The incremental changes in technology has left literature a little dusty. Libraries and the books they house maintain a dignified and necessary position in society, but it is not unusual to hear that a library has closed down, perhaps because of the lack of use from the public or lack of funding.
However, when a new gadget is released by Apple, the public goes into a frenzy. Rarely do we hear of an Apple store closing or any store that sells (for a hefty price) new and edgy technology. Plus, e-readers and Kobos are the new hotcakes – and they are delicious.
Technology is central to our everyday lives. It is also central to education. The humanities, especially the example above, English Literature, has always had to fight its way to a status of importance in the university setting. The humanities are often seen as something the undecided undergrad foolishly explores without the slightest inclination as to why. What is truly in it for them? For their future? Will there be a job at the end of a degree in the humanities? All humanities majors must face this question from parents and friends at one point or another. Employers still boast the need for a skilled candidate and they make a classification between the “soft” and “hard” skills students learn. Students who take up engineering, medicine, or get trained in a trade, specific job, or profession have an edge, no doubt, over the student who made it their priority to study the humanities through university. Besides, bridges cannot be built or cancer cured by abstract artists and literature aficionados can they?
Or can they?
Here is where digital technology comes in and it takes a little edge and imagination on your part to see how the digital humanities is potentially one of the brightest horizons in higher education.
Humanities’ Pedagogy does a Quantum Leap to the 21st Century:
Note: For the following explanation, I intend to use English Literature as an example of education in the humanities. I will tie other disciplines in as I go along.
So far, I have made a point of acknowledging that the structure of the classroom needs to change. The traditional structure of classrooms for humanities majors is relatively simple: the instructor lectures then the group discusses the lecture and their readings in a “tutorial” or “discussion.” Sometimes, the group participates in a workshop or participates in a roundtable. Regardless, the is still little active interaction with learning, aside from testing an interpretation of a text. One way to change this is to engage students using technology. The digital humanities opens new doors in regards not only how to learn, but why we should learn the humanities.
I was once given a lecture in a course taught by Dr. Sara Humphreys entitled “Modern American Fiction” that used Prezi.com to explain the theme of time in relation to modernity in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The presentation was insightful and provided a new perspective using digital media to visualize time. Similar to most English students, I love words. Words, reading, and writing are the tools of our trade. However, much of our trade is theoretical learning. Writing essays and exams take up most of the course. Hard skills, such as learning new technology, researching and presenting information, are still lacking in the humanities, especially in English. Like most humanities’ students, I worry about how I will apply what I have learned to a job. However, having students work with technology and media throughout the year may help them engage in seamless ways. Blogging – another tool of learning used in Dr. Humphreys class – allows students to explore content in many new ways. The blog takes a multimedia approach to a topic, whether in literature or another discipline, that also ties in a fundamental engagement and use of technology. Many of my classmates have confirmed that blogs are an excellent and preferred way of learning and presenting material.
I have always been a writer (well, at least since I could write fluently). A wordsmith that loves to work on an essay; however, my peers vow to the blog. Some of their reasons include, for one, the visual aspect of a blog. Secondly, the ability to use less formal, but no less effective, diction. Finally, the fact that a blog is online and students today are online regularly. Their online time is well spent with research and blogging.
The above is an example of how digital media is working to change the humanities. We can even get more proactive if we look into the technology that can be used and the content that can be explored. The digital humanities is an answer to how and why the humanities should be revved up to a new age.
Digital Pedagogy: Digital Humanities or Computing for the Humanities?
Prezi.com is a good example of the potential for digital technology in the classroom. Since the humanities tends to be writing-and reading-intensive, the focus on hands-on learning is be minimized. Why is this? Let’s not look too hard for a very obvious reason: the lack of trained instructors. In his article, “What is the Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” Matthew G. Kirschenbaum points out that the digital humanities is more “akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies” (Kirschenbaum 56). It is the method, not just medium, that is the message. A methodical approach to literature analyzes it for its quantitative and qualitative factors (some of which are outlined below in Kirschenbaum’s passage). It does not simply discuss a text (or a work of art, historical document, period in history, or philosophical school), it pries it for bits of information and re-structures that information into, often visual, representations. So, classrooms are a little like board meetings, with students and the instructor presenting an interpretation using new methods of research and teaching. This gives the students time to work with (using a hands-on approach) the material, not to simply ingest it and write an essay later.
The digital humanities upgrades what it means to have a humanities education. Despite being a new frontier, this is a problem for so many instructors who are not trained in new digital teaching methodologies. Also, many are not eager to learn new methods, either. Yet, eagerness can be encouraged by those who already consider themselves to be “digital humanists.” Kirschenbaum, a self-proclaimed digital humanist, makes some excellent arguments for his field as it relates to literature:
After numeric data, text has been by far the most tractable data type for computers to manipulate. Unlike images, audio, video, and so on, there is a long tradition of text-based processing that was within the capabilities of even some of the earliest computer systems and that has for decades fed research in fields like stylistics, linguistics, and author attribution studies, all heavily-associated with English Departments. Second . . . there is a long association between computers and composition . . . Third is the pitch-perfect convergence between the intense conversation around editorial theory and method in the 1980s and the widespread means to implement electronic archives and edition very soon after (Kirschenbaum 57).
Perhaps what is so challenging to grasp for outsiders of this scholarship is that it is not just the text that counts. The material in the text is one thing. In other words, the “why” is one question answered for during a traditional lecture. Meaning is accessed through the words on the page. Any medium can present this. However, in teaching meaning there are many ways to present and explore the information gathered from the text. Aside from just teaching, the digital humanities instructor places emphasis on the importance of learning how to present data and information. An instructor using new methodologies would be concerned for how students can connect, for instance, scholarship to business, to law, to medicine, or to a future position in a company. How-to lessons are offered alongside meaning analysis.
The digital humanities classroom would use e-texts, for instance. So, while the student is engaging with meaning, they are also engaging with new media. Social media would help in regards to conversation and discussion in class. Digital archives allow students and instructors immediate and easy access to prolific databases of poetry, art, historical documents, film, and scholarship. Audio files, podcasts, and online video all allow a multimedia presentation of lessons. Data is collected and digital tools such as Prezi.com, etc, are used to learn and shape new ideas. All of this is combined in a classroom that functions as an interactive space; a place where technology effortlessly leads to knowledge and allows work to be completed with the array of resources offered through the technology.
The Discursive Shift:
A Discursive Shift
In the article “Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities,” Patrik Svensson presents the oft-cited scholarly frustration of what to label the this new field. Is it a humanities or a computer science? Is it software engineering or media and design? The inter-disciplinary nature of the field is often what confuses and frustrates outsiders. Svensson makes an important observation: that humanities computing is the predecessor for digital humanities. The two separate entities are tied only by the humanities disciplines they focus on. They do this assessment in different ways. Such a “discursive shift” relates to the cultural, social, economic shifts that have occurred over the past few decades, principally since the 1980s, and beginning with the institutionalization of humanities computing. This institutionalization made it plausible to discuss this new field in academic journals and at conferences openly. The underlying concerns and issues were naturally brought up and a communal identity was formed. Humanities computing was driven to study the science of the text: linguistical analysis. The presentation of this analysis followed suit to the presentation of any data. Meaning was extracted from the data and the results were not theoretical or abstract. Theory can be applied as a context for meaning analysis. In comparison to the humanities computing, the digital humanities focuses more on meaning from the data. Linguistic analysis come into play, but the art of extracting and discussing meaning still applies. In the classroom, this may mean simply using data gathered by students and instructors to discuss the material, incorporate theory, and/or develop new means of teaching. Humanities computing shifted into the digital humanities as soon as the abstract became fundamental to student learning material. Since most people are not equipped with the scientific knowledge and tools to create tools and methods for learning, they rely on previous developments and current digital tools to allow them to explore content.
The tools are there. The knowledge now can be extracted and re-structured. Svenensson quotes a passage from the inaugeral issue of the online Digital Humanities Quarterly:
Digital humanities is by its nature a hybrid domain, crossing disciplinary boundaries and also traditional barriers between theory and practice, technological implementation and scholarly reflection. But over time this field has developed its own orthodoxies, its internal lines of affiliation and collaboration that have become intellectual paths of least resistance. In a world — perhaps scarcely imagined two decades ago — where digital issues and questions are connected with nearly every area of endeavor, we cannot take for granted a position of centrality. On the contrary, we have to work hard even to remain aware of, let alone to master, the numerous relevant domains that might affect our work and ideas. And at the same time, we need to work hard to explain our work and ideas and to make them visible to those outside our community who may find them useful (Svenesson).
Svenesson makes a crucial point in the last few lines: that the digital humanities must reach an audience outside its circle. There are many scholars, students within the humanities who could benefit from the knowledge of the digital humanities. It is this discursive shift that has created this divide. Whereas some scholars have been exposed to digital culture and development and have witnessed its gradual incorporation into society, many have not.
The next discursive shift that must occur is the incorporation of the digital humanities within the traditional humanities. What changes that result from this will be responsive to the changes of how education is structured in Classroom 2.0 and to Student 2.0. Perhaps this discursive change will help build the knowledge and skill to help construct bridges and cure cancer, one click at a time.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English
Departments. ADC Bulletin. 150 (2010). 24 July 2012.
Svensson, Patirk. “Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities
Quarterly. 3.3 (2009). 20 July, 2012.