Digital Humanities is like Herding Cats

What is/are the Digital Humanities? What are you interests in them? What skills do you need to do them? What is the best way to acquire those skills?

I’ve been wrestling with the questions at the top of this post a lot lately. Some background: I’m a doctoral student in history at Purdue trying to develop a minor field in DH. I’ve got experience in public history working in archives and doing some related activities. I also studied it a bit too (I did one of my field exams in public history for my MA). Along the way I’ve been introduced to some DH stuff. I had grand ambitions for a Sports History Sourcebook website (which has sat fairly stagnant for the past 2 years) and I did some hybrid DH-GIS work as an undergrad.

Now that I am at Purdue, I am looking to explore it more and try to learn skills and concepts that will help me do DH projects as well as teach students about it. My approach to DH has to applications: 1. I see it as an extension of my public history work (and I see my PH work as an extension of my teaching) 2. I see DH as a way to give students new, real-world, marketable skills that compliment and extend the more traditional critical thinking, research, and writing skills develop in my discipline.

Public history and DH really build off of my philosophy of history and teaching, which engages students in critical thinking of the people and places around them. History is a disciple of curiosity. My goal is to relate complex ideas to personal and sometimes local things to best engage students. I often describe my research as using familiar characters to tell unfamiliar stories. I see sports history as one way, but also local and micro history too. Thus, for me, public history is both a teaching tool and a presentation venue. I view DH, in many ways, as just a subsect of that.

DH offers new ways to present things to a variety of audiences. Many would argue it does much more than that, too. It also offers new ways to organize information and think about things (often simultaneously). There are new ways to collect data as well. So what is digital humanities? It is a bunch of tools that brings new media and technology together with traditional disciplines such as history and English? Further, what are digital humanities? Do we include everything from text mining, 3D imaging, and huge databases to online museum exhibits and archives, videos and podcasts? Where does online teaching fit in (both MOOCs and the smaller, more traditional for credit classes)? Surely the spatial humanities and GIS belong, but so do tools like Zotero and Omeka.

After we think about what they are (note: I framed my definitions as questions), it’s intimidating to think about all the skills you need to do/use them. I’ve heard some people say it just depends on what you are doing and what your goals are. Some of my colleagues question the needs to do a minor field in it suggesting that its something I could just “pick up” and develop on my own once I’m done with my Ph.D. To some extent, I understand their points. I also tend to think they are short sighted. I believe a field is necessary to, as my grad. director says, “legitimizes” what I am doing (don’t get my started on ‘credentialization’ and the need for ‘legitimacy’). I also think doing it now, not later, will help position me for the future, both in terms of jobs and in thinking of new ways to teach and apply history. I’m not interested in it solely for marketing myself, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this aspect does provide some motivation.

So what skills do I need and where do I get them? I’ve been wrestling with this for the past year. At Purdue I am basically trying to pave the way for myself, and future students in my department. Our grad director likes the idea of me inventorying the institutional resources out there. At the same time, I need/want to take prelim exams at the end of this year and I’m still searching for mentors and coursework. Time is of the essence. At this point, I may be too focused on the where than the what, so lets go back to the skills.

I’m a historian first and foremost. I do research, I write, I present, and I teach. Most historians know how to use computers (although I’ve had some luddite advisers). Critical thinking, research, synthesis, and communication are the basic skills of doing history. But what digital skills do I need to complement them for DH? Should DH-ers also be programmers? I’ve seen this debate in several different places. I’m not convinced that we do, but I think eventually I’ll want to learn more about it and maybe pick up a programing language like HTML or XML.  I just don’t necessarily think that it is an overarching requirement. I do think there may be specific programs and applications that are essential to doing DH work, but I don’t know what they are. I imagine this includes things like Flash, Dreamweaver, ArcMap, InDesign, and Omeka, but again, I’m not really sure.

This is where I am. I feel like I know a lot about what is out there and some of the debates, but I’m failing to find/connect with people at Purdue who can help me navigate. The few I have found are usually excited about it, but can’t offer much advice or instruction on how to proceed. So far, I haven’t been able to nail down any coursework or people willing to offer an independent study. Instead, I’m still searching and rethinking my interests and how to best articulate them because that’s the first question people ask.

This has caused me to do a lot of reflecting about myself as a historian and teacher. Thinking about my interests and uses of technology as well as my goals for the future. It’s healthy reflection. I believe that grad school is a good time to set a foundation and shape that future. Asking questions and finding answers (and then talk about and analyzing those answers) is our grind. We learn about theories that shape our approach, we’re drilled on historiography that lays the foundation for our teaching, and, in the end, we’re basically taught how to write a book. But we also collect and acquire tools too, however, they’re usually decided for us. DH seems to lack the same structure and rigidity of traditional disciplines. This is probably a good thing as it allows for creativity and variety, but it sure makes it hard to nail down.

2 thoughts on “Digital Humanities is like Herding Cats

  1. Pingback: “we’ve got the vision, now lets have some fun” | Andrew McGregor

  2. Pingback: Who I am as a Digital Humanist: Reflections from the Digital Sandbox | Andrew McGregor

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