May 26, 2010

Why Digital Humanities is “Nice”


One of the things that people often notice when they enter the field of digital humanities is how nice everybody is. This can be in stark contrast to other (unnamed) disciplines where suspicion, envy, and territoriality sometimes seem to rule. By contrast, our most commonly used bywords are “collegiality,” “openness,” and “collaboration.” We welcome new practitioners easily and we don’t seem to get in lots of fights. We’re the Golden Retrievers of the academy. (OK. It’s not always all balloons and cotton candy, but most practitioners will agree that the tone and tenor of digital humanities is conspicuously amiable when compared to many, if not most, academic communities.)

There are several reasons for this. Certainly the fact that nearly all digital humanities is collaborative accounts for much of its congeniality—you have to get along to get anything accomplished. The fact that digital humanities is still young, small, vulnerable, and requiring of solidarity also counts for something.

But I have another theory: Digital humanities is nice because we’re often more concerned with method than we are with theory. Why should a focus on method make us nice? Because methodological debates are often more easily resolved than theoretical ones. Critics approaching an issue with sharply opposed theories may argue endlessly over evidence and interpretation. Practitioners facing a methodological problem may likewise argue over which tool or method to use. Yet at some point in most methodological debates one of two things happens: either one method or another wins out empirically or the practical needs of our projects require us simply to pick one and move on. Moreover, as my CHNM colleague Sean Takats pointed out to me today, the methodological focus makes it easy for us to “call bullshit.” If anyone takes an argument too far afield, the community of practitioners can always put the argument to rest by asking to see some working code, a useable standard, or some other tangible result. In each case, the focus on method means that arguments are short.

And digital humanities stays nice.


  1. I like this notion of the digital humanities being about a kind of collegiality and standard of behavior and engagement with others. It extends the practical focus of DH to a “technologies of the self.” But I think this also needs to be extended to a practice of active inclusion not simply open access and a welcoming disposition. DH needs to work harder at making sure our collaborators are appropriately representative of the kind of world we want to make. (While, of course, avoiding the trappings of a multiculturalist disposition.)

  2. Hmmm. I agree with the “method” over “theory” argument, but I also think that there’s a certain amount of buy-in that happens before one enters into dialogue with other “digital humanists” that pehaps does some of the poltical and ideological pruning that creates a community predisposed to getting along. I happen to think a bit more dissension might be good for the “movement,” and I haven’t really seen enough of it to conclude that everything’s always completely collegial. Perhaps this has something to do with the centrality of Twitter, which sucks for pursuing and especially for resolving arguments. 

    I might add that I still haven’t completely resolved my own internal conflicts about the term “digital humanist,” however positively inclined I am to Dave Lester. I’m guessing but don’t know for sure that this has been rehearsed elsewhere. The phrase seems to draw boundaries that the very nature of the movement might seek to irradicate, and to suggest an insider/outsider construct that, no matter how “nice” people are, proclaims quite forcefully a “right” and a “wrong” way to do things. Folks in this expanding circle (me: guilty) often snark others back in line, and that’s not particularly “nice.”

    Then, add in the fact that I’ve never met a nice Celtics fan in my life…    

  3. @Luke — I’d agree with most of this. @edmj made a similar chicken and egg point about predispositions on Twitter. I’m also not completely comfortable with the terms “digital humanist” or “digital humanities,” which are certainly artificial and, I sincerely hope, temporary. For the time being, however, I think they are useful constructs insofar as they are helping to build a community of practice, which is, as this post suggests, what I find most interesting anyway. I, for one, will always consider myself first and foremost a historian, and I suspect that’s true of most DH colleagues, however much we rattle on about the digital and its differences.

    After last night, I’m not really in a mood to defend the Celts, which I’m sure makes you very happy.

  4. @Tanner – Indeed. Being nice and welcoming isn’t enough. We should be more proactive in making the community more representative in all kinds of ways, not only with respect to gender and race, but language, disciplinary affiliation, young/old, professional/amateur, etc. At CHNM we hope our regional THATCamp program can do some of that (not always easy) work. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Practitioners are often drawn together by an interest in the pragmatic and outcomes as tangible as possible. Since we’re all in it together, it makes sense that we’d default to a position of respect and collegiality. I tend to agree with you there.

    As you note early on, the sort of collegiality and collaboration you see among DH practitioners emerges also from position of DH in the academy, and, more specifically it’s relationship to older, more established disciplines. This is something I’ve observed with composition and rhetoric, whose practitioners typically emerge from English and which is typically housed in English departments. DH is “nice” for the same reason that Composition and Rhetoric has been”nice” for about 40 years: given the vexed glances, dubious credulity, and suspicions of academic charlatanism by traditionalist colleagues, we look to a community of fellow travelers — the community of practice — for validation and celebration of our work, its intellectual merit, and its value to the academy. (It doesn’t help too that comp/rhet is often regarded as the service sector of English departments.) Given the emphasis on collaboration in comp/rhet and and DH, it makes pretty good sense that we’d be able to establish meaningful relationships with colleagues and form communities of practice in which we can be nice to one another.

  6. It strikes me that the emergence & development of ‘digital humanities’ has a parallel in some of the developmental history of archaeology. For many years, much of archaeological practice could have been considered ‘atheoretical’ (at least by its practitioners) in that its concerns were primarily methodological – better dating techniques, better recording techniques and so on – and there was an assumption that we didn’t ‘need’ theory: what you dug up and how it all fitted together was all common sense. Nowadays, that’s not the case at all, and there is a much tighter examination between the theoretical implications of the various methods used and vice versa. So while I’m really enjoying this phase of ‘digital humanities’ (my corner is in agent based modeling) I look forward to the theoretical debates to come!

  7. I’m not sure it’s a matter of method (practice) over theory. DH–or whatever this field morphs into–will become an increasingly open-source activity (think Web 2.0 and beyond), attracting the participation of historians and researchers working beyond the pale of the academy.

    As you have quite correctly surmised, progress is contingent upon collaboration; hence, civility is (and will continue to be) a necessity. But I don’t see any reason why civil discourse should be the exclusive domain of method over theory. NPR talk show host Diane Rehm somehow manages to moderate a most civil discourse that is rooted in the subjective (hypothesis & opinion–“theory,” if you will), and I believe we can (must!) encourage the same in DH. Let’s work to keep DH “nice”!

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