What Are the Digital Humanities? (And Why Do They Matter?)
I assume digital must mean something to all of us: cellphones, virtual reality, computers, and so on. “Humanities” is a bit trickier – if you’re involved in academia, you probably know that the humanities are a field of learning that focus on, to put it simply, the human. That means performing research intended to explore what it’s like to be human, what can be done to improve the human experience, and what we can learn about humanity. What could it possibly mean when we combine the digital and the human?
Dr. Nathian Rodriquez, Dr. Adam Hammond, and Dr. Pamella Lach gathered in Love Library room 430 at San Diego State University on October 4th to discuss this overarching question. The biggest misunderstanding they hoped to disperse was the idea that somehow humans are not compatible with technology. On one end, there is always a chorus of: Is there anything more frightening than the terminator? Than intelligent computers gone rogue? Than children fixated by a computer screen? On the other, there are individuals like Dr. Hammond who argue, “If we don’t want to have a Terminator situation, pair computer scientists with humanists who can guide them away from fatal mistakes.”
Each of the three distinguished speakers took the floor (and projector) and shared their current and past projects as well as their perspective on the state of and use of the Digital Humanities. Time seemed to fly by quickly as talk of Canadian notables, the Unbuilt Blue Ridge Parkway, and how social media apps can illustrate a changing social culture for the LGBTQIAA+ community (especially those taking asylum in the United States) floated through the room.
Peace settled over me in that room as each speaker took the floor. I forgot that my seat was uncomfortably close to their table. I forgot to take pictures even. I agreed whole heartedly with every claim and statement the Dr.’s Rodriguez, Hammond, and Lach provided: the need for a collaboration between the sciences and the humanities, the idea that rising social media is not as alien and terrifying as many think, the concept that technology is quickly becoming a part of and a sanctuary for many of its users today… but I
already knew all that before I entered the room. As I sat, where I sat, both physically and on the issues on hand, it became apparent in retrospect that I was not the one who needed to be convinced. They were preaching to a choir and I, that choir, stared them straight in the eyes and nodded with gusto (when I wasn’t furiously scribbling notes.)
It was only later, in fact, that the main main problem arose. I will explain with a short dialogue:
“You liked that event?” Lehi asked me.
“Yeah!” I was so excited about it! It was everything I’d already known!
End of dialogue. That was the problem. If you knew near nothing about the Digital Humanities before entering the room that evening, you were probably lost. You would have sat there, too, asking as one concerned parent did, “How can I protect my children from being saturated by technology?” I scoffed during that Q & A session but that was my own ignorance to the situation at hand. Her question guided the majority of the Q & A as the speakers struggled to explain why on multiple levels it’s not a matter of fight or flight but of cooperation. Cooperation.
What are the Digital Humanities? Dr. Pamella Lach, or “Pam” as she introduced herself, spoke on the existence of the Digital Humanities as a place of collaboration. A “co-learning opportunity” that allows the academic minds of both the seemingly subjective
humanities and seemingly objective sciences to share processes, methodologies, and pedagogy in an effort to expand how we can think and learn about being human.
Similarly and quite simply, Dr. Adam Hammond explained the Digital Humanities as the “intersection of the humanities with computation” and a way to
share perspectives. Not only that, but Dr. Hammond stressed that the Digital Humanities forces bookish humanities intellectuals to stop being so “snobby” – the sciences can offer ways to understand humanity better, sometimes, than the glue and paper of a hardy book.
It was Dr. Nathian Rodriquez who decided to let his projects illustrate the use of the Digital Humanities more so than try to explain it himself. I mentioned people taking asylum in the United States, it was in reference to the work of Dr. Rodriquez who uses social media platforms to analyze how members of certain minority groups express themselves and seek out community, especially those who are not from the United States. His effort was one that combined computation with the human being and thus sought to find ways that the collaboration can lead to an answer for the great “What is it like?” question.
The great shame of the night was, with all the talk of collaboration between two seemingly opposite fields, with the stress on being understanding and keeping open-minds, someone forgot to solidly explain just what the hell the Digital Humanities are. The event concluded with an invitation to mingle and eat Halloween themed cookies while discussing the topics that had been touched on during the presentations. I felt exhilarated, half because my interest in the field was validated but also half because I thought each person in that room now thought like I do. Not so. The missing link, perhaps the main element missing, was the collaboration of the humanities-humanities.