What the Digital Humanities Can’t Do (Chronicle)

By Kathryn Conrad

A popular Tumblr site for graduate students in the humanities last year was MLAJobs, which satirized postings in the Modern Language Association’s job list. One faux job ad captured one of the many frustrations faced by those in the humanities:

“Digital Humanities: Asst prof in American or British literature, 16th-20th century, with interest in the problematic of digital humanities. We prefer candidates who can tell us, What is digital humanities? Some familiarity with MSWord expected. Send vita and letters to Cornell University, Ithaca NY 14853.”

The problem, of course, is not that no one knows what the “digital humanities” are. Many scholars work in what might be described as digital humanities and have done so since long before the buzz term appeared. And I share their enthusiasm for the many ways in which digital projects can make our objects of study more accessible or open new ways of seeing and understanding them.

The problem is that “digital humanities” now appears to trump plain ol’ “humanities,” particularly among those who hold the purse strings. I fear that what now matters, what legitimizes the humanities in the eyes of many “stakeholders,” is that modifier: digital. Too many of us, beaten down by the relentless insistence on the supposed practicality of STEM degrees—and, thus, in an argumentative leap, the greater value of the STEM fields—are willing to accept this state of affairs. But if we do, we put at risk much more than job lines or funding. We enable the wave of utopianism that the digital pioneer Jaron Lanier has described and criticized in You Are Not a Gadget (Knopf, 2010).

In the minds of digital enthusiasts, the application of new technologies necessarily extends, rather than narrows, our capacities and vision. Perhaps we are all in the process of plugging into a larger meta-consciousness as we connect to one another through the web. Or, at a less heady level, maybe we just need more data to understand our relationship to one another and the world around us. The big-data approach, inspired by corporate data-­mining and finding its way into humanities scholarship, presumes the latter. But Lanier questions the idea that “quantity not only turns into quality at some extreme of scale, but also does so according to principles we already understand. … A trope from the early days of computer science comes to mind: garbage in, garbage out.”

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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