“The Digital Humanities Debacle”
During the DHd2019 conference the following article spread widely on Twitter: “The Digital Humanities Debacle: Computational methods repeatedly come up short” by Nan Z. Da.
In it the author, Nan Z. Da (University of Notre Dame), attacks what is called in the headline “Digital Humanities”, but what seems at a closer look to be “computational literary studies” (CLS). According to the author, CLS are analysing large corpora of texts only to produce trends that are not statistically sound and whose scientific value and explanatory power is very limited. “Its findings are either banal or, if interesting, not statistically robust,” she claims.
Whether her criticism of CLS is justified or not, they are certainly only a small speck of what most people would understand as the larger field of “Digital Humanities”. However, when attending the DHd2019 I found time and again some sympathy for this criticism.
Digital Humanities Method Meeting?
As a historian by heart (understanding myself as 2/3 a historian & 1/3 a “Digital Humanist” at the moment) I was missing what makes research exciting to me: questions and results. Many presentations highlighted research that was “work in progress”. It rarely showed solid outcomes and even more rarely was driven by an explicit research question. Instead, they often had the look and feel of tech-demos. This is exciting if you use a similar approach or need it for your own research (for example the panel on OCR was very exciting to me for exactly that reason), but is quite hard to listen to for anyone else.
To be fair, that is not a phenomenon limited to “Digital Humanities” or this specific conference. Instead it probably applies to most method-driven conferences. For example I attended the BMT (Berliner Methoden Treffen / Berlin Method Meeting) in 2017 and in 2018 which is comparable in scope (~500 people) and duration. In contrast to the DHd, the methods presented there are purely qualitative and more often than not “analog”. At the BMT hardly any results were presented aswell. Still, when an event is called “Method-Meeting” that is probably what you expect, right? However, Digital Humanities is certainly more than applying methods and software and I hope the program of the next conference will reflect that more strongly.
The Digital Humanist: Project manager, tech assistant, researcher?
Aside from these “tech-demos” there were several interesting panels as anyone might have noticed, who followed the conference hashtag #dhd2019. For me, the discussion on research grant policies, the report on a hypotheses blogger survey (Mareike König) and “DH is the Study of dead Dudes”, an analysis on the (almost) complete absence of women as a research subject in previous DHd abstracts (Mark Hall), stood out.
However, the most exciting panel I attended was “Digital Humanities from Scratch” (Friday 11:00-12:30). For large parts it dealt with the question: What is the role of the “Digital Humanist”? The answer: Often they are the lonely DH person at their institution. People expect them to be a unicorn or a technological wishing-well. Their role can stretch from “tech assistant”, over “researcher” to “project manager”. Quite often they are expected to deliver on all three, depending on the expectations of the different institutions they engage with. Swantje Dogunke made a handy motivation matrix that can be used to analyse the interests of the different stakeholders that a Digital Humanist has to deal with.
The Digital Humanist: A (wo)man in the middle
Personally, I see the most attractive role in project management. Let’s face it: IT-people will always be better programmers than we are. On the other side, researchers focusing exclusively on their subject (without diverting many hours to understanding, applying and keeping up to date with most recent technologies) will likely know more context, be better informed about the current state of research and will have an easier time to interpret many results.
What’s the role of the Digital Humanist then? To coordinate all that. As a (wo)man in the middle the Digital Humanists might not be familiar with all the details regarding the software or when exactly what event did happen. Still, they are aware to avoid the most common errors and have the vocabulary and the understanding that is necessary to speak to the tech- as well as to the research people. Therefore, they are the person best suited to come up with a plan that allows both sides to live up to their full potential and to make sure that everyone sticks to it.
That’s my personal takeaway from the DHd2019. I am certain other people will have had a very different experience and perspective. I am happy to hear about them over on Twitter or (more old-fashioned) in the comment section bellow.
: Update: Sybille Söring has written a detailed panel report on #DHfromScratch, you can read it on the DHDblog.