Paper delivered on 29 September 2011 in Special Collections of the University of Cardiff Library as the “Inaugural Annual Cardiff Rare Books and Music Lecture.”

The challenge to our engagement in and with the humanities today is the digital medium. This engagement moves into fresh light and focus in consequence of the medium, since, through the new mediality, ‘what we have always done’ is no longer a matter of course, hence remaining unreflected in itself, but demands instead reflection and questioning.

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If there are two things that academia doesn’t need, they are another book about Darwin and another blog post about defining the digital humanities. But it’s always right around this time of year that I find myself preparing for my digital history course and being pulled down the contemplative rabbit hole about how describe the nature of the digital humanities to a new and varied audience. But rather than create my own definition, I wanted one cobbled together from everyone else.

All of a sudden, I’m starting to pick up signs of a digital humanities backlash. That’s a shame because there’s a big difference between digital humanities and online education since faculty can seemingly control the first thing, but not necessarily the second. The digital humanities help us do what we already do better. Online education…well, since I don’t feel like linking to my entire archive for the last three months, let’s just say I’m not convinced it helps us do anything.

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Neither can my father, although both are proficient readers. My sister and her family have multiple televisions, cable, a gaming system and most recently, they have acquired cell phones (the un “smart” sort), but they do not own a computer. This is not their choice. They are regular hard working people, laboring in the service sector in long-held stable, but low paying jobs. They worry about paying for a serviceable car, not the web. Typical of many working class people, they are much less connected to the world through the internet than are their wealthier and more educated peers.

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One longstanding debate in the Digital Humanities has been the value of teaching programming skills in humanities courses. The main argument in favor of it: 21st century humanists need skills to harness growing amounts of (digital) data. The main argument against: it’s too technical a skill for a methodology that’s largely antithetical to why people go into the humanities. On this issue I have remained on the fence for some time, but as I continue to experiment with various text mining projects, and continue to fiddle with my digital history course, I am now convinced that basic techniques for data manipulation should be taught as part of the humanities curriculum.

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