Blog Post

Digital Humanities: the most accessible part of what I do?


Hi, all-- I'm really excited to be part of the HASTAC scholars for 2013, and I'm enjoying reading everyone's posts.

The discussion that Julia started really struck me -- because while saying that I work in digital humanities has often been a source of confusion and
intimidation to people with whom I interact in an academic context, this summer, I was working as a technical writer, compiling a procedures manual for
a shipping company -- and both in my initial meetings with them, and throughout the summer, DH was the easiest part of my work for them to
understand. (The other thing I do -- working with 18th century English poetry about money and economics -- just struck them as bizarre.)  
I tend to explain DH as "using technology to ask new questions about literature" or "using tech to do new things with books." When asked to clarify
"new things," I can point to Visible Prices-- my ongoing work to make a potentially infinite concordance of numerical prices in fictional and nonfictional
texts. That made sense to my coworkers -- do something new to a text that wasn't previously possible. Make something that's hard easier.
Of course, my explanation of DH is really simple -- too simple, some people would say -- I'm not going into any of the politics of access, or the critique of hierarchical authority that's implicit in many collaborative DH projects. I'm not advocating it as the explanation that other people ought to pick up; and I really appreciated the clarity in Krista White's three-part definition here
The reason I'm thinking about this oddity is that I'm gearing up to teach the first two sessions of a year-long workshop series with Sarah Kremen-Hicks at the University of Washington's Simpson Center for the Humanities. We've titled it "Demystifying the Digital Humanities" (if you like, you can see the description in the grant that we wrote for its funding). And here's the thing -- while the idea of using technology to make something that changes reading was the thing that made my DH work (and my identity as an academic generally) accessible to my summer colleagues, it's often the very thing that sends the intimidation threshold of DH skyrocketing for my academic year colleagues.
It's this reverse mirror image that's fascinating me right now -- both in its implications about academia and about public scholarship and public perspectives on academic work. And much of my work this year, besides revising my dissertation before defense, and working on Visible Prices, is going to be about making the digital humanities not just understandable -- but something that it feels like anyone can do.

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