This blog post reflects work done last semester in a graduate seminar I took on the Digital Humanities with Chris Forster, a former HASTAC Scholar. The project reflects the possibilities of using a database of syllabi as a learning tool as I use my database to investigate the disciplinary boundaries between New Media and Digital Humanities as they are taught.
When I applied to graduate school a few years back I applied to English programs with “new media” tracks and ended up applying to an odd assortment of English, composition and rhetoric, writing, and Digital Humanities programs, all of which have drastically different understandings of the definition of new media. Some of the programs concerned themselves with the intersection of pedagogy, writing, and computers, others theoretically examined new media, and others took a more tool-based approach. When I visited the campus of a university with a more tool-based approach I was incredibly confused when they gave me a tour of their digital lab where graduate students were busy crunching data and digitizing texts. Wait, I thought, this is not the English studies I know.
As I work my way through coursework, I’ve remained perplexed by my application process, a process that led me to a lab. This perplexity leads me to question not just “what is digital humanities?” (a very popular and knotty topic, no doubt) but rather, what are the disciplinary boundaries between new media and digital humanities? If an undergrad (albeit an under-informed one) can, with the exact same application materials, gain acceptance into both types of programs, can these two really be so different? Intrigued by last year’s Media Commons conversation that questions the differentiations and intersections of media studies and the digital humanities, I have decided to use my own digital methods to weigh in on this incredibly vexed question of disciplinary boundaries. In order to discover intersections and divergences between the two, I gathered 50 syllabi (25 that marketed themselves as new media and 25 that marketed themselves as Digital Humanities), brought them together on Pinboard and tagged the year of the course, the department in which it was taught, the topics addressed and the theorists taught.* This archive can be accessed here or by searching the tag “sstutsmansyllabi.” This process has led to some intriguing revelations as I discovered that while the two really aren’t that different, the Digital Humanities appears to be a bit more insular and exclusionary than they might claim to be, a problem that could be fixed in part by looking to their sister discipline. With this project I aim not to provide tangible definitions of either Digital Humanities or new media nor will I attempt to demarcate a clear boundary between the two, tasks which seem ultimately futile. Instead, I wish to propose a potential new site for investigation.
A breakdown of DH versus NM classes by year reveals spikes in DH popularity in 2008 and 2012—no big surprise there.
My other breakdowns, though, produce quite interesting results. A depiction of DH and NM by department reveals their respective interdisciplinary thrusts with NM spread pretty evenly through Visual Arts, Communication & Journalism, Film & Media Studies, English, Education, and other departments. DH, on the other hand, while taught in other areas, is hosted prominently in English departments (as is the case for 15 out of 25 of my syllabi).
A look to frequent topics and theorists taught proves spicier. We start to see some overlap in the topic breakdown with 15 out of the 17 most-frequent topics taught in at least 1 NM and 1 DH course. Most of the overlap coalesces around questions of social networking and copyright. A good deal of the syllabi discuss social networking (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) as alternate forms of scholarship and academic community as well as have their students question copyright practices and open-access publishing. One will notice, though, that there are a greater number of NM syllabi in most of the shared categories, especially with regard to discussing questions of access and the Digital Divide or identity politics, each taught in only 2 of the DH courses. Often, I found NM courses to be more concerned with cultural studies while DH courses focused so heavily on teaching distant reading methods or visualization that there was only time for maybe one week that questions the lack of theory in DH. Though that is true, one does see a wide range of topics for both NM and DH.
When we turn to the top 10 theorists taught, though, that diversity begins to wane. While DH courses teach a variety of topics, they tend to recycle and re-use the same theorists and works, often teaching the work of fellow DH-ers without expanding too far beyond the boundaries of DH itself. NM courses, though, tend to reach their nets further and wider. While NM courses do tend to be infected with their own incestuous sense of buzzwords (participatory culture, remediation, etc.), DH courses tend to be infected with their own incestuous use of theorists deriving from the fact that those who write about the field, define the field, teach the field and control what it means to learn about DH and to be a DH-scholar. This is not universally the case; Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s undergraduate course and William J. Turkel’s graduate course (among others) nicely integrate outside resources.
I think the fact that DH/NM courses teach so many of the same topics provides a useful solution. Instead of DH courses teaching the small section that ask where the theory is, one should insert theory, some of the same theory that is taught in NM courses, works about the Digital Divide, copyright concerns or literacy rates instead of theory that asks about the absence of those things. In searching for definition, DH begins to turn in on itself, defining itself through its own methods. DH must look outward, look for intersections between it and other disciplines and begin to integrate some of that work into their own pedagogy, shifting what it means to study DH.
The purpose of my Pinboard project is twofold. It allows one to observe emerging trends in disciplinary definition and pedagogy but, more importantly, it serves as a useful archive and resource for future syllabus construction. It brings together an archive of syllabi that teach similar topics in vastly different ways. Therefore, if DH wishes to expand beyond what tends to be their own insularity, this site provides alternatives as one can explore how other departments and disciplines teach similar topics. Similarly, if NM desires to incorporate tool-based approaches beyond social networking into their pedagogy, this site provides access to a wealth of DH resources to do so. Instead of seeking to define and demarcate rigid disciplinary boundaries, scholars should turn to finding and creating more intersections, a move that would open both disciplines up to new questions about what it means to teach and learn in a digital age.
*In no way do I purport my data to be entirely objective or complete—it is bound by my own knowledge and the subjectivity that enters into any process of archival and selection. While I cannot claim that my results are definitive, as my sample size is relatively quite small, I can insist that it appears to be at least mildly representative in a way that can open up conversation and, in some cases, present some interesting solutions.