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What should the digital humanities be?


Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, from the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum

Last week I attended the Oxford Digital Humanities Summer School, where I was taking the course on linked data. As well as the course sessions there were plenary lectures, of which one of the most interesting was a provocative talk by Andrew Prescott, Professor of Digital Humanities at King’s College, London.

The thrust of Prescott’s argument was that at present, in the UK at least, the digital humanities are simply an ancillary service to academics. Further, digital humanities has served the most conservative and traditional parts of the humanities most assiduously. Prescott surveyed the most prominent digital humanities departments in the country and found a preponderance of “old-style humanities, dressed out in bright new clothes for the digital age.” His own institution he described as an XML factory producing material for academics.

Instead, Prescott went on, digital humanities should create its own intellectual discipline; it should develop its own methods, not model those of others. Digital humanities should get more involved with the born-digital; at present, according to Prescott, digital humanities is not actually much interested in what is happening on the internet.

Prescott has posted the full text of his talk, with links, on his blog, Digital Riffs. It’s well worth reading.

I think that many of the points in the talk are well made, but a question I was left with is simply: what are the digital humanities, then? What characterises a digital humanities scholar in a way which separates them from a humanities scholar in general? Prescott joked that he was a couple of years late completing his PhD in medieval history because he was so absorbed in learning to program. Did those twin interests alone make him a digital humanist? I’m curious about what Prescott’s separate intellectual discipline would look like.

If you have a view on this, please do leave a comment below.

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  1. Jane

    As someone engaged in research in a field that might be broadly termed “the digital humanities”, but in a department that does not call it so, I think there are pros and cons to the current clusters of activity under the banner of “digital humanities” in the UK. On the one hand, clusters of people working in this field act as a hub to others with similar research and a distinct working definition by which people might get into contact with their work. This is important in a relatively small field that could otherwise be lost among all the other academic outputs.On the other hand, “digital humanities” risks appealing most to people working in the humanities and less to computer and information scientists who could also come on board. There are people developing museum installations in the computer sciences and information architects designing for the user experience whose work overlaps the intellectual clusters in digital humanities, but they seem to me to be working in separate departments, attending different conferences, and meeting different people. Yet they are often more successful in demonstrating the applicability of their products to managers in public institutions. For the digital humanities to move forward this experience in computing, in empirical research and learning design is really important and adds technical impetus. I think it is inevitable that one is going to be inclined more towards the humanities or more towards the technical. I think we need collaborative partnerships between people in the humanities and computer scientists, specifically people in the humanities who are passionate about the digital world and computer scientists who are passionate about the humanities. A little mutual language-learning is required but in many cases the ends sought are already very similar.

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