Blog Post

Explaining the Digital Humanities to my mother and my department...


When I got my HASTAC Scholars email on Friday, I immediately wanted to share the news not only on twitter, where people ‘got’ it, but also with my family back home in Pittsburgh: 


“Hey, mum! I have some good news: I got this fellowship-thingy!”


“Oh, cool!...What is it?”


“It’s for this group called HASTAC that looks at the convergence, essentially of the old world and the new world.”


“Speak English, please.”


“It’s like, putting bodies of research online in an innovative, accessible way that enhances the content.”


“So making websites? You already do that.”


It immediately became clear to me that I had almost no idea how to explain the Digital Humanities to the woman who brought me into this world. My mother, brilliant though she may be, cannot find the “Start” button on a PC interface, much less utilize a collaborative DH tool to analyze data. 


Since one of the main precepts of the growing DH field is to make vast repositories of information accessible to a large audience, I think that this question of how one ought to go about describing it to those unrelated is important.


Only a year ago, I was one of those entirely unrelated; it wasn’t until one of my mentors invited me to sit on his faculty advisory board for pedagogy and technology that I even heard the words in the same sentence. 


As it turns out, Penn State’s French and Francophone Studies department was not acquainted with this movement, either; when I included in my honors undergraduate thesis proposal that I would like to submit my work on Alphonse Mucha’s menu illustrations in an interactive, sensory, multi-layered online format, le département scoffed, dismissing my proposal as “quelques images dans un site-web” (“A few images on a website”).


Luckily for me, my thesis advisor is willing to go with the flow and let me do the online component of my presentation so long as I still submit a physical paper to keep le département from sacre bleu!-ing in my face!


So, I turn to you, my fellow Nerd Herders: how do you explain what it is that you do to your loved ones and your academic units? 


As someone who only wants to dig deeper and deeper into the world of DH, I’d like to get this straight sooner rather than later!   





Hello Julia:

   Your post immediately captivated me 1) because I am also from Pittsburgh 2) I also struggled communicating my new status as a HASTAC scholar to my mother earlier today.  The Digital Humanities encompass so many concepts/projects/digital platforms that it is difficult to concisely explain the DH to family, friends and even colleagues within the academic community at here at Duke.

   My strategy of late has been to focus on communication and how the DH facilitate processes of sharing knowledge.  Many people are familiar with Twitter (including my mother), so I began my conversation with my experiences live tweeting DH-related discussions/general events on Duke's campus etc.  Then I stressed the importance of open access on sites such as Twitter that allow individuals around the globe to have access to conversations that otherwise would have been inaccessible to them.

   Today, I attended an amazing discussion hosted by the Duke Provost Lecture Series; Daphne Koller of Coursera, an open-access online course site based out of Stanford, gave an inspiration talk titled, "The Online Revolution: Education for Everyone".  Dr. Koller's talk focused on the ways Coursera’s online courses create a deeply interactive, communal and fulfilling educational experiences for its 1.5 millions students.  She eloquently and convincingly argued that their online course environment has several advantages: 

1) The online community is a less threatening environment for students

2) Students can tailor the flow and pace of their learning as they navigate online courses

3) Students receive immediate feedback on quizzes and or questions posed during/after online lectures

4) The online experience is more interactive than the traditional lecture because students can easily form online study groups and participate in class forums

  What I took away from Dr. Kroller's talk was 1) the importance of communication and 2) the importance of innovative online tools to help create a global community of scholars. For me, effective communication is the crux of the DH.

   On a side note: I am very interested in your honors thesis research!  I am a guest curator at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB) in New Orleans; SoFAB has an extensive historic menu and cookbook collection in its Culinary Library.  New Orleans’ restaurant culture is intimately tied to the development of restaurant culture in France, and I have come across beautifully crafted, hand painted menus in SoFAB’s collection.  I would love to hear more about your project and the methodology you are using to shape your research and analysis.


I think your communication point is certainly key; I will work with the wording, then, to try to relate it to my mother's experience.

I also love how you mention your work in the wonderful world of gastronomy...I just discovered that this is "a thing," and I am fascinated!

I will certainly be blogging/soliciting input about my Mucha project, and I would love to accept any suggestions that you may have!


Really beautiful post, Julie. I have the same issue with my family (and colleagues even) and am too finding their confusion to be almost productive. This article "Explaining DH in Promotion Documents" might give us yet another angle to think about how to articulate our work to those who might not yet understand what we are trying to do.

Great thoughts from you, too, Ashley! Thank you for posting post-lecture. I was unable to attend but watched the Tweets. I think your take-away is a fresh way to look at how MOOCS might help us think DH on a larger scale.

(Thank you, @adelinekoh for RTweeting the above article)




...we can probably explain it to our moms!

I will definitely be giving this link a look- thank you so much!

Also, your praise is much appreciated; I am surprised that people are liking this post so much- I thought it was somewhat silly of me...but apparently it's relevant!


Hey Ashley,

Thanks for mentioning communication and Coursera. And good to hear from a Dukie down the road. I'm a student at Davidson currently enrolled in Coursera’s Intro to Python course. I'll be able to give first-hand updates as they come.

I'm excited about Coursera for two reasons. Frist, it gives me a chance to tackle subjects outside my academic strengths without the embarrassing repercussions of the classroom. Second, it seems to give a quick, tangible structure to free learning resources we’ve always had on the internet.

Going off this second point, Coursera has the potential to be exactly the “database” that many in the DH have lionized. The video lecture series may be too large to conjugate in traditional database form (with minute searchable indices and cross references) but the same organization structure seems to be at work. Or at least it has the potential to be. I think if Coursera started viewing itself more as a database for learning (the way JSTOR is a database for monographs), then it could offer more resources to students who really want to educate themselves through the open resources on the internet.

I would argue that right now Coursera is still too closed. I’m frustrated, for example, that students need to sign up for a course before it begins in order to take it. I really wanted to take the “History of the Internet,” for instance, but I missed the start date by a couple of days and wasn’t able to enroll. According to the FAQ page, it seems that I can still watch the lectures and take the in-video quizzes (a really nice, medium-specific aspect of these courses, by the way), but that wasn’t my actual experience. I’m also not sure why there’s a reluctance to let me join in the first place. (To continue with frustrations, it might also help if the videos were searchable).

A final note with a question: I’m interested in taking Coursera-style learning to the developing world, but I’m not sure where to begin. I’m applying to several post-grad fellowships in Central Asia, for instance, which certainly won’t have abundant access to computers. Do any of you know which granting agencies I might be able to solicit for—say—laptops at the U.S. Embassy-sponsored English classes in Turkmenistan? Also, is Coursera the best educational platform to choose? I know that many of the Coursera videos have subtitle options—but there might be better places to send first time learners? Has anyone tried Kahn Academy?



Hi Julia and everyone, 


Thanks for asking this question!  that was going to be my first question to ask here too! I guess you beat m to it :P 

I often feel similarly about my MA. My degree was in the social studies of science and technology, which is also known and science and technology studies and science, technology and society on different locations. I think that because this area also has a "human" or "social" component plus the "scientific" or "technical" one it is similar to digital humanities in that sense. I'd like to ask the same question you're asking but from a different point of view: Because I believe that besides the already present difficulty of explaning something to one's parent's, and the lack of description that comes with novelty, there is an added "explanation" for us. Digital Humanities (and social studies of science) seems to pair together two areas of life that traditionally don't mix. I personally used to perceive a couple fo years ago an almost oxymoronic tone to the "digital humanities", like if digital contradicted humanities and vice-versa. 

Do you think that because digital humanities pins together the world of science, technology. nature, rationality etc and the world of human, socieity, culture, interpretation etc it is harder for us to "explain" what we do? has anyone here ever encountered an instance when they were explaining and the other person looked perpexed because digital and humanities "don't mix"? How do we overcome this arbitrary and often simplistic separation? 

Looking forward to hearing your answers!





I get this point about how disparate my interests are ALL THE TIME.

People always ask me about why I don't also have a CompSci degree, to which I just answer that my Liberal Arts communication and comprehension skills enable me to a) teach myself as I go and b) connect effectively with those who know how to bring to life what I cannot do myself.


Based on observation, it seems that DH suffers from two problems.  One is common in academia, the other may be unique to DH.  The common problem is that academic discourse tends toward obscure jargon and verbosity.  HASTAC is not immune to this, and neither is DH in general.

The second problem may be that DH presumes that more data equals more information and/or insight.  Clarity of thought and concept may suffer as a consequence of our fascination with sheer quantity.



Out of all of the comments, Mr. Fairweather's comment hits the mark for me. I'm more on the communication and continuing education side (not the technology side), and I'm often lost following the jargon used in HASTAC posts and conversations. 

A quick search of online definitions of DH shows many long, verbose explanations. Saying that DH is too broad to be described is a bit of a cop out. Simple is not the same as easy. Being concise and simple takes some thought and effort.

I think the key ideas that attracted me to HASTAC (and ideas that may resonate with other folks outside of the DH and IT community) are "collaboration" and "access." I'm also a firm believer that you can get a degree without an education, and an education without a degree. Badges and online curricula enable continuing learning experiences needed at the speed of business and research today. It's much more nimble than traditional higher education.

As a non-tech person, I understand Digital Humanities as:

"the movement of digital tools and methods used to help people collaborate, communicate, teach, learn, and research in a manner that is much more nimble and accessible than traditional academia."

It's broad, but simple!


Part of why I posted this is that the defintion of the DH seems, at least to me, to still be under constant debate. I realized this when reading Matthew K. Gold's "Debates in the Digital Humanities."

Additionally, this book goes on to say that some call the DH exclusive, and I was unhappy to read quotes that essentially said, "If you don't program, you cannot be part of the DH."

I definitely don't think this is true, and your points about not needing a degree for an education and the emphasis on communication and accesibility ring true with my perception of the DH. Ideas, then, are just as crucial as programming, and our communication skills can bring those of both minds together.

Additionally, I totally agree with Fairweather's comment that more data is not necessarily better data; another purpose of the DH, to me, is to simplify the presentation of data so that one focuses on the purpose of having such data available. Hence, having a disorganized or overwhelming data presentation seems to me to defeat the purpose of such a DH tool!


I am getting a PhD in Digital Humanities from the National University of Ireland, Galway. For me it's simple. Digital Humanities needs both the digital and the human. Without either, it cannot be called Digital Humanities. The diversity of projects that I have come across lead me to believe that a single definition is not possible. 


Greetings, Everyone,

First, I want to thank everyone for their thoughtful posts. Here's my take on how to explain DH. It still needs some de-jargoning for the average audience.

I usually start by telling folks there are 3 categories of activity in DH: Research/Analysis, Teaching/Learning, and Preservation/Access.

Next I explain what I mean by each of those. Research/Analysis takes traditional humanities materials like historic records, works of literature, etc., and puts the information in them in a format that a computer program can use. Then scholars use the computer to analyze the information and answer questions about the records and documents that would have been too time consuming or impossible before we started using computers. Scholars in the Research/Analysis area of DH also often partner up with computer programmers to create new tools for analyzing humanities materials and sharing information about them.

In the Teaching/Learning area, teachers encourage students to use all kinds of digital tools - social media, compuer programs, learning management systems - to gather, present, share and analyze traditional humanities materials related to class objectives. I believe that MOOCs fall into this category.

In the Preservatio/Access realm, scholars, museums and libraries digitize materials and use increasingly sophisticated computer programs to make them available and think about them in new ways. Old documents and materials are more widely available than ever before, allowing them to be used in the Research/Analysis and Teaching/Learning areas by those who may not have had the time or money to travel to an archive or museum to be able to use them. Making them available all together online also has a "bulletin board effect" - new connections between materials and new theories are made possible by seeing all the materials in a "big picture" that wasn't possible before the internet.

As we all know, there is overlap in all of these areas. Once you explain these three basic categories, you can then talk about how what YOU are curently doing fits into one of these realms as well as talk about how it's innovative.

This set of "containers" might not be appropriate to every situation. I hope it can help create a useful place for people to start being able to talk about what they do with family and friends. I have that problem with both my parents as well. I think m mom finds the word "digital" daunting in and of itself;  She can't even remember my title, and asks me every time she starts to talk about my work with her friends and colleagues.


Thanks Krista, 

Your breakdown was truly the first explanation of DH that made me feel like I have a handle on what exactly it is. I joined this group because I know I like what people who call themselves DH scholars do, and I know that I use the same tools that they do, but I have to admit I'd always been confused by the term myself. 


I have felt this way all along, so I agree that this comment makes me feel like I, too, "have a handle on it." Also, this seems like a great way to explain it to even my mother!

Problem: solved.


This is such a relevant and complicated discussion that never quite seems to be resolved: how we identity and communicate our disciplinary identities to different audiences.

I'm so thankful for your thoughtful reflections, Julia, and all these great comments because I haven't told my dad yet about being a HASTAC scholar. I haven't yet found the way to explain it. I also run into this struggle talking to people about my field--many of my family members think I do literature when I talk to them about writing and teaching writing. And though my dad now knows the proper name of my program--Composition and Cultural Rhetoric--I know he has very few ideas about what that means outside of my personal interests: writing center theory and administration, digital literacy, disability rhetoric.

I always find myself trying to come up with the heart of the field. For me, rhet/comp is about communicating across contexts and cultures in the ways that are most useful and productive for both the communicator and the audience. It may not be a good disciplinary definition, but it's useful for boiling down the value(s).

For me, DH is similar. The aspects of DH that appeal to me are making documents and textual artifacts digital and accessible to large groups of people who didn't have that access before. So I'm really drawn to digital archiving and helping groups create websites that create and shape their online (and "real-life") identities. Everyone who knows me, then, like family and friends, understand that definition because they know I'm interested in issues of access--physical, social, and digital.

Because we all have so many diverse interests, though, I imagine these definitions take shape in very different ways, particularly--as Krista pointed out above me--because there are many different subdivisions within DH itself.


Julie, Allison and Beth thank you for your kind feedback. Allison, I share your love of making things accessible, which is why I concentrated on digital libraries in my LIS degree program.

I do want to give credit where credit is due - I repeated Forsyth-Tuerck's idea, but in a much more elaborate manner.

I also agree with Peter that we need to be clear when intitiating projects. Just because I *can* digitized something doesn't mean that it's got intellectual value. I do think that the current volume of projects comes from individual scholars' needs to explore and get familiar with digital tools. It will take a bit of historical distance (10 years or so) to determine how much of what we're doing now is useful downstream.

A big thanks to Amanda for posting the link to "Explaining DH in Promotion Documents." I am definitely going to check that out.


Worthwhile discussion.




Hi everyone and thank you for your clarifications!

I hoped I wasn't the only one who got into this without really knowing what the DH were exactly - if such a definition is even possible. I kind of knew I was interested in the ways new technologies help us Humanists revise and update our criticism and reading of "old" literary and artistic objects, but that seemed like it wasn't all of it. So thank you so much for all those point of views.

Julia, I am also really interested in your thesis subject, since I also work on French literature ( even though I like to say "French things" instead to include all the rest) and on food and waste studies. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one in French as well, and maybe we can even consider organizing some forum on Digital French Things sometimes! It does seem (at least in my department) that French studies, even though still exciting, tend to be afraid of the digital. Most of the time, the most conservative scholars (or purely theoretical) hide in those departments. So I'd be happy to discuss that with you, if you want.

Also, my first article also reflect on the definition of the DH, so you can go take a look !




Hi everybody!

Julia's post certainly articulates one of the core problems (but also opportunities) of DH work: defining what exactly it is. Even further, though, and just as a quick thought (I have to run and teach a class soon!), it's the same problem that "traditional" humanities fields are encountering as well. I was talking with my HASTAC Scholars mentor the other day about how "English" as a department name is just about as ambiguous and unclear as "digital humanities." How we desribe what we do as DH scholars seems linked to how we describe what we do as scholars, period. And it's this openness to blurring the line between those-who-do-DH and those-who-don't-do-DH, I think, that is one of the more promising and productive growing trends in the field (Stephen Ramsay's provocative comments aside).

In coming to terms with what DH "is," I find that the recently published Debates in the Digital Humanities is helpful--the first section is entirely devoted to short, accessible chapters on just what DH is, can, and should be.

Looking forward to a great year,

Trey Conatser


Many people struggle with the fact that, no matter how sophisticated the application, digital media unavoidably reduce everything to a series of zeroes and ones. The argument is made that the humanities--if they really matter--must be about those aspects of existence that can never really be contained in a system, that at its core, humanity is ineffable, not digital.

It seems that this maybe behind people's initial response to the concept of DH.

Really enjoy the posts!



What a charming post, Julia! I could really feel your excitement and desire to be a part of this community.

Like you, I still don't know how to translate what I do into something meaningful for my family. I am pursuing a Ph.D. in Rhetoric & Composition with a focus in teaching with technology (among other things) and while my interests seem plain to me and to the communities I move within, they're quite alien to my folks back home.

So I think your question about how to explain what we do to others is quite important not only because we want our families and academic units to understand and support us (emotionally, financially, or otherwise) but also because much of our work has the potential to benefit the public at large.

Again...a lovely post. I hope to read more of them in the future!



The act of defining seems central to any conversation I have with folks doing work in some of the new areas people have been describing in this thread. This past summer, the Thursday #literacies chat on Twitter spent weeks talking about what, exactly, we mean when we use terms like "new literacies" or "digital literacies" so the need/desire to explore "digital humanities" feels familiar to me. At the same time, definitions are still developing just out of sight-- we are still developing them-- so there's that weird cognitive dissonance of being waist-deep in something we have yet to be able to fully identify.... Is this the ultimate postmodern gig or what? 

I haven't figured out how to describe HASTAC. Then again, I haven't figured out how to describe my own dissertation. ;-) But I have decided that it's good to find myself among some kindred spirits here, even if we can't always describe where that is.



Hi Julia,

I can definitely relate to your predicament, except that not only have I had to try to explain what DH is to my parents (though I’m not sure I’d necessarily call myself a DHer at this point), I’ve also had to explain it to many of my fellow grad student colleagues. I am, as far as I know (it’s a big department!), the only PhD student interested specifically in digital media as an object of study as well as a set of methodological practices.

I think you might be interested in a project I’m currently working on with my adviser, Prof. Alex Reid (who has an essay on digital pedagogy published in Debates in the Digital Humanities). We’re working on building a website that we hope will eventually be a venue for “middle state publishing” projects. Right now we’re interviewing current DH practitioners about their work and the future of the field. We’re still editing, but we should have something up by November. I will be sure to share the link with everyone at HASTAC via blog post. So far we’ve interviewed Matt Gold, Liz Losh, Richard Miller, Jamie Skye Bianco, Eileen Joy, and Levi Bryant. It’s been really interesting talking to each of them about where they see DH and the humanities in general headed in the next decade. My hope is that the project will help others new to the field get a crash course in what it means to practice DH and how it's changing the humanities.


Sorry it's just a URL-- couldn't directly upload the image.