I was always determined not to be one of those professors who lectures off of notes so old that they’ve turned yellow. Certainly, I want my research to be modern too, and that’s why I was absolutely desperate to go to THATCamp AHA. I want to be able to keep up with the Jones and not be the old guy lamenting that my evil plan would have gone perfectly well if it weren’t for those meddlesome kids. [I’m looking at you, Stanley Fish.]
From my digitally under-informed perspective, the program at THAT Camp AHA could be sorted into three categories 1) Really interesting stuff. 2) Stuff I had no interest in at all. 3) Stuff that was so far over my head that I didn’t know whether I found it interesting or not. I ended up doing two sessions: An introduction to digital humanities and one on teaching undergraduates with technology. I’ll cover the first one here, and probably get to the second one next week some time as it’s the one that will take some more time to digest. [I'm also going to make more time during the main conference to see another DH session, so I'll probably get to that eventually too.]
While my session didn’t pan out, I got great help from the guy sitting behind me with ideas to be more technologically independent. That’s gotta be the best thing about an un-conference. Everybody’s trying to help everybody else out, instead of the more than occasional teardown you witness at regular conferences panels.
This next bit is going to sound critical, but it’s not. The folks in the Digital Humanities aren’t exactly sure what precisely it is that their subfield does and willingly admit it. My quick intro suggests to me that there are interesting DH projects that involve putting stuff up on the web (sometimes to do new things with it that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise and sometimes so that more people can do the same kind of things with the same data); new digital tools being developed to do new things; and new digital tools to do the same thing everyone else already does, but better.
There was a guy with us in that first session who was a whole lot more skeptical than I’ve ever been about technology, who kept wondering if this was just about carrying the same history in new vessels. From the discussion, it was pretty clear that most Digital Humanities people are conceiving of whole new ways to look at history that aren’t necessarily tied to the traditional narrative forms engineered solely by a single historian who starts with an introduction and ends with a conclusion.
I would find that scary if it weren’t for the fact that everyone I heard who “does” digital humanities still remains committed to getting students to do the same kinds of things historians have always asked their students to do for at least some part of the semester. Ultimately, the whole field seems to be about putting more items on the menu for students and professors alike. Chicken gets boring if you eat it every night, but that doesn’t mean you should never eat chicken again.*
Near the end of that session, another guy suggested that in the future we’ll probably all be doing some kind of hybrid between the digital and traditional humanities. If that’s what Dan Cohen meant when he said that in the future all history jobs will be digital history jobs then I’m OK with that. We can all do our jobs better because of the tools and methods that the Digital Humanities is producing. When I figure out which ones I’m going to make my students use this coming semester, then I’ll blog about that next session right here.
In the meantime, I celebrate the fact that my undergraduates can start turning in research papers with better sourcing than most MA theses had just 20 years ago. I celebrate the fact that anyone can mine text to their heart’s content. But I hope digital history never forgets its roots.
It’s what you do with all those sources that make the digital humanities the humanities. After the gathering is over, you need to turn a huge quantity of information into a useful, compelling, accessible narrative. This actually requires taking information away rather than gathering more. The Digital Humanities might actually make that process harder. Doing it well takes authority, confidence and a lot of practice. And besides the fact that (unless you’re David McCullough) you’re probably doing it on a word processing program, that process isn’t digital at all.
* Actually, as a vegetarian I plan on never eating chicken again, but I think you still get my point.