Defining Digital Humanities: It’s complicated…

There is no doubt that our society’s period of technological progress has fundamentally altered the way humans behave and learn. The computer, the smartphone, and similar innovations started a culture in which every aspect of life is becoming digitized. To keep up, academia is forced to adapt, resulting in the once unthinkable: science and technology melding with the humanities.

According to Wikipedia, digital humanities is a field that uses computing in order to create a more effective means of expressing and researching humanities. Such technologies can be used to create new resources, to research new and existing resources, and to communicate information and ideas in a more effective manner. In simpler words, digital humanities is a subject that uses technology to make studying the humanities easier. Upon first glance, this definition works. Yet after spending more time learning about this subject, this definition leaves me with more questions than answers. Here are a few:

  • Applying current technology to answer questions and improve research is already being done in many other fields, so why are the humanities being isolated? 
  • Is it fair to combine every humanities discipline into one when referring to the digital humanities? 
  • Can digital humanities be considered an independent field, or is it just a term to describe a trend that affects more archaic fields of study? 
  • Where would this field belong—within a Humanities department or in a Computer Science (or related STEM) department? 

To tackle the first two questions, we must first examine what is meant by the humanities. The humanities study the human experience; typically, this involves using philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world. Although the individual subjects focus on various elements of human nature, the methods of inquiry and accumulating information appear to be very traditional and one-dimensional. The influx of technology has made learning STEM the latest fad, and our society’s obsession with technological progress is causing the humanities to become an inferior and, in more extreme cases, a dead field. Although the individual disciplines that are under the humanities umbrella are distinct, when it comes to the digital humanities, that distinction is trivial. The humanities as a whole can benefit from technology to enhance traditional research methods and make information more accessible. A recent New York Times article reveals that the interest in humanities is at an all-time low, and digital humanities can be seen as the attempt to modernize a humanities education to be more inclusive of technological processes. 

According to Alan Liu, an English Professor at UC Santa Barbara, digital humanities is not a field on its own, but “an array of convergent practices that explore a universe.” I agree. Although the primary focus is on better research practices and spreading information, the goal of digital humanities is largely undefined. From using iPads to collect better data on historical sites to using virtual reality to transport people inside a famous painting, this area of study is eclectic. STEM disciplines are often criticized for lacking “human” qualities (i.e. social skills, public speaking, collaboration, morals), and the humanities are criticized for being unable to evolve fast enough for modern society, and I believe that digital humanities is the culmination of the positive parts of these fields. Technology and the humanities work in tandem; one is not only studying how technology enhances information and research, but also how the humanities can aid our current knowledge of computing. Although it draws heavily from Computer Science and similar fields, Digital Humanities is fundamentally a humanities discipline and should remain within the humanities department. Some even argue that it is a fundamental transition towards a technologically inclined humanities education. In the near future, maybe Digital Humanities will move from being a relatively unknown area of study to replacing the current standard of humanistic inquiry. Only time will tell.



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