Digital Humanists on the Front Lines

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Considering the preceding posts in this series, I wanted to take this opportunity to step away from technique, methodology, and pedagogy and reflect upon what is the most critical component of the digital humanities: the digital humanist. At the risk of offering a more optimistic, less critical discussion, it feels like it’s time a moment to reflect on the role (and express a bit of appreciation) of those that have employed their mastery of digital tools and practices to help preserve our social, cultural, and intellectual heritages.

Of course, attention to DH practitioners is not new. In his contribution to Debates in the Digital Humanities, Rafael C. Alvarado incorporates the “history of people who have chosen to call themselves digital humanists” into his description of a definition of the field (50). Included in this same volume, Lisa Spiro argues for the development of a core values statement that might unify these self-proclaimed digital humanists under a professionally and pedagogically unifying treatise (30). These recent affirmations hint at the assertive stance digital humanists often must take when they align themselves with the field, at times defending their practice even against those in their own discipline.

Setting aside the skepticism, accusations, and the occasional territorial pissing, we might take note of how it is the digital humanists that have been positioning themselves along the front lines against the same neoliberal forces that they are often accused of aligning with. Nowhere perhaps is this more clearly demonstrated than with the archive.

“It’s the academic’s job to preserve these works and to ensure the public retains access to them.”

As described by my advisor of a few years back (while discussing the disappearance of older computer games), the university is responsible for not only preserving but also defending our global intellectual and creative legacies. What mission could be more aligned with that of the digital humanities? In a 2011 essay, Alan Liu asked that the digital humanities assert a position of leadership. I would suggest that this role had been accepted some time ago.

Over the last several years, I’ve had the privilege of working with UW-Milwaukee's Digital Humanities Lab, an embryonic space couched in our university library. Heavily influenced by the information sciences, DH on campus has taken a commanding position in using digital methods to collect and present local histories as well as provide scholars with the means to record and document new data stores for future research. Spearheaded by the efforts of the Center for Information Policy Research and local collaborations with global campaigns, these priorities are motivated by digital humanists’ seething commitment to free and open information.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that librarians were the most vocal, ardent defenders of information: they’ve been the ones paying attention and taking extraordinary measures on our behalf in recent years. While some of us peck away at methods for documenting and preserving culturally significant experiences, it has been the library archivists that have been the more assertive, arguing that we aren’t pecking fast enough!

Without those that would risk everything to preserve and secure the heritage of their people, what would we have to show for ourselves? Beyond the stacks, digital humanists have been making headlines in securing the archive of climate change data from an administration that is openly hostile to anything contradicting its propaganda machine. Perhaps this motley crew of scientists and hackers would not explicitly consider themselves digital humanists, but there can be little doubt that those of us that do should still be looking to them as exemplars.

Works Cited

Alvarado, Rafael C. “The Digital Humanities Situation” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew Gold. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 50-55. Print.

Liu, Alan. “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” https://liu.english.ucsb.edu. 30 April 2017.

Spiro, Lisa. “’This is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew Gold. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 16-35. Print.