Re: Where’s the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions?

16 05 2010

Tom Scheinfeldt @foundhistory posed a couple of thought-provoking questions re: the direction and purpose of digital humanities (DH). In his blog post, Where’s the Beef? Scheinfeldt responds to Rob Nelson’s THATCamp proposal and asks two fundamental questions for digital humanists: (1) “What questions does digital humanities answer that can’t be answered without it? (2) What humanities arguments does digital humanities make?”  In other words, is DH more than content curation i.e. editorial projects and how/when must the discipline move beyond exhibition into the realm of “real scholarship” and answer questions?

Scheinfeldt’s answer is both yes and no. He makes wonderful use of historical analogy to demonstrate the legitimacy and importance of curation/exhibition as a precursor to advanced scholastic output. He, believes that like all disciplines, DH asks questions some large,  but many small. In addition, DH needs the benefit of time to grow into its full scholastic potential/acceptance. That I do not doubt, however, I think that the heart of the matter is not one of what questions DH answers or when it will answer them, but rather what the definition, form and function of “scholarship” is.

What is scholarship? Do you take the view that scholarship encompasses the form of print monograph production that advances knowledge within the discipline or does scholarship cast an outward view, form be damned, and advance, integrate, apply, and/or transform knowledge more broadly i.e. Public History? Obviously, DH would fall into the latter view and that is my position of scholarship. My view of scholarship is put simply but I think fairly.  A more nuanced debate of what scholarship is can be investigated @ Redefining Historical Scholarship @ AHA. DH affords an opportunity to kill the sacred cow.

Even the most simplistic curation/exhibition DH project implicitly if not explicitly asks questions, makes arguments, and advances knowledge. DH curation and exhibition projects require as much research, synthesis, and analysis as does producing any other traditional form of scholarship. Maybe not as much text, but just as much intellectual investment. At minimum, arguments are implied about authority, objectivity and authenticity of evidence. Or is that being too much of a postmodernist? Is this not scholarship?

In lieu of text, DH encourages varying degrees of data/information visualization. This may be the true genius of DH and where the beef is. Is visualization a new form of literacy? How can one learn to “read” visualization?

In addition to rethinking scholarship, DH must come to terms with its position as  either a new discipline, the “New Public History” or a tool/methodology.

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