Defining digital humanities has been one of the most common concerns held throughout the discipline. Having countless definitions and individual interpretations, alongside multiple contributions which ironically encapsulate what the digital humanities are. Following the natural breakdown of defining anything, I initially explore what the terms digital and humanities imply extended into what they mean together. Following this, exploring the origins of the discipline and how it came to be. Going on to focus on defining digital humanities as an academic – what the digital humanities are and what they are not. Finally, where the future of DH is headed and how the current definitions may develop. Rapid changes in technology, as well as the dynamic nature of humanitarian thought, could perhaps give an explanation as to why there is no concrete definition for DH and why the debate has been such a crucial part of the digital humanities.
Beginning to try to understand what the digital humanities is, would naturally trigger a need to know how traditional humanities as well as the term digital are defined, in their own right, and then how they come together. “The term ‘humanities’ includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanitarian content and employ humanitarian methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.” (National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, 1965) Comprehensively encapsulating the traditional aspects of humanities.
While the dictionary definition of digital describes the branch of scientific or engineering knowledge that deals with the creation and practical use of digital or computerized devices, methods, systems and the application of this knowledge for practical ends. Combining computational elements with the traditional definition for humanities could almost be considered a contradiction in terms. De-humanizing the humanities and bringing a human element to the quantitative nature of the digital world. Computer sciences more specifically sciences as a whole come from a place of skepticism whereas the humanities originate from the idea of criticism. However, this is where they share a commonality in how questions and solutions surround the fundamental ideas around a lot of their work. This, in fact, gives us an idea of where the definition lies for digital humanities, the intersection between the digital and traditional humanities. It is respectfully defined by the opportunities and challenges that arise from trying to form a new collective singular.
Looking at the origin of the digital humanities allows us to develop an understanding of how it came to be, giving us a deeper appreciation for what now defines DH. The initial practices emerged from the creation of an automated approach to computer-generated concordance to the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Continuing to use mainframe computing to automate tasks such as word-searching, sorting, counting, and listing, scholars could process textual corpora on a scale unthinkable with prior methods that relied on handwritten or typed index cards. Following the idea of bringing elements of traditional humanities and modern computing technologies. This marriage continued as technological advances such as XML and TEI revolutionized the way we interact with traditional humanitarian practices. The development and history behind the discipline are essential to defining digital humanities as it gives a knowledge of our origins. Space was created for the rapidly expanding technological advances to collide with humanities disciplines.
Following on from this, focusing on the present day realities of what the digital humanities are, is essential. As we enter a world where digital literacy is becoming such a normality there is a definite need to be able to distinguish between how computing is integrated into digital humanities more than in other disciplines. The digital humanities have moved away from textual analysis, encoding and mark up and toward an entirely new disciplinary paradigm, convergent fields, hybrid methodologies. Although all of these aspects are fundamental to our discipline their function is becoming redundant. A huge amount of information is accessible through online resources and academic material is becoming digitized. The normality of having an intersection between academia and technology calls for an explicit definition of what distinguishes digital humanitarians from the modern day digitally literate scholar. Seeing the field as the evolution of traditional humanitarian studies, making use of the tools available to us in order to study and explore the limits of the human condition.
Looking at the boundaries for what DH is from an academic perspective gives insight into what digital humanities is defined as for present scholars as well as future digital humanitarians. It allows the gap for an explanation to what the nature of study will be and what the academic duties you will hold in pursuing a degree in DH. We acknowledge that the humanities are a vibrant set of disciplines and subdisciplines that has always had good currency over time – always changing, always reflecting at the nature of the human experience over time via the representation of that experience in its material manifestations. Alongside this, we consider computation or the digital, itself, as a grouping of methods, approaches, technologies, and tools that are themselves dynamically and continually changing.
Bringing the two known parameters of the humanities and technological degrees, presenting a definition for what digital humanities is as a course of study. Even though a full, accurate, comprehensive, and fixed definition of the digital humanities may be elusive, we need to at least have enough of an understanding of what the digital humanities are, in order to be able to move forward and present clarity in the explanation for potential younger generations. Which need to have the incentive to study and inadvertently expand the digital humanities as a whole. Digital humanities in this context gives a definition of a degree where students develop practical skills to flourish in the digital age and explore the impact of digital technology on culture, power, and identity in society. Seeking to discover what is it to be human in the digital age, and the answers will help to shape how we see ourselves and others as humanity becomes more connected by technology. Bringing a grounded and simplified explanation to the complexity of what digital humanities are.
Furthermore, the areas of study as you become introduced and start your academic life as a digital humanitarian are crucial to understanding how DH is defined. The discipline has been formalized across third-level institutions as “Digital Arts and Humanities,” as opposed to merely “Digital Humanities.” Critically important in this Irish instance of the digital humanities phenomenon is the Arts component and the impact of this additional discipline. Balancing the computational components necessary to satisfy the digital side of DH with an Arts elective to incorporate traditional humanities. Intersecting with various elements of digital tools & methodologies, student learning in the digital age and concepts and collaboration in digital humanities. To a certain extent, the future of the digital humanities is sculpted by the contributions of the forthcoming academics entering the field, which in turn will eventually become crucial parts of DH and undoubtedly bring about a whole new variety to the definitions it carries.
Despite prevailingly progressive narratives surrounding the impact of digital technology on modern academic culture, the field of digital humanities is characterized at a deeper level by a more critical engagement with technology. Critical inquiry using computational methods to develop understanding and have the ability to research beyond average capabilities is what sets digital humanities apart. Being able to evaluate sources, use digital tools and research methods as well as a comprehensive understanding of the systems you use distinguishes traditional humanitarians from digital humanitarians. Likewise having the ability to use critic and thoughtful questioning sets digital humanitarians apart from computer scientists.
In addition to this, having an understanding of what the digital humanities are, naturally requires insight into what the digital humanities are not. For if it is so many things, and encompasses so many ideas, how can it be anything? “Digital Humanities is not some airy Lyceum. It is a series of concrete instantiations involving money, students, funding agencies,
big schools, little schools, programs, curricula, old guards, new guards, gatekeepers, and prestige. It might be more than these things, but it cannot not be these things” Ramsey proposes that there is a tangible and concrete reality to what the digital humanities are. It’s built upon the various components but these do not actually create it. It’s scaffolding rather than the “thing” itself. He created a silence in the noise of the debates as he outlined what digital humanities is not. By providing a boundary, it creates a distinction between what is included in the definition and what is not. Even though there is a vast and inconclusive explanation to what the digital humanities are, knowing what it is not is crucial.
Additionally, as we continue to formulate answers to the question which has become a fundamental part of our discipline. There is a constant change, a constant reform and development. Technology is expanding at phenomenal rates and doesn’t seem as if it will cease any time soon. The attraction to the digital nature of the field will undeniably become more and more valuable as humans take their place in adapting to our new technologically saturated environment. This will then sculpt how digital humanities will be defined in the future. We are now, as digital humanitarians, defining the field for ourselves but also for future generations. The work and teachings we engage in are going to become part of the very definition we are currently trying to understand. Individual components making up the discipline as a whole, collectively creating and defining ourselves – both individual as well as collaborative, interpretations and contributions.
Furthermore, for a definition to be challenged depending on who is reading, writing or hearing it goes against the nature of having a truly complete definition. There are countless interpretations out there for what people perceive the digital humanities to be. Personally, I’ve come to understand it as the use of digital media and technology, to advance the full range of thought and practice in the humanities, from the creation of scholarly resources to research on those resources, to the communication of results to colleagues and fellow students. As it takes the traditional aspects of the humanities namely research, teaching and learning in areas of traditional arts but does this in digital ways. Making and using computer software, websites and mobile phone apps to teach, or to help researchers and learners. Simply, bringing computational methods to bear on traditional humanities scholarship.
The attempt to form a comprehensive answer to how digital humanities is defined continues to be a rich source of intellectual debate. It doesn’t seem to be coming to a reasonable conclusion any time soon which feeds to the very idea of what the digital humanities are. Exploring the terms digital and humanities themselves, how one understands each individually and how these then come together. The origins of the discipline as well as the academic characterization which it carries. All playing crucial parts of developing an understanding of what the digital humanities are. It is the point of intersection of humanities and computation – itself dynamic and changing like the elements it brings together.
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