Editors’ Choice: A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You

I am often asked about the digital humanities and how it can update, make relevant, and provide funding for many a beleaguered humanities department. Some faculty at underfunded institutions imagine DH is going to revitalize their discipline — it’s going to magically interest undergraduates, give faculty research funding, and exponentially increase enrollment.

Well, the reality is this: what has until recently been commonly understood as real “Digital Humanities” is already belated and is not going to save humanities departments from ever bigger budget cuts and potential dissolution.

Yes, of course, everyone will tell you that there are multiple debates over what actually defines Digital Humanities as a field, whether it is a field or not, yadda yadda yadda. But the projects which have until very recently dominated the federal digital humanities grants — the NEH grants, the ACLS grants, among others — are by default, the definition of the field, or the “best” the field has to offer. This means that until very recently and with few exceptions, the list of awardees rarely includes digital work that focuses more on culture than computation, projects that focus on digital pedagogy, or digital recovery efforts for works by people of color.

If you look through the projects that have been funded in the last decade you’re going to see a lot of repeated themes. Heck, even when you look at the roster for who is being invited to give DH talks and what they are talking about, you see many of the same names and the same topics. You’re going to see a lot of emphasis on tools. A lot of emphasis on big data analysis. A lot of emphasis on computation, and the power of computation. What aren’t you going to see as much of? Emphasis on why computing, the conditions under which computing is manufactured, a cultural analysis of the ideologies of computing. Why is that?

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief Benjamin Schneider based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: Caitlin Christian-Lamb, Elyse Graham, Anu Paul, Brian Croxall, Chris Loughnane, Myriam Mertens, Sheng-Lun Cheng, Nickoal Eichmann, Ayla Stein, Andrew Piper, and Crystal Chan