A Computer and a Data Set of One’s Own: My DH Future

matrixWhen I wrote the first paper for my Digital Humanities class, I cheekily didn’t include the last bit of what my professors asked for because I didn’t really know what to write. They were looking for how I thought I might use DH ideas or methods in my own work now that I had learned what those were in a general sense. But I still didn’t really know what the field was or how it all came together, despite my four pages saying that I did. Now, at the end of the semester, I feel like I have a tighter grasp on the kind of work that digital humanists do and I can finally answer that question, so here’s the answer.

As for my own entry into the Digital Humanities, I’m not sure exactly what it will look like. Part of this comes from the fact that I have not yet settled on a specialty or field of my own, and so I cannot say with certainty what kinds of projects I would be interested in doing nor can I theorize what they might look like specifically because I do not know what the data set would be. But the great thing about Digital Humanities is that it is a flexible field. One needs only a computer and a data set of one’s own to do the majority of DH work. One of my projects in this class involved combining two data tools to find and illuminate thematic connections in Shakespeare’s tragedies that might not be readily apparent. Both programs ran in java and were relatively simple to understand, even if intuiting what purpose they served was not quite as obvious as their explicit functionality. That project taught me that tools do no a DH project make, at least not on their own. It took my own synthesis to bring out the best in either tool and to truly mine the data set for what it was worth. But it was also not beyond my means nor a reasonable expectation of time dedicated to figuring out what I was doing. The tinker’s mentality must be strong in a Digital Humanist, and I feel like I have that, so it will not be a barrier to entry for me.

Another project, Harlem Echoes, showcased an even more valuable mentality to have if you want to be a DH scholar: teamwork. There the entire class worked together to first create a properly formatted and error-proof version of Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows, a poetry collection from the Harlem Renaissance. After we had that framework, which was not easy, we came up with ideas for essays which would illuminate different aspects of the poetry and the poet’s life as well as develop some simple tools like a word cloud pulled from the thematic tags we each assigned to the poems we corrected. This was a complicated and drawn out process, but because we were working together towards a common goal it felt like less work and it really fostered a sense of community between us. We had some outside help for especially difficult WordPress things, so we even got to have some appreciation for the way that DH scholars often rely upon the expertise of others when it comes to more technical parts of the work. English students, especially grad students, often feel like lone wolves, out only for themselves and in search of singular achievements, but it was the collaboration that really formed the core of that experience and it is certainly a mindset that I would like to maintain throughout my work.

The final project we did were individual works of e-lit. I made mine using the Twine tool, and through a great deal of trial and error, I finally made something that I could be proud of. During the semester we had Harvard scholar and really awesome guy Vincent Brown visit our class to talk with us about his DH project, an interactive timeline and map of the slave revolt in Jamaica between 1760 and 1761. It is an amazing project and Brown spoke about how he wanted to use DH tools to tell the story of this revolt, a story mostly hidden in diaries and letters. He talked of the decisions he made in order to tell that story, and how they differed from his more traditional telling of the story in his upcoming book. This storytelling mentality really lit a spark in my brain and, when I do create DH projects in the future, it is that perspective that I will likely take. It meshes nicely with the Twine project that I worked on because doing something like that focuses the creator’s attention on the decision making process and the effect each decision will have on the reader’s experience in a way that traditional story writing had not done for me in the past. I quickly realized, for example, that I could not just throw my old work into this new medium and expect to get the same results. I instead had to re-write the entire thing and change what I was doing from the ground up in order to craft the experience I wanted the reader to have. The user experience is paramount in the way one presents DH work, and the creator must take a long look at everything they do in order to make sure that what they are saying is what they want to say. Johanna Drucker reminds us always that every choice means something, that people are not just dots on a map and that the world does not abide by our lines and separations. The conscious decision making process is one central to DH, especially when it comes to visualizing any data connections that I might find.

The last element of Digital Humanities work is the part that is both the most promising and the most likely to keep me from fully embracing it. The unfortunate truth is that nobody quite knows what to make of DH projects yet. Heck, even Vincent Brown asked us what DH is and if his project really fit into its parameters. Because DH is more rightly seen as a set of guiding principles rather than a set-in-stone philosophy or methodology, it is more open to experimentation and new ideas. That is the positive side, the thing that gets Digital Humanists excited to forge new paths and discover new ways of seeing. But the negative side is that the resulting projects then enter a nebulous world where they are often seen as holding less value than their more traditional scholarship counterparts hold when it comes to, say, evaluating whether or not a professor deserves tenure or even at the hiring stage before that. At Lehigh we are still working out how a DH project might count towards a dissertation or as part of a Master’s thesis, and what our school ends up deciding will be different from what every other school decides, so it may be that none of my work, if I were to include a DH section in either work, would mean much of anything to anybody else. That makes it very difficult to dedicate a lot of time and effort in a project that might ultimately be of little value. I suppose that the personal growth from doing such a project would be a benefit, but in the current academic world anything that does not improve your chances at achieving the next step might as well knock you back a few.

The reasons to engage in the Digital Humanities are numerous and varied. It asks you to think in ways that you are not trained to think, and that is always a good thing. It encourages you to work with people outside your small departmental bubble, which can only expand your field of vision beyond what it would normally be. And it encourages you to be thoughtful about your decisions, about the way that your present your findings, and about the effect your words or pictures or whatever have on your audience, these are never bad things to consider. But the perilous reception might cause me to keep away, at least at first, until I build some kind of reputation for myself. I will never rule out DH projects because they can be more exciting than traditional scholarship, but I will be sure to weigh the pros and cons in each particular situation so that I know what I might be giving up and what I might be adding to my work.


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