Blog Post

Who are public digital humanists (and what do they do)?

On Thursday, November 2, the Digital Studio for Public Humanities at the University of Iowa kicked off its new lunchtime series, PDH4L (Public Digital Humanities for Lunch).  Kyle Moody, PhD candidate in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, inaugurated the series with a look at modern media audiences.

Moody dared to go where few have ventured – he offered a working definition of public digital humanities (in one sentence!): “Open and accessible research and content creation, distribution, and evaluation by persons able to use or utilize technology.”  He expanded his definition by suggesting that digital humanities combine humanities and computational methodologies to answer existing research questions, challenge existing theoretical paradigms, and generate new questions.

One thing I like about Moody’s definition is that he uses the phrase “persons able to use or utilize technology” to describe digital humanists.  I appreciate the word “persons” because it applies to people both inside and outside the academy.  Likewise, people “able to use or utilize technology” need not be expert coders.  This definition opens up the possibility for anyone to be a digital humanist.

Moody went on to discuss how new technologies are helping to blur the lines between those who consume and those who produce cultural content.  David Perlmutter’s term for this consumer/producer is “interactor.”  For example, people responding to Presidential debates with memes are not just passively consuming political information, but rather participating in a vibrant and instantaneous national conversation for which the debate is an initiator.  Video game fans use social media to respond to new games, and creators sometimes alter the games based on what fans say they want.  

The lunchtime crowd responded to Moody’s talk with a lively discussion about the role of the academy in producing scholarly content in a world of interactors and public digital humanists.  The institution of the academy is based on a model of highly trained seekers of Truth (or “truths”) who produce knowledge and share it with the public.  What becomes of professional authority and disciplinary rigor when we open our work to public participation?  Does the academy have a responsibility to give the public more control over what scholars produce, and how should this be mediated?  Is there a place for the academy as a benevolent curator of cultural content?  Do public digital humanities demystify the academy as a producer of Truth, and is this a good thing?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions, and on Kyle Moody’s working definition of public digital humanities.



It sounds like it was a vibrant, productive discussion, Audrey! I'm sorry I wasn't able to make it. These are all such interesting questions—though I wonder if perhaps it might be more productive to shift the conversation to thinking in terms of skills, and therefore thinking of humanists as existing along a spectrum, rather than focusing specifically on roles/status?


Yvonne, I like you idea of focusing on skills - especially since public digital humanities projects often involve diverse teams of people.  Talking about skills would allow us to acknowledge the unique talents that individuals bring to a digital humanities project.  It also situates academics as people who are highly skilled at humanists/computational methods, rather than authorities in or gatekeepers of humanist/computational truth.