Technology, Scholarship, and the Humanities: A Conversation with Jentery Sayers

Jentery Sayers

Integrating computer technologies with humanities research. Utilizing computational tools to retrieve, analyze, and visually represent data. Exploring multimodal ways of teaching, disseminating, and publishing scholarship. Curating online collections. The field of digital humanities is all of this, and more.

Because the digital humanities is a rapidly evolving field, there is no singular, universal, or settled definition of what the digital humanities are, what they have been, or what they might become, as the discussions on this Day of Digital Humanities 2012 website quickly reveal. Instead the digital humanities is a field advanced by new technologies, new practices, and a dynamic conversation about emergent forms of scholarly communication.  

Jentery Sayers is a scholar contributing to the formation of this field. Currently Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria, Sayers received his PhD in English from the University of Washington in 2011.  His research interests include comparative media studies, modernism, computers and composition, and teaching with technologies. His work has appeared in Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy; Computational Culture: A Journal of Software Studies; The Information Society; Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies; ProfHacker; The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies; and Writing and the Digital Generation. His courses explore technologies as both instruments and objects of sustained inquiry, helping students leverage everyday technologies to become active digital scholars.

As the Simpson Center gathers support for building a Digital Humanities Commons, we talked with Sayers about how the digital humanities has shaped his scholarly career and aspirations.

SC: How did you become interested in the digital humanities?

JS: While I was an undergraduate at Virginia Commonwealth University, I developed a hobbyist’s interest in web design, encoding, and databases. As I was earning an English degree there, I also grew increasingly curious about the twentieth-century intersections between literature and technology. During my graduate studies at the University of Washington I learned that my interests in computers, literary criticism, and technoculture studies could intersect, and that scholars were blending critical and technical practices in something called the digital humanities. The Simpson Center helped make these possibilities visible and practicable, as did HASTAC, a national network of digital scholars.

How do you define or understand “digital humanities” and their significance?

Digital humanities blends technical competencies in computing with critical thinking in areas such as history, literary criticism, cultural studies, textual studies, media studies, geography, musicology, and information studies.

Digital humanities help us imagine academic practices in new ways—ways that are often collaborative and multimodal in character. These ways are not necessarily better than existing or “traditional” approaches; they’re just different. For me, being able to collaborate with other people, inside and outside English departments, has been tremendously rewarding. I also enjoy conducting research and composing arguments through a blend of electronic text, databases, programming languages, audio, and dynamic interfaces. It helps me be more critical about the technologies I use routinely.

Perhaps that’s why digital humanities matters right now: computational developments are moving at such a rate that they are often interpreted superficially. They go unquestioned. Developing literacies in them seems central to most contemporary knowledge work. Who made what’s on the screen in front of me? How is it made? For whom? Under what assumptions and through what worldviews? When I open a novel, I tend to ask similar questions. For a given digital project, those questions are simply applied to a broader range of material objects and modes. 

What kinds of projects are you currently working on?  

I am currently revising my dissertation, a cultural history of magnetic recording, into a transmedia book project that’s intended to be part print, part digital. At the University of Victoria, I have also been facilitating a Humanities Physical Computing research group with support from the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab, and will co-teach a pedagogy seminar at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in June. In the near future, I’ll be concentrating on digital humanities projects specifically invested in audio culture, including an exhibit of the UW’s Crocodile Café Collection.

How did your experiences in the digital humanities at the UW help to shape or inform these projects?

I started many of these projects as a graduate student. At the UW, I learned how to communicate with a wide range of audiences in a variety of modes, collaborate with people outside of my discipline, teach new media production, and conduct research on the cultural dimensions of technologies. Looking back, I would say interdisciplinary programs like the Society of Scholars, the Project for Interdisciplinary Pedagogy, the Huckabay Teaching Fellowship, the Summer Institute in the Arts & Humanities, the Undergraduate Research Program, and Institute for Public Humanities were foundational. 

Interested in knowing more? Learn more about the digital humanities at the Simpson Center—including the NEH’s Challenge Grant toward the Digital Humanities Commons—and keep up with Jentery Sayers at