In my previous post, I tried to argue that limited definitions of the humanities may make those who use who practice them feel good -- à la Stanley Fish, we can say "I engage in a life of pure contemplation" -- but that is a minimal, one-sided, and impoverished conception of what the humanities are and why they are important. My point here is specific: I am not trying to say that Stanley Fish is wrong when he asserts that contemplation (whatever this might mean in practice) is a key part of the humanities. I am trying to say that it is not the only part and, hence, Fish's contention that anything that diverges from pure contemplation is somehow debased relies on an artificial distinction that he himself has, in fact, created. Fish's conception of the humanities is, in other words, not inherent to the humanities themselves. Indeed, I tried to argue that Fish's conception of pure contemplation relies on the very skills -- the very practical values -- that he abhors. Feel free to disagree with me.

In this post, I want to turn away from the humanities in general to what is called the "digital humanities," which are a particularly target of Fish's vindictive. His argument is that the digital humanities are not, in fact, humanistic. And, that they really don't work. They are tools that are used -- to helps with analysis, at best -- but they cannot run by themselves. They require someone to analyse the patterns they discover or someone, in different words, to program the computer. For this reason, they fail.

My problem with this argument is this: who ever said that the digital humanities functioned as a form of AI? Fish is hunting a paper tiger because he is arguing that the digital humanities fail because they have not fulfilled a promise that they, in fact, never made. I don't work in the digital humanities myself -- although I have some ideas that I might start to implement sometime in the future -- but no one who I know ever argued that they living human beings were not part of the process of analysis. I edit a journal called Acadiensis and we have published a couple of pieces in the digital humanities in the past little while in which historians have used computer-assisted analytic tools (specifically with regard to social network analysis). These are good pieces but none of the historians who conducted this analysis ever said that a human being did not actually conduct the analysis. To argue that analysis still requires human thought is not a discover or a damning criticism. It is, in fact, to miss what the digital humanities are, in fact, all about.

There is a lot of this going around, at least in my neck of the woods. I've heard colleagues reject the digital humanities as little more than web page development, where a bunch of primary sources are posted. It does not, in their view, promote any useful skill. I don't believe that the digital humanities are necessarily the future of the humanities. There will always be scholars who reject the very idea of digital humanities and take a measure of pride in their rejection. They might even claim -- like Fish implies -- that they alone are staying true to the inherent and fundamental basis of the humanities.

I'm not at all certain that that perspective is correct. I want to contest it by making several points:

First, think about how much of our lives as scholars has changed in terms of how we conduct our work. I am writing this post, for instance, on computer. It will never see a hard copy.  It will never be written in cursive. I communicate with my students using various means, which include good old fashioned sitting down and talking, but I also semi-look after a Facebook page and I write a lot of emails. Colleagues text me. Acadiensis maintains a vibrant social media engagement connected to other social media institutions in our field. So, whether we like to admit it or not, shifting communications technologies have changed the way we work and how communicate to students, colleagues, and the broader public.

Second, digital humanities is not about simply creating web sites that archive or list primary documents or sources, but these are useful. The ability to access sources more easily should not be something that we shoot down. Indeed, judging from my own experiences (always a dangerous thing, I admit), many of my colleague and a great many of my students become frustrated when they cannot relatively easily access sources. It is a different technology but is this now part of what libraries and archives and museums were (and continue to be!) about. My town has a local library that is well used.  It does a bunch of things (including a children's summer programme), but one of the things that it does it make it easier for people to get hard covers of books that they otherwise would not have access to in Sackville. (Indeed, the digital world of new communications technologies is so prevalent that many people might not remember a day before Amazon and Indigo online sales. Some towns had a local bookstore. Some didn't.) While using the internet as an archival space is not the be-all-and-end-all of digital humanities (and, again, to the best of my knowledge no one ever actually said it was), there is nothing particularly wrong with this use.

In fact, one might go further, some of the larger projects (online exhibitions developed by archives, early Canadiana.org, the CBC's online archive, material made accessible via the NFB, along with a bunch of others), is really useful. A paper recently published in Acadiensis made really effective use of online genealogy sources. The author told me that he could not have written this paper -- at least in its current form -- without these sources.

This ability to store and access information is, then, not a bad thing. It is something we, as a society, have, in fact, been doing for a long time. It is one of the functions of libraries, archives, and museums, and is something that, as with those institutions, requires specialized skills. One does not just pop a bunch of stuff up on a web page and call it a day. There need to be standard approaches, for instance, to searching for materials.

Moreover, the skill needed for such things as a search (if it is not to become a completely over-the-top time consuming type of thing) is something that those of us who teaching in the humanities know about first hand because many of our students often do a pretty poor job of conducting online searches and so end up with weak sources and weaker papers than they could have otherwise written. Learning something about digital literacy does not replace other forms of literacy -- knowing about culture, history, information in general -- because it is consistent with it. It aids what we do and what we are asking our students to do.

This is my point: even in its most basic form -- providing access to information -- the digital humanities are useful, are consistent with what we generally do in the humanities, and can facilitate the very types of skills (assessing information) that is part of what we seek to do in our classes.

Third, this is important because we cannot stick our heads in the sand. Much of the information we access today as a society comes via new communications technologies: aka, the internet. Is the medium the message? I don't know and I don't tend to make that argument. Content, I usually argue, is important regardless of the medium in which it is conveyed. But, more and more of our content comes to use via the internet and so an ability to grasp what that is, search it, assess it, and engage it is important for our jobs. We can, and will, use more traditional technologies. I still go to historic sites and art galleries, libraries and archives and museums. I still read hard cover books. I don't see that changing and no one in the digital humanities is asking for that.

But, are we to ignore the fact that more and more of our journals are online? A good one here in New Brunswick (NB Studies) is online only and I've read about others contemplating going precisely in that direction as well. Conferences are streamed. I still want to be there in person but I do watch the streams (particularly archived versions when I can't make it.) Web archives are also being made accessible by a range of scholars. Should we ignore this information? Would you council a history student to ignore an accessible primary source? Would a student in literature be told to ignore a short story by an author who was central to their honours thesis? Would we suggest that one could study world music and ignore an easy way to hear what that music actually sounded like? And ... well ... you get the point.

Finally, digital humanities, I should say, are not a singular thing. I've focused on one particular type -- archiving -- because it struck me that much of the discussion I hear about it is misguided. Again: it is not the answer to the future of the humanities but it is not inconsistent with what we are doing in the humanities either. Other forms of digital humanities, as I've indicated above, use tools to help conduct analysis. These tools -- say, specific software packages or search analytics -- don't work by themselves. But, learning how to use them can help with the data we will have in our times, with data that is already being and has been digitized, it can help ask questions that we might otherwise ask of sources.

I read a piece a couple of years ago that made use of qualitative analysis software to assess the frequency with which certain key words were used in federal publications for newcomers who wanted to become citizens (or, more simply, in citizenship guides). To be sure, the analysis did not tell me anything that I did not already suspect, but it caught a few things -- say, inconsistencies in the use of certain words -- that I might otherwise have missed. The authors still had to do the analysis but the tools they used enriched and that has been my experience in history. Digital tools don't replace historical research but they can facilitate it. And, looked at in this light, the digital humanities are something other than a failure.

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