Demystifying the Digital Humanities at UW

In February 2013, the Simpson Center met its NEH Challenge Grant funding goal to build a Digital Humanities Commons at UW, and the emerging field of digital humanities (DH) has been attracting more and more attention on campus in recent years. But what exactly are the “digital humanities”? And how exactly does one going about becoming a “digital humanist”? To answer some of these questions, English graduate students Paige Morgan and Sarah Kremen-Hicks have created a year-long workshop series, “Demystifying the Digital Humanities.”

A series of six workshops funded by the Simpson Center and the UW Textual Studies program, “Demystifying the Digital Humanities” is geared toward graduate students who are curious about digital humanities and interested in using digital humanities techniques but are not sure how to get started or are unclear about what digital humanities scholarship requires. The workshops present a guided introduction to the points of intersection between traditional and digital humanities (DH), including how traditional humanities approaches and questions are used or translated in DH studies, and identifying major DH subfields and their goals.

Each quarter's workshops cover a different aspect of DH work, from professionalization—including developing an online scholarly identity and finding other colleagues with similar interests—and basic programming to working with code, project management techniques, and exploring some of the major tools (both free and premium) that are available to digital humanists. The response to the workshops has been overwhelmingly positive, and the Simpson Center's Dana Bublitz recently met with Morgan and Kremen-Hicks to discuss the series thus far, what it’s like to work in DH, and find out more about their experiences and the future of the workshop.

Dana Bublitz (Simpson Center):  How did you both come up with the idea for “Demystifying the DH”?

Sarah Kremen-Hicks: I suspect a lot of it came out of our own frustration at not having a DH cohort. Also, as we talked to people, they told us they were interested in DH but felt adrift as far as how to become more than just interested and start incorporating it into their scholarship.

That does seem to be a big question a lot of humanists have, certainly, and before this workshop series and the plans for the Digital Humanities Commons, there hasn’t been a central network of support like the digital humanities centers at other universities.

Paige Morgan: There’s so much energy, but so little infrastructure. We wanted to try and make a temporary--and down the road, possibly permanent--foun­da­­tion of support.

Which speaks to the idea that DH work, right now, is very much a DIY (Do It Yourself) endeavor in a lot of ways, trying to figure out new ways of applying tools or “hacking” the academy. The values of the DH field that you guys have identified really speak to the need for exploration, play, and even the possibility of failure, to be part of the overall process, not focusing solely on the end product.

SKH: There’s something about being a grad student—it’s one of the only times in traditional academia in which you are encouraged to play, and that spirit is so important to DH. More and more, the underlying problem that the humanities are facing is that people think of scholarship as the end product, but it needs to be acknowledged as a complete process.

PM: I wonder whether DH is also valuable because it has changed the way I think about everything else I do.

SKH: In the way that it does sort of take over your life, I was knitting the other night and thinking about how it’s not really the end product of the knitting that I care about. I don’t care about the finished project; it’s the process, for me, and that is so important. And I don’t know if that would have occurred to me if I hadn’t been doing all this at the same time and thinking in a very strategic way about process.

Speaking of process, as you’ve facilitated the workshops, have you found you’ve needed to modify the structure or focus of the workshops?

PM: In some ways, it hasn’t changed that much. I’m really proud of us both, in that we have stuck with what we wanted to try and we went and tried it. For me, at least, this is distinct from the feeling like I have to change everything over and over again, and I have this impulse to change things! We did change a few things, but by-and-large, we’ve stuck with what we wanted and planned to do. And there are certainly parts that didn’t work as well as we’d hoped. But I’m really proud of holding to our value of iteration, rather than trying to be perfect on the first go. Because that value--of iterating and learning from the process--is not just something you can just start doing immediately. It takes chutzpah!

SKH: I think more than the process changing, for me, it’s really sort of a clarification of my thinking about how we collaborate as scholars. And the brilliance of something like Google Docs has been instrumental: we can watch and share the thought process together even though we’re not in the same physical space. There is something that you can’t replicate about being in the same room as someone, but failing that, these types of tools provide excellent alternatives for collaborating over electronic space.

That’s definitely something that DH work seems to emphasize: the different avenues for collaboration based on the many technological avenues we now have available.

SKH: And it’s been fascinating, too, in the ability to capture thought processes, and how we archive our actual mental processes. Google Docs doesn’t make all of the arrows and connections that I’d like it to, but hacking it in a way to follow threads as we discuss the workshop has been really illuminating to me in terms of how I think more than anything else.

Have you found the work you’ve been doing in preparation for the workshops has informed the way you do your own research?

SKH: I can’t seem to stop thinking about the values, and I’m noticing them in everything I do now. And I think, again, it’s a sort of clarifying of what I had already valued as a scholar, but hadn’t really thought about in any conscious way. So it’s given me the chance to really define what I think I do and why it’s valuable.

PM: For me, my dissertation isn’t fundamentally DH in any way, and yet I find the values of DH make it easier for me to experiment with what I’m doing and move towards concrete iterations within the process of writing a dissertation.

Why have you found it’s important to incorporate emerging technologies into your scholarship?

SKH: I think focusing on scholarship as a process is something we’re aware of, but don’t necessarily acknowledge. We think of a dissertation or an article as the end product, only going out into the world when it’s perfect, but now technology makes it much easier to identify the stages of scholarship on the way to the end product. There’s something liberating about saying my scholarship happens in stages. Sometimes it happens beautifully and it’s great from the beginning, but it isn’t magic. It’s hard work. And sometimes just allowing ourselves to acknowledge and show that it is really hard work is valuable in itself.

PM: Of the things I’ve learned in academia is to distrust the conventional, compartmentalized judgments and ideologies that we live in. A new technological “toy” is often looked at as a distraction, but engaging with that technology in a scholarly context does potentially make you more willing to play with it and forget those anxieties of not doing something right or using it wrong.

Which really hits at the emphasis in DH to play and make mistakes, which isn’t something many scholars find easy to do.

SKH: And that same willingness for play to be work and work to be play has been hugely useful for me as a teacher as well. When teaching something like Victorian poetry, students are often unsure of what to do or what to make of it. It’s useful to give them something digital and contemporary to hold onto allows them to access this world that I want to discuss, but also to give them something that reads as play and allows them to approach this scary topic and think, “it’s ok because we’re playing, there are no mistakes to be made.” I’m still sorting out how to approach that and how to communicate that to my students, but it’s not an approach I would have tried in the classroom before the whole process of putting together the workshops.

So, now that you’ve got four of these workshops under your belts, what’s in store for spring and the future?

SKH: We have a symposium planned, as a sort of capstone, where people come in with some sort of project or project plan and share where and what they’re working on. Some people will just have come back from the Digital Humanities Summer Institute [at the University of Victoria], so we’re hoping they’ll share their experiences there, too. Our spring workshops are all about playing with tools and developing ideas about projects.

PM: And developing ideas from playing around with tools, too. I know, among other things, we’ll talk about the issue of the DH dissertation: should this DH project be a dissertation? Can it? How do you come up with an idea for a DH dissertation?

SKH: An important thing for me will be to emphasize the fact that you don’t have to come up with something entirely new. You can take the work that you’re already doing and figure out what is valuable. Sometimes I think we talk about digital projects as this other thing that you need to go search for like Indiana Jones.

One last question: what is the thing that you’ve enjoyed the most about the workshops?

SKH: One thing that has been amazing has been the opportunity to really work collaboratively, which is so rare in so many ways within the humanities. It is so much more productive when you have a collaborator with whom you work well.

PM: I agree about the collaborative element, but also this series has given us the chance to interact with people from other departments who we otherwise might not have seen or heard about in terms of their interests in DH.

SKH: I’m really looking forward to the symposium and seeing how people’s different disciplinary backgrounds influence them in terms of projects. It can be so hard to break out of your own department.

PM: There’s so much value in just being able to explore the interdisciplinary process and actually take the time to see what other people are doing and how they’re doing it.

SKH: The other thing that’s been great has been the understanding that you don’t have to constantly say, “Wouldn’t it be great if this thing happened?” It’s a bit trite to say, “If you want something to happen, you should make it happen,” but in many ways things feel so monolithic in academia. So when we asked, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a series of workshops to introduce people to the digital humanities?,” we found that maybe those things can become more than a just a thought.

 

The “Demystifying the Digital Humanities” workshops are full for the rest of the year, but those interested in learning more about the series and other resources can find more information at the workshop website.

Interview by Dana Bublitz, the Web Tech & Communications Graduate Staff Assistant at the Simpson Center. Dana is currently a first year Masters of Library and Information Science student at the UW iSchool, with interests in digital humanities and academic libraries.