Across universities and conferences, even the LA Review of Books, the question seems to come up again and again: what is/are digital humanities? The understanding of what digital work in the humanities is remains in flux and with good reason — the tools and terms are in development, and development is part of the project of DH. It can be overwhelming to address the implementation of technical tools as a theoretical practice of scholarship. It can be destabilizing to critically assess the digital tools that undergird even the most seemingly traditional modes of scholarship. There are people here to help.
When I first began DH Praxis at the Graduate Center in 2014, I wrote a blog post about what I feared, though, hoped DH might mean. In the past two years, I have learned a dizzying amount about this community and conversation. Last year, Mary Catherine Kinniburgh with Patrick Sweeney introduced a workshop on the Lexicon of DH to much applause (read her recap here, and a review from a participant). I am looking forward to reprising the workshop (Thursday, September 29th at 6:30 in Room 6421) and want to use this blog post to make a few recommendations to people who are excited, annoyed, or overwhelmed by “digital humanities.” In the seemingly nebulous space of digital humanities, some basic terms can ground us tremendously.
- Come to this workshop and get your bearings! Don’t wait to learn about digital humanities. It’s a big field with lots of room — it can seem impenetrable, but there are many points of entry. Much of what digital humanities hopes to be is about inclusion.
- Go to as many workshops as you can! Every little bit helps, and sometimes the bits you take away are not the ones you expect. Introductory workshops can really help you see some clarity in the haze. Some of the projects and tools may seem unrelated to your interests, or you may have no idea what function the tools or topics serve. Attend anyway! Whatever the subject, you’ll find that approaching new technologies in workshops can help you see new things. You won’t be, say, programming in Python by the end of a single evening, but picking up even a half idea about what a string or “if loop” might be could be quite powerful. Seeing what tools are out there will help you feel more familiar with the tools you use every day.
- Steep yourself in the language! Digital work can feel very cryptic, but the codes are language based. Once you start finding keys to these codes, things open up. As with any new language, it helps to see it in use and to use it. Don’t wait until you understand everything first. The nature of this is such that you will get farther faster if you work outside your comfort zone.
- Poke around the websites where you spend the most time! You’re already there. There’s something that brought you there, whether the content, the click-bait, the obligation of class or social expectation. Once you’re there, though, pause. Think about what you’re using. Most of the time, we approach these sites for the what that we came looking for. As a graduate student, you probably already analyze the things you use in the course of a day, but sharpen that critique. Look at the site. How is it built? How does it transmit information? Who is it meant for? Who uses it? What bearing does it have on your research? What information does it collect? Take notes and bring your ideas with you!
As you set about developing a project idea, cut yourself some slack. You are already doing digital humanities work, even if you don’t know what it is. Learning what you can learn in digital humanities is often as daunting as the learning itself. As the terms start to make sense, you start to put together what works for your work.