digital humanities, semantics, and a WOTY suggestion for ADS

I’m a little sheepish about admitting this, but I’ve been delinquent in offering my own definition of DH. While I’m more than willing to take academic risks and to define and contribute to new scholarly endeavors, I’m more reserved when defining something I’ve been a student rather than a founder of; and, in such situations, I prefer to sit at the feet of the masters and to leave the enlightening to them.

But my hesitation on this count in no way reflects a lack of interest. Rather, as evidenced in this question I recently asked during an interview with Julia Flanders:

I’ve studiously avoided referring to Digital Humanities as a field, as a method, or as a discipline during this interview in order to remain definition-neutral, but the question of definition is an important one. Although you’ve responded to it before in a number of different contexts (e.g. “Julia Flanders @ MITH”), I’d like to pose it again in part because, in the broadest sense, the debate over definition persists, as evidenced, for instance, in the repeated raising of the question in contexts such as Day of Digital Humanities (“How do you define Humanities Computing / Digital Humanities?”), and in part because a definition, if one is codified, will surely play a role in determining the future of Digital Humanities (be it constrained, i.e. restricted as a method or set of methods, or expanded, i.e. institutionalized as a discipline warranting, for instance, departmental standing with a corresponding curriculum within academic institutions). So, for teachers, researchers, and students who are new to Digital Humanities and want to understand its role within the larger humanities community as well as its implications for the community, how do you define digital humanities?

I think the answer is terribly important. And I think it’s time for all of us working in DH formally to weigh in. But doing so, from my perspective, requires a survey of the landscape first. So I’ve turned to several dictionaries, google, and the DH community at large in a quest for a bit more information.

here’s what I learned:

Despite the fact that today the terms “digital humanities” and “digital humanist” return  208,000 and 7,970 google results, respectively (actually, that’s not much when considered beside terms like “linguistics” and “linguist”, which return 20,900,000 and 3,430,000 results, respectively; and “chemistry” and “chemist” which garner 140,000,000 and 17,900,000 returns), we’ve not gained enough presence in speech and writing to merit OED inclusion, as digital humanities is not listed as an entry or sub-entry in the OED (linguistics isn’t in there either; though sociology, biology, physics, and chemistry are…). And while designations for individuals working in many fields are present, including linguist, digital humanist has not earned a place.

Digital humanities and digital humanist are not in Urban Dictionary either … yet (to my fall 2010 DH students: feel free to work ahead on one of your assignments: add the entry!). And we’ve yet to make the cut at Merriam-Webster.

(we really need to rectify this. ADS, would you consider nominating digital humanities for 2010 WOTY?)

But, no surprise, we do make an appearance in Wikipedia (crowdsourcing, you rule).

Those of us working within DH (ADHO, ACH, DH Conference, Day of DH, DHQ, TEI, etc.) have come to some consensus regarding who and what we are, at least in a general sense:

  • ACH: ‘computer-aided research in literature and language studies, history, philosophy, and other humanities disciplines, and especially research involving the manipulation and analysis of textual materials’
  • DH: ‘digitally-based research and teaching across the arts and humanities disciplines’

but I think Terras is right in arguing that we need to be more even more explicit in defining DH and – I would add – even noisier about our role as shapers of new directions and new questions in the humanities and, by extension, shapers of new directions in fields that are increasingly influenced by our work. We may feel ubiquitous and obvious, but, as google search returns illustrate, really, we aren’t.

from feet to shoulders: defining the terms

In the absence of the feet of the masters, standing on the shoulders of the lexicographical giants at the OED seems like a pretty good strategy. According to the OED online, humanist is defined as follows: n. 1. a. ‘A person who pursues or is expert in the study of the humanities’

And while digital can pertain to a finger or a numeral, its adjectival use in this entry in OED’s draft additions comes closest to representing the meaning I intend:

digital divide, n. (a) ‘a division between those in favour of the extensive use of digital technology (esp. computers) and those against it’; (b) (now the usual sense) ‘the gulf between those who have ready access to current digital technology (esp. computers and the Internet) and those who do not; (also) the perceived social or educational inequality resulting from this’

Deconstructing this definition is easy; on the one hand, there’s divide, which has to do with ‘favoring or opposing something’. On the other hand, and of use here, there’s ‘the extensive use of digital technology (esp. computers),’ which has to do with behavior. And this adjectival part of the entry provides a pithy and useful reference of my own intended meaning.

how do I define DH?

By extension and definitional amalgamation, digital humanities is ‘the study of the humanities’ as accomplished by means of ‘extensive use of digital technology (esp. computers)’

It follows therefore that a digital humanist is ‘a person who pursues or is expert in the study of the humanities’ and who engages in ‘the extensive use of digital technology (esp. computers)’ in support of this study

That was easy and pretty accurate. The more challenging next steps: defining by example, providing a richer etymology (an earliest attestation would be nice, as would a richer discussion of the shift from humanities computing to digital humanities – The Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing  was founded in 1973, and the Association for Computers in the Humanities was founded in 1978; when was digital humanities conceived?), and – of course – lobbying ADS.