Sunday, January 17, 2016

What is Digital Humanities?

What are “digital humanities?” It seems like a brand new concept in the study of history, art, literature, etc..; but, it goes well beyond that. Yes, digital humanities definitely contain new ways of research and understanding that before the era of the computer would have been much more difficult. For example, the book mentions collection building and how different the process of compiling and organizing information has been made that much easier with the use of online cataloging systems, etc. The example that is used is in relation to the ancient Library of Alexandria. “The Library of Alexandria is said to have held roughly a million scrolls, representing work works numbering in the tens of thousands. Twenty centuries later, Google Books has scanned, to date, around 14 million of the estimated 130 million printed books housed in physical libraries worldwide,” giving the historian/researcher “access to 500 times the entire corpus of knowledge seemingly available in the ancient world.” (33-34) for me, that is a mind-boggling statistic. Usually when I think of conducting research, I imagine having to immerse myself in a stack of books at the library. Surely, I have always used my computer and even Google Books as a tool for assistance in conducting my own research; but, the possibilities available just at my fingertips had not struck me until I delved more into this book.
While the author is making the case towards acceptance of digital humanities he/she mentions, “Digital humanities…explore a universe in which print is no longer the primary medium in which knowledge is produced and disseminated.” (SG2) I understand why this subject may be hard to embrace being that I personally, feel a lot more comfortable with print; however, while looking at case studies  I am struck with how many times I have utilized and depended upon digital humanities for my own work and took it completely for granted. As a personal example, I tend to log on to almost every day. I have been working on a “database” for my family history and personal research for the past five years. The book mentions that one of the pros of digital humanities is the ability to communicate with others more easily, and I have found that to be the case with my work as well. A lot of the research that I have compiled over the years comes from networking with others around the world to obtain what I need.  This personal example of mine makes me think back to the Library of Alexandria example. Compiling the amount of research that I have without having to leave the state would have been a lot more tiresome without an online databases and archives.
Another thing that struck me was the example first mentioned on page 38 which mentions compiling and organizing Holocaust survivor testimonies. “Averaging two hours apiece, it would take a person 24 years to watch them all, [video testimonies in the USC Shoah Foundation Institute archives] assuming that he or she watched 12 hours every day of the year. There is simply no way we can process and make sense of the volume of cultural data…without the help of a computer to process, index, select, and cluster date on a comprehensible scale.” In conjunction with this example, the author asks if this dehumanizes the whole process of studying humanities. I see the point in this as well.  “Digital humanists engage with these environments not only because of their pedagogical research values, but also because humanist sensibilities are needed to challenge the seductive force of seamless presentations and to inject critically and skeptical faculties into otherwise ‘naturalized’ unnatural constructs.” (20). The assertion is made that in order to keep digital humanities “ethical” we need the association of humanists who, in my interpretation, bring life to the humanities .
After understanding what exactly the digital humanities are, it is important to discuss their impact on how we look at/study humanities. In the SG (14), the author mentions several ways in which digital humanities are helpful, one of these being the ability to integrate digitally driven research goals, methods and media with discipline-specific inquiry. This hearkens back to the example regarding the Holocaust video testimony and the question of we can integrate technology and humanistic thinking. The digital humanities will help us bring together the “traditional tools of humanistic thinking…with the tools of computational thinking.” With digital humanities, we will be able to better analyze the data by putting it in a neat, organized package. This example, I found to be one of the most important: develop critical savvy for assessing sources. Being a school teacher, I understand how difficult it is for my students to understand fact from fiction when they are doing online research. It is important for all of to learn how data is obtained, marked-up stored, etc. Hopefully, this particular way of studying the humanities will help us all ask the question: “where did this information come from?” Another important point for me (which I have found to be true in my personal experience) is that the digital humanities will give scholars (whether they be professional or my middle school students) the ability to work collaboratively. Digital work will make it more convenient to work in teams on large projects and share the information easier.

It might take me a little longer to try and wrap my head around other aspects of digital humanities, such as 3D mapping, etc. which is why I chose to focus on the aspects of the book that I have had personal experience with. I am interested in learning more and seeing where the digital humanities will ultimately take me.

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