DH: Staking a claim or spreading the love?

Continuing the theme of how to define DH, this week’s readings turn to defining the field itself, i.e. who works within DH? James Brown, in “Crossing State Lines: Rhetoric and Software Studies,” claims that DH requires a loosening of discipline identification that allows for more crossover work and interaction. In particular, he talks about the opportunities a program like the Reagan Library (http://pantherfile.uwm.edu/moulthro/hypertexts/rlx/) offers. This website allows the user to play with text by clicking through text pages until finally reaching a full story. The interdisciplinary opportunities this example of DH offers include examining production of text digitally, analyzing through literary interpretation, and even studying the argument made by the text and the programming of the text. His argument is that DH allows for more than just literary interpretation and, therefore, allows for more interdisciplinary work.

What I found most interesting about Brown’s argument were his ideas about authoring. He suggests that while we compose the text, the computer is composing on us. Alexander Reid picks up on this idea in “Digital Humanities Now and the Possibilities of a Speculative Digital Rhetoric.”  Referring to Latour, Reid suggests that we recognize that, as humans, we are not exceptional but instead participate/interact closely with other objects that are non-human. If the humanities are centered on studying human culture, DH focuses on studying the interactions of humans and other-than-human. This ecological or object-oriented focus seems to be a growing movement within academic theory in many disciplines. I can imagine this move away from a human-centered focus as a means for DH to become more interdisciplinary. While the humanities have often been defined by a non-empirical method of research, DH allows for humanities research that integrates data in ways that can be measured empirically. For example, I’m not sure that Literature has ever fully recovered from the science-envy of the era of New Criticism, but DH offers a means for literature to satisfy any science envy while continuing the cultural study that it does so well.

Perhaps the most inspiring project I’ve read about so far, and one that best defines DH in terms of what it does and who it involves, was the work of RRT explained by Carter, Jones, and Hamcumpai in “Beyond Territorial Disputes: Toward a ‘Disciplined Interdisciplinarity’ in the Digital Humanities.” The authors explain that there exists a division in the field based upon ideas of territory versus situation. Territory indicates borderlines between disciplines that isolate and prevent the interdisciplinary work that DH so effectively creates. Instead of looking at territories between the disciplines, the authors suggest we consider situation and what DH could bring to the situation. In their words, “DH exists not in territory or in people but in the situations it enables” (39).  In creating the multimodal, interactive, research project RRT, the authors transcend disciplinary boundaries to create a project that leaves the typical academic research far behind (http://faculty.tamuc.edu/RRT/localglobal.html). Looking over the website, I’m amazed by the sheer number of disciplines that must have been involved in the creation of this work. The authors cite rhetoric, film studies, second-language acquisition, political science, history, and archival and multimedia specialists as helping to create RRT.

This article by Carter, Jones, and Hamcumpai helped to finally clarify in my own mind what the field of DH entails. While it would be impossible to say exactly what DH is or isn’t, it seems to me that, at its core, DH is real-world composition. We often talk in FYW about creating assignments that reflect real-world writing versus work that has no meaning outside of the academy. DH creates these opportunities. For example, the typical college research paper will likely only reach an audience of one: the instructor. If we are lucky, that same research paper may be accepted to a conference or perhaps be shared at a campus-wide research event like the Celebration of Student Writing held every semester at my university. A DH project such as RRT, however, reaches a much wider and more diverse audience. Additionally, it requires the writer to step outside his or her discipline and work with colleagues who have different research interests, different content knowledge, and different skill sets. This is how work happens outside of academia: people with various skills collaborate on projects. DH allows students to extend and share their own skills/disciplinary knowledge while negotiating work with unfamiliar subjects and colleagues.  Creating a DH project exemplifies writing that makes a difference, and isn’t that what we want from our students, regardless of discipline?

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