Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Opposing Views: Do Humanists Need to Add “Digital” to Their Titles?

· October 11th, 2018 · 1 Comment

Today’s posts are courtesy of two Ph.D. candidates in the William & Mary Department of History, Alexandra Macdonald and Peter Olsen-Harbich. We asked them to address the place of digital humanities learning—in particular, tutorials in the tools required to create digital humanities projects—in their current work and education.

Learning to Stretch the Digital Vellum: Digital Literacy and the Production of Humanist Scholarship

by Alexandra Macdonald

Perhaps it was my innate desire to seek out interdisciplinary lines of inquiry, or perhaps it is my belief that humanists have a responsibility to share our findings beyond the hallowed halls of the academy that led me to my first course at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), an “academic summer camp” held every June at the University of Victoria. In either case, in the summer of 2016, I sunk into my seat in a lecture hall in the MacLaurin building, a Computer Science 105 dropout, wondering what I had done. Listening to the courses being offered—“RDF and Linked Open Data; Stylometry With R (computer-assisted text analysis); TEI Customization (Text Encoding Initiative)…”—the feeling that I did not belong was palpable. I wanted to share my knowledge with a broader audience, one who was seemingly engaging more with the digital world than the analog one, but I am a humanist. Why should I learn how to code? Why should I understand the fundamentals of digitization? And, perhaps more precisely, how could I ever learn something that seemed so foreign to the way I had spent the last six years training my brain to absorb, analyze, and interact with the world?

Overcoming my initial trepidation, I have since thrown myself fully, if haphazardly, into learning the skills I was first introduced to at DHSI, tangling with HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), Python (a high-level programming language), and dipping my digital toe in GIS (Geographic Information System). Likely in response to the error messages flashing across my text editor like a digital death knell, I have spent a great deal of time recently thinking about the value of being able to converse, at least somewhat cogently, in the ‘hack’ part of the adage ‘yack and hack’. Is digital literacy the new language requirement for humanists? Will it be the case that over the next ten years Python or R (or their inevitable future iterations) will be taken alongside French or German in college language requirement exams? The answers to these questions are ones that will be debated, re-formulated, and re-worked as the humanities find their path towards productive use of the digital realities of twenty-first-century knowledge production and distribution. Thus, it is perhaps somewhat premature to stake a claim on either side, or even to suppose that this is an ‘either/or’ rather than a ‘both/and’ issue. However, while these structural questions are far from settled, there is immense value in learning at least the basics of digital languages, structures, and programs. The world has gone digital; why should the humanities stay analog?

This is not to say that it should become a prerequisite for all humanist scholarship. We are not and should not be computer programmers. Our skillset will not always require an active, explicit engagement with the digital. Books will still be written and published in shining hardcover editions; journals will still land on desks, eagerly awaiting tangible engagement; we will still need to visit archives and museums to engage with primary source materials. However, if we are, as I think we should, to work collaboratively with colleagues from a variety of diverse backgrounds to better share and democratize history using the new digital tools available to us, it behooves humanists to not shy away from deepening our knowledge of the inner workings of successful digital projects, even if that means at times staring down an error message like the proverbial deer in the headlights. If we understand both the freedom and the limitations imposed by computational realities, our projects will be richer for our deeper engagement, and to say nothing of the relative ease with which we will be able to communicate our digital projects to much-needed funding bodies. My degree will be in History. I will always have, and want, to work with a collaborative, interdisciplinary, team of experts who will probably continue to be educated in equally specialized disciplines. However, in a world that is increasingly demanding digital initiatives for an audience that is more and more computer literate, the more humanities scholars can treat computer literacy in the same way in which we treat visual literacy, material literacy, or foreign language literacy, the better equipped we are to conceptualize and realize successful digital projects.

Admittedly, I am an advocate for interdisciplinarity. I will always gravitate towards lines of inquiry that look beyond academic siloes to find innovation at disciplinary collisions. Other scholars have argued, often successfully, that there is much to be gained from the differentiated specialization of knowledge. Indeed, the modern university is built upon this assumption and has produced brilliant scholars who operate firmly and productively within this system. However, there is an equal measure to be learned and equal brilliance to be found within informed interdisciplinarity. While we may think the historical endeavor is enacted as a singular pursuit of knowledge removed from craft, archaeology, art history, or ‘hands-on’ or ‘immersive’ learning, history was created, and should be pursued, in a number of different ways and spaces. It is produced in the archive, in the classroom, in increasingly common Makers Spaces, in museum basements and gallery spaces, in stepping into the shoes of our historical subjects to spin flax into yarn or scrape and stretch vellum – capital H history is not confined to a neatly delineated set of practices and spaces. It is enhanced through thinking critically about the ways in which we can best integrate, mobilize, and interrogate a wide variety of methods requiring a variety of literacies. Why should technical methods and digital literacy be left out?

All Hail the Bionic Humanists? Digital Humanities & the Academic Division of Labor

by Peter Olsen-Harbich

The Historian does not set type. Nor does she stretch vellum, or stitch book bindings. It is, of course, nonetheless possible for one who sometimes works as The Historian to conduct such tasks. However, in so doing, she is unmasked as The Historian, becoming instead another sort of adept. Assuming the guise of an anthropologist, she pursues the lived-experience of bygone craftsmen; or perhaps she instead labors freely as the hobbyist, creating for the simple pleasures of mechanical artistry. In either event, these crafts do not produce history, nor are they prerequisites for such production, and conducting them thus cannot be properly considered the historical enterprise. This is nothing unusual. All of us, The Sometimes Historians, are routinely enmeshed in work and play that bears no resemblance to our primary occupation or those tasks necessary for it, even as many of these experiences influence our conduct of that occupation once we return to it. It is also the case that we spend much of our time browsing, and often collating, archives and catalogs which can be of dizzying complexity. This class of pursuits, distinct from those unrelated to producing history and also from its actual production, are immediate prerequisites for that production, and surely must be contained in those practices we conduct as The Historians. Drawing such distinctions is no great difficulty when discussing technologies and the vocations built around their use that have existed for centuries. But what are we to make of the large, and ever-growing, array of activities that The Sometimes Historians conduct on digital devices? What is The Sometimes Historian who inputs a string of coded commands into a computer terminal? What, especially, when that input yields not charmingly tabulated historical data, but instead an error message?

In mid-May of 2018, as the Omohundro’s elder philosophes jetted to sunny Southern California to envisage the future of early American digital history, a litter of humanities graduate students and computer scientists huddled beneath both rain clouds and the surface of William & Mary’s grounds to attempt such prophecy themselves. There, in a demonstration often indistinguishable from sorcery, the technologists among us revealed a series of charms. Each was used to summon our beleaguered, whirling processors into action, engendering a veritable carnival of computational wonders. On one day, we deconstructed websites, stripping away the façade of sleek hypertext modernity to reveal the bare <html> elements nested beneath. On another, we used this arcana to “scrape” an entire online database, gathering the entirety of its catalog and metadata in .csv (Excel) format. This particular command, an eminently useful function, was cast through a Python script, a programming language, which we crafted letter by letter. It was here that the procession began to turn distinctly riotous.

As the humanists attempted to reproduce the careful Python code being modeled to us by the scientists, replication errors ensued. Hand after hand shot up, and hours were spent attempting to suture and reanimate the miserable Python strings on our individual machines. Something was wrong, and it wasn’t just our codes. Webscraping itself, which mechanized the bibliographic gathering that The Historians have always conducted, was an astounding improvement of our customary craft. There is no doubt that the sum hours of grueling copy-paste labor from which the trick emancipated us were greater than those we spent on its tinkering. But attempting to write the code from scratch, and struggling to tweak the piteous, wretched product of that misallocated labor, was an act of unmasking. We were not only no longer making history; we were also not performing immediately prerequisite tasks for that production. We were, simply, no longer The Historians, but instead, it is fair to say, crude and incompetent technologists working with historical data.

It is mundane but necessary to declare that historians do history in addition to other things. More generally, the line we draw between that which we do as humanists and that which we do as humans is fuzzy, but substantive. Its delineation is the foundation upon which any argument for the particular, unique usefulness of humanistic scholarship must be built. Articulating this distinction has never been simple, but in the computer age, it is more difficult than ever. Overcoming this difficulty will be the first step towards accomplishing the task set before us in the twenty-first century: to leverage the indisputable power of computers towards supplementing humanistic work while avoiding the siren calls of collaborative projects that guile us into computational work itself. We are not machinists. We cannot be Luddites, either. Collaboration between humanists and technologists should be enthusiastically pursued, and most critically, supported generously by universities, wherever such work will produce new insights into the human condition or means of propagating such insights. It is certain that twenty-first century scholarship will be in large part defined by the arrival of such projects. But let us not forget the core wisdom of the modern university: there is much to be gained through the differentiated specialization of intellectuals, especially when proximity and communication between them are preserved. If we seek to defy this order by making humanists bionic—half-lettered, half-mechanized—we will produce ghostly, preternatural intellectuals suspended between two crafts. We should not be surprised when what we are given from such scholars is, on balance, less contemplation on the nature of human life.

Humanities scholarship has a specific purpose. Realities of all sorts will inevitably temper attempts to enact an idealized division of academic labor in our collaborations, and that purpose will thus, tragically, always remain imperfectly fulfilled. Few cries are more seducing than “if we do not do it, no one will,” and such appeals are more often true than not. Nonetheless, clear ideals are worth maintaining as guideposts through the fog that is equally guaranteed to accompany collaboration. Our own labor is not yet concluded. Let the typesetters set type.

One Response

  1. Does the history itself retreat more and more, as site and Institute get Webbed?

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