Blog Post

Representing the Past and the Future of Humanities

As I was reminded during the recent forum on the future of the digital humanities,the field of "digital humanities" does not represent a break with "traditional"methods or forms of scholarship; it offers instead a new set of tools, and newways of thinking, in addressing the questions raised by research in the humanities.Perhaps within the next few years the term "digital humanities" will come to beseen as old-fashioned and outdated, much in the same way that the name"horseless carriage" reflected old ways of framing and perceiving innovativetechnology. After all, this term indicated that the new invention would bejudged according to the current situation without understanding howrevolutionary that new invention would become. Here I am reminded of a quoteabout how at the turn of the 20th century a reasonably astute person could havepredicted that the invention of the car would have a big impact on Americansociety, and a brilliant person could predict the development of the interstatehighway system as a result, but only a science-fiction writer could have predictedtraffic. I think that these new paradigms offered by "digital humanities" willopen up amazing highways and avenues for thought, but since I'm not a writer ofscience-fiction I will leave the contemplation of "traffic" for others.

Iam amazed by the possibilities offered by new techniques of literary analysis,such as Professor Franco Moretti's fascinating (and funny) analysis of lengthybook titles and what can be learned from a systematic overview of an entirecorpus for a specific time period, possible only with the aid of computers, inhis keynote address at the Digital Humanities conference here inChampaign-Urbana in 2007 ( I learned agreat deal from this conference, and I'm really looking forward to the upcomingHASTAC conference here in April. Conferences like these ones are such a greatway to learn about work in other areas--to "traverse" disciplines insearch of innovation.

Myown work as an American scholar in the field of Germanic literature, combinedwith my background in library science, constantly requires me to traversecertain types of boundaries (geographic, for example--there is a great deal ofprimary source material available online, but the bulk of my research willstill require on-site archival work in Germany).

CurrentlyI'm working on a dissertation topic based on early modern women inGerman-speaking lands who collected texts-I'm necessarily using works that dealwith the broader western European context of collecting, gender roles, andmeans of representation. I'm interesting in exploring how these women viewedtheir own activities as collectors and how they have been represented in theliterary tradition. For example, Sophie Eleonore von Stolberg-Stolberg (1669-1745), assembled a collection of over 40,000 Leichenpredigten (funeralsermons), yet she is not given credit as a collector in her own right. Thesefuneral sermons contain a wealth of genealogical information about the periodand this collection is very important, yet this woman's conscious act of amassingthis amazing resource is instead portrayed as "accidental," as though she couldnot possibly have understood what she was doing.

Mywork reminds me that other, more complicated boundaries still exist.  Manyof the intelligent and capable early modern women I am studying are stillviewed as amateurs in the shadow of male family members rather than asimportant collectors and patrons of culture in their own right. Much haschanged since their time, yet there is still room for improvement. For example,I would argue that my position as a female graduate student in a department inwhich the majority of professors are female (and many have young children) isquite unusual; in many professions women are still forced to choose betweencareer advancement and family. I'm curious why there are so few women intop-level management positions in general, let alone professions in which womenare well-represented (library science and the humanities, for example)? Willthe "interstate highways" and avenues offered by innovative tools forhumanities scholarship open these doors a little wider in the future?

HASTACIII.  "Traversing Digital Boundaries."
Thisblog is part of a series of blogs leading up to the third annual HASTACconference, which will be held April 19-21, 2009, at the University of Illinoisat Urbana-Champaign under the theme "Traversing Digital Boundaries." As thetheme suggests, the gathering will focus on the exploration of new territory andon work that crosses, manipulates, or simply ignores traditional boundaries.The conference program will include presentations of research, performances,technology demonstrations, posters, panel discussions, and "virtual"participation via telepresence technology.  For more information, visit orcontact


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