Erik Kile

It was a sunny day last April (or May) when John Shilpetski told me in his commanding voice that I ought to take Digital Humanities with him. What could I do but obey? Even if the words Digital Humanities fell from the mouth of someone with a less soothing voice, I would have been no less perplexed, intrigued and frightened by the idea of taking the course. What is Digital Humanities, I wondered.

Def-i-ni-tion (n.): a statement expressing the essential nature of something.

To name (define) something is to have power over it. After all, Adam was given dominion “over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground,” but he first had to name them all (Genesis 1:28). To define DH would, in turn, would give me mastery over it. The problem is that DH is more elusive than, say, the creature that Adam called “cow”. Going back to the Merriam-Webster definition of definition, what is the essential nature of DH? Here is what little I’ve grasped so far:

The first point that struck me in Unsworth’s article was his idea that humanities computing is something in which the computer is used as a tool for modeling humanities data and our understanding of it. This idea is best brought to life in the juxtaposition of websites like the Austen Archive vs. the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts and Parker’s Dante Project vs. Dante’s Divine Comedy. Which looks like DH and which is, in Unsworth’s terms, the charlatan?

Dante’s Divine Comedy is not only a poorly constructed and ugly webpage, but it is simply a text version of the physical poem placed on the web, probably never to be touched again (and surely riddled with grammar errors and misspellings). Parker’s Dante Project, on the other hand, provides visitors with a variety of tools that can help them gain a more broad understanding of the epic poem. The Editing Criteria page of the Dante Project sheds light on the idea behind this tool for modeling the humanities:

It begins by calling itself a “digital environment for the study of the Comedy.” The editors then note the compromises entailed in this XML version of the text, but they believe that this version, along with all the supplemental data from a wide range of scholars and sources will help readers navigate through and connect the information in dynamic ways. So not only do the editors acknowledge the possible loss of clarity caused by the XML rendering, but they they also list every source that contributed or was consulted for the supplemental data. To me, this sounds like a very collaborative, well thought-out project intended as a tool for broader understanding of this literary portion of the humanities. To me, this looks like DH.

I believe that Unsworth would also view the Dante Project as DH. In his article, he mentions that Humanities computing, as a practice of knowledge representation, grapples with this realization that its representations are surrogates in a very self-conscious way. Again, this fits the editors’ disclaimer regarding the XML rendering.

So I feel like I have a firm grasp on the Dante Project and why it is DH, but I know this is only the tail of a much larger, elusive creature.

If DH is a model and tool to help us gain a better understanding of the humanities through collaborative efforts on the part of both the contributors and the viewers (they’re really one in the same, aren’t they?), then at what level of scholarship do we set the bar? This is where the gray area sets in; this is where I welcome helpful comments.

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