What are Digital Humanities?

Vision Collaboration Insight

William Blake wrote that “What is now proved was once only imagined.” It took a rather long time for people to catch up to what he was saying. We understand it now. In the digital realm, everything seems to be changing so fast. Facebook is barely a decade old and already it’s been shoved to the side by younger audiences seeking new horizons. Yet the site maintains its strength through linking together many different capabilities. New social media sites tend to focus on one thing: images, video, music, words.

Blake ImaginedCould Ada Lovelace have guessed what her first calculations would lead to? Surely she embodies the spirit of the digital humanities. While she has been celebrated as the first ‘computer programmer’ in recent years for her understanding of the useful applications of Babbage’s Analytical Engine, we should recognize also her “strikingly prescient observations on the potential uses of the machine, including the manipulation of symbols and creation of music.” Technology is a tool: we need to choose how it gets applied.

Understanding technology isn’t solely focused on numbers. Many users can’t distinguish between the different tools within Facebook: how a page is different from a group, how your newsfeed varies from everyone else’s, how you can curate the information you get—to a certain extent. The site is always working to make you see what they want you to see. There is always a tension between new developments in technology and the attempts to monetize them. We’re accustomed to a ‘free’ internet but increasingly paywalls separate information from general users—or pop up advertising fills our screens until we can figure out how to close it.

Humanities scholars seek to understand human motivation (which is not as rational as we like to think) and also how we adapt to technology. Despite the image of technology as cold and robotic, it is a human endeavor filled with all our foibles and ambitions. We need vision to see where technological innovations are going next—and where they ought to go, too.


Even back in the early days of Gopher and dial-up access, email allowed scholars from around the world to collaborate with greater ease than in the days of pen and paper. Now shared websites, blogs, digitized texts, joint teaching ventures and more have allowed scholars to share research, teaching and expertise across the globe. Both instructors and students have information at their fingertips; we must work together to build the skills to sift through the increasingly mountainous stores of information. We help students ask the right questions: What makes something authoritative? Who created this information? Do we need new methods of citing sources? How can we document a discussion that happens online across several platforms and in different forums?

rhizome rainbowishIn the Medieval Middle, a group blog on medieval topics, took the French theorists Deleuze and Guittari as their guides to challenge the notion of traditional top-down education. In the middle scholars and students can meet to exchange ideas in a more collaborative and cooperative form, across disciplines and levels of expertise. In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guittari focused on the image of the rhizome: a metaphor for those working together, connected at the root, though each an individual.

This has been an often challenging change for humanities, where many have been accustomed to working as solo researchers unlike those in the sciences. However, the digital world has offered introverts suspicious of collaboration multiple ways to work together. Collaboration no longer need mean hierarchical meetings centered on ‘fighting for a piece of the pie’ and competition for scarce resources. Rather it allows each scholar to play to their individual strengths but share the expertise of the larger group. They can build projects together like a group blog, a specialized wiki or even an app that brings useful information to a new audience. A huge area of investigation for the humanities is studying how we use all these new technologies and how they are changing our ways of interacting at the personal, national and global levels.


Understanding the ways we use these new tools leads to insights about human nature. Despite the conservative tutting about ‘dumbing down’ of the public, even a brief foray into social media demonstrates the power of the internet to disrupt traditional power holders. The explosion of social movements like #blacklivesmatter and @everydaysexism prove that social media can give a voice to the traditionally disenfranchised. The average person may not be acquainted with gender scholar Judith Butler, but most of them will have heard RuPaul explain that “We’re born naked, and the rest is drag” and understand Gender Trouble. People read and write more than ever, much of it surprisingly sophisticated.

When Joyce Carol Oates tweets and Margaret Atwood writes a book that won’t be read for a hundred years or Olafur Eliasson kickstarts solar art, we can see the very real impact the digital world has had on traditional discourse. Artists, musicians and authors create new work and remix existing texts and get feedback from their fans on the same day by uploading work to Bandcamp or Instagram or Twitter. Like fish in water, we are swimming in the digital world. Humanities scholars need to lead the way in showing how that world changes—and how it’s changing us.

There’s a myth of the ‘digital native’ that intimidates many a seasoned scholar; who can keep up with all these new gadgets. In fact our students need us now more than ever. While they know how to push buttons on their phones to get to the apps they want to use, they seldom stop to think about what it means to have a Facebook profile, or how their digital biography will follow them as they go out into the job market, and how the companies that hope to exploit their stories and photos and connections manipulate the ways they see themselves and others.

As always, the humanities will lead the way by examining the myriad ways we interact with one another—it’s only the tools that have changed after all. We still create art, literature, and music; we still speak living languages that are adapting to the digital world, too; we still seek to understand ourselves through the study of the mind, as well as reading and re-reading history through the wider dissemination of knowledge. As politicians try to exploit the 24/7 news cycle and social media, we need to help students sort through the rhetoric to find out what’s really at stake. We’re communicating in more ways than ever—and the risk of miscommunication grows.

And in case you haven’t noticed, everyone is writing all the time!

Literacy encompasses more than ever: in addition to the ever greater need for concise writing skills to communicate through a wide variety of media, we need to teach visual literacies as well as technological ones. Rhetoric, the stalwart of education since its very beginnings, now encompasses an ever-widening sphere. It may be that we are who can be googled, but we can shape who that is if we understand the digitally driven culture that surrounds us.

In the coming weeks we will be featuring some of our faculty and students who embody digital humanities in a wide variety of ways. We hope you’ll find inspiration for your own work and for future collaborations.


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