Encountering the Digital Humanities

As an English major with a self-diagnosed case of bibliomania, I’ve often felt somewhat ambivalent towards digital technology, particularly when it encroaches on the territory of the written word. While I can’t deny technology’s usefulness in my everyday life, the decline in print media and rise in online media outlets and e-books concern me. When the e-book was introduced, I, like many other readers, worried about the future of physical books and the publishing industry. Technology and books, in my opinion, were and was supposed to be, on opposite ends of the spectrum, never to intersect.

I first encountered the term “digital humanities” in my sophomore year when I took a course in the computer science department called Computing for Poets. In this course, I learned about “text mining,” or building computer programs that could take produce numerical data about a certain text that could then be converted into information to be analyzed and studied. We worked on projects such as determining the author of a text based solely on numerical data like word count, average sentence length and most frequently used words. I can confidently say that this course single-handedly changed the way I thought of digital technology and introduced me to the idea that the humanities-more specifically, literature-could benefit from computational tools. (I should make it clear that I realize there is difference between the digital technology of e-books and computational analysis. However, pre-sophomore year, I didn’t make the distinction and that concept is something I learned during the course).

I was reminded of this experience when reading through David Berry’s article “Computational Turn: Thinking About the Digital Humanities.” In this article, Berry considers the development of the digital humanities and the questions it raises for scholarly discourse and academia. Digital technology has changed the way not only how we research, but also how culture is represented and mediated; thus we require a new approach towards looking at culture and a redefinition of how the university, an establishment that has historically been the producer of knowledge, continues in that role. Berry makes a convincing argument that the digital tools and technology have a role and can be integrated within the humanities, rather than being a threat or incompatible.

I am, perhaps, biased towards Berry’s argument due to my experience with the digital humanities. However, I do genuinely agree that there is value in learning about and using digital technology in the English field. The Google Ngram Viewer, for example, is a fascinating tool. It enables research that was previously too daunting or unrealistic to undertake, and presents an opportunity to analyze literature and culture with a different set of evidence. Certainly, I think it’s worth being skeptical of digital technology because it opens up a host of questions that I’m sure will come up in discussions both on this blog and beyond. But I also think that this is an opportunity to be explore and can lead us to a deeper and better understanding of our cultural creations.

Berry, David. “Computational Turn: Thinking About the Digital Humanities.” Culture Machine. 12 (2011): 1-22. PDF.


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