Digital Humanities: Methodology and Questions

Students in our new Literature Lab doing what English Majors do!

Students in our new Literature Lab doing what English Majors do!

Folks keep expressing concern about the future of the humanities, and the “need” for a next big thing. In fact, the title of a blog entry in the April 23, 2010 New York Times takes it for granted that the humanities need “saving.” The blog entry is a follow up to an article from March 31, which explores how some literary critics are applying scientific methodologies and approaches to the study of literature. Of course, this isn’t really new. One only needs to read a few back issues of Literary and Linguistic Computing to know that we’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time (and even longer if one wants to consider the approaches suggested by the Russian Formalists). What is new is that the mainstream humanities and the mainstream press are taking notice.

In her response to the article, Blakey Vermeule (full disclosure, her office is just three doors from mine) makes a key point to take away from the discussion. She writes: “The theory wars are long gone and nobody regrets their passing. What has replaced them is just what was there all along: research and scholarship, but with a new openness to scientific ideas and methods” (emphasis mine). Before explaining why this is the key take-away, a little story. . .

Not too long ago, a colleague took me aside and asked in all earnestness, “what do I need to do to break into this field of Digital Humanities.” This struck me as a rather odd question to ask: a very clear putting of the cart before the horse. Digital Humanities (DH) is a wide stretching umbrella term that attempts to encompass and describe everything from new media theory and gaming to computational text analysis and digital archiving. There is a lot of room under the umbrella, and it really is, therefore, impossible to think of DH as a unified “field” that one can break into. In fact, there are no barriers to entry at all; the doors are wide open, come on in.

But, I’ll go out on a limb and argue that the DH community can be split into two primary groups: Group “A” is composed of researchers who study digital objects; Group “B” is composed of researchers who utilize digital tools to study objects (digital or otherwise). Group A, I would argue, is primarily concerned with theoretical matters and group B with methodological matters. In reality, of course, the lines are blurry, but this is a workable clarification.

. . . What Vermuele and others are describing in the New York Times business falls most cleanly into Group B. But I would not describe this movement toward empirical methodologies as revolutionary: when interested in certain types of questions, an empirical methodology just makes good common sense. I came to utilize computation in my research not because the siren’s song of revolution was tempting me away from my dusty, tired, and antiquated approaches to literature. Rather, computational tools and statistical methods simply offered a way of asking and exploring the questions that I (and others such as those pictured above) have about the literary field. What has changed is not the object of study but the nature of the questions.

So, the answer to my colleague who asked what is needed to “break into this field of Digital Humanities” is simply this: questions, you need questions.