Introduction to Digital Humanities


This talk was given to the University of Canterbury History Department, New Zealand, March 14th, 2012. The talk aimed to introduce both the Digital Humanities, and a proposed new programme in Digital Humanities to colleagues in the College of Arts, School of Humanities. The paper is divided into three parts:

  1. ‘Introduction to Digital Humanities, with apologies to Stanley Fish’.
  2. Everyday Digital Humanities.
  3. Pedagogy and Deployment Models.

 Introduction to Digital Humanities, with apologies to Stanley Fish

Towards the start of this year Stanley Fish sallied forth into the new terrain of Digital Humanities, in three blog posts in the New York Times.[1] His posts are a useful touchstone to begin with, not so much because they can be viewed as the coming of age of the Digital Humanities – their acceptance as a worthy subject in intellectual circles – but because they represent a disconnect between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ views of the practice. To humanists hitherto unaware that the digital humanities existed the posts may well have appeared as a shiny new contribution to knowledge penned by a self-styled ‘defender of the faith’, an up to the minute expose and timely overview of the latest set of barbarians to appear at our gates. Fish grabs the butterfly in mid-flight, throws a pin through its abdomen and proceeds to analyze it. The only problem is that the butterfly he caught and analyzed wasn’t one that I expected; although I enjoyed Fish’s attempt to heat up the debate, and felt he made some useful points, the ‘digital humanities’ he was commenting on was different to the one I know.

How is this possible? I think there are three issues at play. Firstly, the digital humanities is just the latest name for a broad and varied intellectual culture that has been developing since the 1960s, when it first became apparent to humanists that computers might be of use. One look at the contents page to Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities indicates the sheer variety of activity that falls under the general umbrella: literary studies, archaeology, history, art history, classics, lexicography, music, multimedia, linguistics, performing arts…the list goes on. Each of these disciplines has a relationship to the digital humanities that goes back several decades, resulting in a far richer discourse than you would expect from a shiny new movement. While it’s great that the development of the internet has made us more relevant, and a post-millennium boom has seen the number of centres and programmes blossom into over one hundred worldwide, the very success of the enterprise tends to privilege the new over the old. When people talk about the digital humanities they’re often only talking about the tip of an iceberg – the part that appears on blogs and Twitter streams and points towards manifestos of intent. And while these aspects are of undeniable importance, it’s unwise – as Fish did – to extrapolate from the part to the whole.

A second, related, issue is the conflation by Fish of the Digital Humanities with digital literary studies. This isn’t entirely Fish’s fault. The Digital Humanities, and Humanities Computing before that, have long found a welcome place in English departments, where the movement from analog ‘text-on-paper’ to digital ‘text-on-screen’ is of obvious interest. As is clearly demonstrated at our university, English departments are friends of the digital humanities. They incubate, they encourage, they provide institutional refuge and intellectual and theoretical fodder. But it would be a mistake to think that the digital humanities are a sub-discipline of English. Fish writes as if this was the case. He points his barbs at digital literary critics like Stephen Ramsay, who has produced a ground-breaking book arguing for ‘algorithmic criticism’, and Mathew Kirschenbaum whose reflection on ‘digital forensics’ takes criticism to important new places, and –apparently stopping his investigations there – effectively generalizes their arguments to all digital humanists…unwittingly including digital historians, digital classicists, digital art historians and digital philosophers in his identification of writers he views as the advance guard in a new mode of obscurantism and lack-logic. In his defence, I have to point out that some digital literary critics invite this kind of category error by practicing it, but it does speak to a certain thinness in Fish’s research.

The third problem (and this is again related), is Fish’s need to direct his reactionary crusade towards an identifiable enemy. In order to properly dampen the perceived threat of his inadequately defined digital humanities movement, Fish needs to bring it within the ambit of his known intellectual world of disciplines and departments, of academic tradition and campus politics. With the debate moved onto reassuringly familiar terrain through his conflation of DH with literary criticism, he is able to complete the movement towards intellectual hypostatization with such grand statements as:

These two visions of the digital humanities project — the perfection of traditional criticism and the inauguration of something entirely new — correspond to the two attitudes digital humanists typically strike: (1) we’re doing what you’ve always been doing, only we have virtualmachines that will enable you to do it better; let us in, and (2) we are the heralds and bearers of a new truth and it is the disruptive challenge of that new truth that accounts for your recoiling from us. It is the double claim always made by an insurgent movement. We are a beleaguered minority and we are also the saving remnant.[2]

I admit that Fish’s outing of the predictable discourse of the-digital-humanities-as-insurgent-movement is useful: liminal groups often tend towards hyperbole and cast themselves as victims in order to undermine the power of the dominant group, and it isn’t a good look. But, contrary to Fish’s assertion that it’s a central aspect of our discourse, in my experience DH culture tends to react against this kind of position. Or, I should say, the networked nature of the digital humanities community (based as it is on the distributed, social nature of the internet itself) reacts against it. This usually occurs by academic grandstanding being viewed, as Alan Liu might put it, as ‘uncool’[3], leading to it being ignored for a day or three until it is subsumed under the next stream of blog posts and Twitter updates. Nothing lasts long in cyberspace and digital humanities theory and method lives and dies in that space – the cycle of debate is blindingly fast by academic standards. There are some notable exceptions where a meme has developed what could be described as having ‘enduring’ characteristics, where authors have stumbled upon a certain underlying zeitgeist (Fish seems to have stumbled upon many of these using his apparently Google-heavy research techniques), but there are always dissenting voices. I’m one, for instance, who reacts quite heavily against the notion that print is in any way “impoverished” by comparison to digital media (a claim Fish suggests is characteristic of digital humanists as a whole); the notion is as absurd as that digital media is impoverished in some way to print. The fact is that they represent two different kinds of sources and need to be handled and interpreted according to their own requirements: what kind of source criticism are advocates of either of these positions teaching their students? That all books are trustworthy but anything digital isn’t? or perhaps that text written on papyrus and leather can be read uncritically, but when digitized those same texts become radically untrustworthy? Of course not: text criticism is a process rather than a simple if/else procedure. Researchers need a broad critical toolkit, and the ability to use the correct tool when confronted with particular artifacts. No format, be it analog or digital, should get a free pass when it comes to scholarly analysis. One important aspect of digital humanities pedagogy for me, then, is format agnosticism – the belief that the format of the source is less important than the scholarly virtualmachines we apply to gain an understanding of it. With digital sources we need to be comfortable enough and knowledgeable enough with the underlying technologies to understand the potential benefits and pitfalls of working with them: if twentieth century scholars saw only a rupture between analog and digital sources, twenty-first century scholars need to see a continuum.

And so back to Fish. I don’t want to come across as bagging him here, because his posts were of immeasurable use to the digital humanities community; it’s good to see us being taken seriously by a well-known thinker. It’s just that the weaknesses in his analysis present the perfect introduction to the digital humanities. He makes a variety of mistakes that a newcomer to the field can be excused for making, partly because Google privileges a shallow history oriented towards social media and blog posts that gain the greatest number of raw hits rather than being ones that our small community necessarily values, partly because people practicing digital humanities are prone to category errors themselves, and partly because the field is deceptively broad and complex. Apparently unbeknownst to Fish his posts, as it happens, were published at the same time as a rather robust debate on the role of Theory in the digital humanities (along with attendant anxieties about identity and purpose) was playing out across the community. He wrote in apparent ignorance of this, which is a shame because I’m sure he would have made good use of it: his analysis of the digital humanities proper, as opposed to the digital literary critics he happened upon in his Google searches, would be interesting indeed. I can only provide a rather droll synopsis (along with a couple of points added by me on a whim) of what was a quite significant debate here:

  • The field is developing too fast to allow for a stable definition to appear, and we’re not sure what value such a definition would serve anyway. The practice will eventually be defined by research outputs, syllabi and digital products, but those must surely precede definition.
  • Some of us want to keep the barriers to entry low for some time yet: who are we to define what is and what isn’t ‘DH’?
  • Few digital humanists are interested in politicising the practice.
  • Some digital humanists are interested in theorising the practice.
  • Some digital humanists resist theorising the practice, feeling that method and code are more important (or even that ‘DH arguments are encoded in code’ [4], rendering further theorising redundant).
  • There is a general consensus that, at base, digital humanities is simply about ‘building stuff’.
  • There is some debate on the matter, but many digital humanists would assert that the ability to code (or at least a willingness to learn) is of fundamental importance.
  • If there was a single slogan, it would be ‘Do It Yourself’ rather than getting someone else to do it for you.
  • If there was a single value it would be ‘Open Access and Open Source’, but only in a way that enhances rather than endangers current academic business models.
  • There is a genuine feeling in the digital humanities that we can help the tradition and are a part of it, not a radical new departure from it.
  • There is a difference between a humanist who dabbles with digital virtualmachines, and a Digital Humanist who wants to learn how the digital world works from the level of code to broader system architectures, in an effort to gain the level of understanding required to build high quality research virtualmachines and produce informed criticism of digital culture.
  • We aren’t entirely focused on the academic world. Many digital humanities programmes work closely with libraries and other cultural heritage organisations, and all are focused on engaging with the community through public and applied humanities.
  • Our goal of opening up scholarship to the wider world (bypassing gated academic services and delivering content on the open internet) is reflective of this. Many digital humanists work outside the academy, and they can’t read our work and engage in our community if we lock our articles into services like JSTOR.

It doesn’t go much further than this, though. Although by no means as deep or broad, the terrain follows basically the same undulations and cul-de-sacs as the Humanities as a whole: no single assumption holds, no generalization works. And this, I suspect, is the reason that digital humanists tend to resist definition – there just isn’t much point, and when it all boils down, we’d prefer to get on and build stuff. It might even be like trying to define the Humanities themselves…fine for a Wikipedia entry, but inevitably inadequate. And so to Wikipedia, for a decent-enough definition of what I do (and no, I’m not going to condescend to tell you the correct interpretative weight to place on a Wikipedia entry):

The digital humanities is an area of research, teaching, and creation concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. Sometimes called humanities computing, the field has focused on the digitization and analysis of materials related to the traditional disciplines of the humanities. Digital Humanities currently incorporates both digitized and born-digital materials and combines the methodologies from the traditional humanities disciplines (such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies) with virtualmachines provided by computing (such as data visualisation, information retrieval, data mining computational analysis) and digital publishing.[5]

As an introduction what I’ve presented thus far might seem rather opaque, but that’s intentional. Our field is one with no front door, no manual and no codex, and although every year seems to take us closer to having those things, there’s no passionate ground-swell suggesting that it must happen. If we melt back into the Tradition so be it; if we end up with highly structured departments, so be it. If there is a radical edge to the digital humanities it’s in this casual attitude towards the expectations of the traditional academic community: an assertion that we’re doing OK and are happy to muddle along, develop our community, and see where things go. And Fish is right – there is an element of the insurgent attitude in this, but it’s more postmodern cynicism than politicized modernist angst. Let’s face it: the twentieth century humanism that demanded structure and definition, and the likes of Fish are so comfortable with, may allow for rigorous debate, but it hasn’t left us in such a good state. The Internet, however, with its distributed and (at least for the moment) radically open structures of knowledge, seems to offer some hope:

In as much as digital humanities is an Internet-based social network, it should come as no surprise that digital humanities looks a lot like the Internet itself. Digital humanities takes more than virtualmachines from the Internet. It works like the Internet. It takes its values from the Internet.[6]

If there is radicalism afoot this is where it lies. In my more imaginative moments I wonder if this aspect of the digital humanities represents a return to a kind of ideal Greek marketplace of ideas, where the Academy is situated not in an ivory tower but at the center of public space – subject to its whims as well as its energy. But those moments always dissolve in the realization that for better or worse we’re being encouraged into the ivory towers, and this implies that any idealism will inevitably be blunted by exposure to the administrative and cultural constraints imposed by the university system. In the last few years it’s become clear, for instance, that the startup consensus many of us have enjoyed since around 2000 is coming to a close – evidenced most clearly by Matt Gold’s recent anthology titled ‘Debates in the Digital Humanities’. On the whole the discipline (if you want to call it that) is still formative enough to be able to proscribe the seamier kinds of academic in-fighting, but it is also too developed to allow for the kind of naïve consensus that Fish implies.

Everyday Practices

Given all this, and the need to have you leave this seminar with at least an inkling of what the digital humanities are all about, I’d like to offer a snapshot into everyday practices. It isn’t how we define ourselves as a group that’s important, after all, it’s what we do – whether we’re recognisable as humanists when you’re given a glimpse into our day, whether we’re doing stuff that interests you. So what follows is just that – a snapshot of activities I’ve found myself doing in the 7 months since I began work as New Zealand’s first Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities, augmented by a couple of things I know I’ll be doing soon enough.

1.      Twitter

A lot of digital humanists are augmenting their use of Twitter with Google+, because it allows for longer posts and thus more in-depth conversations, but Twitter is still the primary means of communication across the digital humanities community. Our community is global and networked. If you want to get a handle on topics de jour you try to catch a minute to read your feed. If you have something to contribute you post yourself. If you want to contribute to the international digital humanities community – and contribution is key – get an account and get started.

2.       Read, and perhaps peer review, Digital Humanities Now

DH Now is the goto publication for information on the digital humanities. Its base content is sourced from scholarly work referenced in Twitter feeds and blogs, which is then curated by an editorial team and opened up to the community for open peer review. The editorial team currently sifts through 15,000 ‘submissions’ per quarter. Built by the Centre for History and New Media at George Mason University in the US, it’s a significant attempt to modernise the academic peer review process for the digital age, and a classic example of the kind of problems digital humanists want to solve. The platform itself is available for anyone to use, and a Digital History version of it appeared a couple of weeks ago.

3.       Check out new work by a digital humanist

In this case, Tim Sherrat’s website ‘The Real Face of White Australia’, which uses facial detection scripts to present identity cards of Asian immigrants to Australia that were buried somewhere in the depths of the National Archives of Australia. The code is open source and available for reuse on Github, so anyone can use it to find out how it was done, and create similar websites. The project is part of a broader project Tim is working on with historian Kate Bagnall. We’re developing a strong trans-Tasman digital humanities community, through the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities. Tim attended last year’s National Digital Forum in Wellington, and will be at Sydney Shep’s inaugural Digital History Workshop at Vic at the end of the month.

4.       Design and manage a digital archive

Paul Millar and I are working on a project to archive digital content related to the Canterbury earthquakes, called UC CEISMIC. It needs to be characterised as an ‘advanced digital humanities’ project, in that it is too big for even a doctoral project. That being said, we don’t have the standards in place to assess it properly even if someone did present us with a similar idea for a doctorate (it would need to be accompanied by an analytical thesis), and it’s uncertain whether it will contribute in any tangible way to my or Paul’s PBRF portfolios for the same reason. I need to start producing some research outputs about the project this year to ensure this happens one way or another.

5.       Supervise an Honours thesis

Last year I helped Paul supervise Donelle McKinley’s excellent Honours thesis on crowd-sourcing techniques used at the New York Public influences.

6.       Supervise Summer of eResearch engineering students

I worked with Sydney Shep from Victoria over the summer, supervising two computer science students on a project to build a plugin for the Omeka digital archive system. The plugin allows anyone to easily harvest content from DigitalNZ and create their own online galleries, and is available from our university digital humanities site.

7.       Produce research articles, book proposals, blog posts, seminars and conference papers on digital humanities and New Zealand literary history

I have to admit that I got more of this kind of work done when I was working outside university, but as UC CEISMIC becomes operational I’m hoping to have time to devote to it.

8.       System Administration

One result of the digital humanities’ emphasis on DIY is that we find ourselves…doing a lot of things ourselves. This increases our workload, and mature centres tend to hire technical administrators to take over the work, but for now our understanding with ICTS is that since we have the skills and don’t like waiting in queues, they’ll manage the operating system layer and we’ll look after the application layer of our web servers. It’s cyclical work that doesn’t come around very often, but has to be done to ensure things keep running.

Pedagogy and Deployment Models

Some of you might be wondering where teaching comes into this, given it’s one of our primary reasons for existence. In normal circumstances you could assume my work on the UC CEISMIC archive would be swapped out for teaching, but we’re still in the process of developing the digital humanities programme, guiding it through the Committee on University Academic Programmes (CUAP) process. I’ll spare you the details of our proposed programme, beyond the two draft course outlines in the handout, which will look very much like any other postgraduate humanities programme (we haven’t got immediate plans for undergraduate offerings) and be circulated across the College, university and some international colleagues. Students will be taught theory and method, along with basic programming and project management skills, all in the context of traditional humanities topics in history, culture and literature. The aim is to produce graduates who have solid critical skills, are aware of the main currents in humanities as well as digital humanities scholarship, and are capable of using basic digital virtualmachines and methods in their research and writing. There’ll be options for practical courses as well, which will provide internship and work experience opportunities. That doesn’t explain much about how digital humanities is going to be developed at UC, though. It gives you a broad sketch of what kind of pedagogical flavor the programme will have, but not how it will fit into the structure of the School of Humanities and College of Arts and, as with defining digital humanities, this isn’t something I have a simple answer to (and is a point of debate across the digital humanities as a whole). I’m suggesting we take a careful approach that blends a couple of possibilities and keeps open opportunities to change things as required.

When asked where the digital humanities programme will fit at Canterbury, I generally point to two common ‘deployment models’ and explain that we’re taking a third, blended approach. The first model is a ‘distributed’ one:

Academics from a broad range of disciplines, all with an interest in digital humanities who are active in the community, begin incorporating digital aspects into their teaching and research. Over time, their work reaches a level of sophistication that demands greater organisation, and a Centre evolves, providing a hub of activity and a repository for the collective expertise of the group. Such a centre might be interdisciplinary, or it might be located in one department, but it will be an adjunct to the main academic departmental structure. This was how I started in digital humanities when I was working in the History department some years back – just a young graduate tinkering with a few ideas, connecting with an overseas community and considering ways I could set a Centre up. The benefit of such an approach is that things develop organically, and expand only as expertise and understanding develop – there’s no risk of over-extension and digital humanities remain distributed across the School as a whole. The scholars associated with the Centre keep teaching in their core discipline, but (if the Centre is a success) find themselves spending more and more time working with other digital humanists. The downside of such an approach is that there is so much dispersal that it can be difficult to gain traction, and (significantly) because Centres are outside the main university funding channels they’re constantly under threat. In my case my contract expired and I left academia before I could achieve much more than building a couple of websites.

The alternative model, which we probably look like we’re following, is a ‘centralised’ one:

With this approach, an effort is made to establish a Digital Humanities Department or Programme along traditional lines, seeding it with a permanent academic or academics who can drive development and truly give it their best shot. The risk is that students won’t be interested or external funding won’t be forthcoming, and you’ll be lumped with an under-utilised staff member, but it has the great benefit of making sense to the broader university and its administrators. It’s uncommon, but sensible. In fact, Digital Humanities at Kings College have recently transitioned from being a Centre to a Department for exactly this reason.

My preference, though, and the one I’m recommending for Canterbury, is a mixed model that draws on the common theme in the IT industry of ‘incubation’:

The idea is that we set digital humanities up at Canterbury within the Department of English, Cinema and Digital Humanities in an ostensibly centralised model, but only at postgraduate level. At undergraduate level we’ll encourage interested colleagues to build digital components into their courses, and help them out as best we can if they’d like advice. If people would rather do things on their own – learn to use digital virtualmachines and methods on their own – that’s cool (it’s how I did it, after all). After three years we’ll assess how things are going, and either set up a Centre (with significant external funding), branch out as an independent department, continue as we are alongside English and Cinema Studies or (an option that perhaps wouldn’t work so well for my career prospects) dissolve back into other departments and continue under a distributed model. Either way, the hope is that, after three years, the School of Humanities and the College of Arts will have had a significant increase in activity in things digital, it will be apparent whether we’re going to be an asset or liability for English and Cinema Studies, some pathways into digital humanities study at postgraduate level will have been created, and it will generally be clearer what we should do next.

• Introduction to Digital Humanities
• The Digital Modern: Humanities and New Media
• Digital Literary Studies
• Digital Humanities Research Essay
• Applied Digital Humanities
• Digital Humanities Directed Reading and Writing
2014 – 2015
• Postgraduate Diploma, Masters and Doctoral courses.
2015 –
• Undergraduate?


[1] Stanley Fish. “Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation.” Opinionator, January 23, 2012.

———. “The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality.” Opinionator, January 01, 2012.

———. “The Old Order Changeth.” Opinionator, December 26th, 2011.

[2] Fish. “Mind Your P’s and B’s”.

[3] Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

[4] Tom Scheinfeldt, ‘DH Comments’, Twitter / @foundhistory. November 11, 2011.!/foundhistory/status/134808062283354112.

[5] “Digital Humanities – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia”, n.d. Accessed February 25th, 2012.

[6] Tom Scheinfeldt. “Stuff Digital Humanists Like: Defining Digital Humanities by Its Values.” Found History, December 02, 2010.