At the 2011 Computers and Writing conference, I participated in a plenary session themed around the question, Are You a Digital Humanist? Even though I have not taught a writing course in years, and my faculty appointment is in Cinematic Arts, I’ve stayed connected to the C+W community, which includes a vibrant discussion forum, “techrhet” (technical rhetoricians), and the peer-reviewed journal, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. And viewing the term digital humanities from the C+W perspective proved illuminating.
It reminded me that one of the divergences between media studies and the digital humanities may have less to do with the “digital” and more with the “humanities” side of that term, especially in departments of English. In tracing the emergence of the freshman English class (aka first year composition), Sharon Crowley finds rampant evidence of the “humanist contempt for mass media and popular culture” running through the professional literature. For instance, in 1950, one scholar laments the “visual minded illiteracy of a generation of television watchers,” just as in 1890, Adams Sherman Hill worried that novels and newspapers would ruin people’s language use as well as their morals (105).
The humanistic tendency to view literature as the height of human expression has traditionally been at odds with the study of mass media, and this privileging of literature, in turn, has implications for the type of critical response considered appropriate. Poets and dramatists are artists and their tool is creativity; the academic essay is about literature but, using the tool of criticism, it takes the form of prose. Given these roots, it’s not surprising that many digital humanities projects build tools to help study literature. And, insofar as many film studies programs grew out of literature departments, the privileging of cinema is similar: that is, cinema is the art we write about using academic prose. The creative and the critical are separate entities and the form of the critical does not shift much, nor is it questioned.
The field of rhetoric and composition takes as its subject the shifting nature of communication and expression, and what that means for academic argument as well as for teaching the academic essay. Indeed, the Computers and Writing conference has been problematizing the digital for almost thirty years, and so its members express skepticism about something that might seem like a trendy term: digital humanities.
Personally, I identify more as a digital rhetorician than a digital humanist, mainly because of the rhetorical focus on both the production and the consumption of texts; I encourage the use of all of the available semiotic registers which no longer includes only words, but also images, sound and interactivity. I make remix videos, I publish pieces that could not have been done on paper, and my research centers on tools for indexing massive video archives. Still, I use terms like digital humanist strategically and contingently, and in this respect, I follow the sentiments of the crowd-sourced Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, which argues that the term is not perfect, but it is a placeholder for what comes next. Given that current academic disciplines coalesced during the ascendency of print literacy, they need rethinking and likely will shift. Our active participation in that process will no doubt begin with conversations like this.
Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. 1998, U of Pittsburgh P.
Digital Humanities Manifesto: http://hastac.org/node/2182
“Are You a Digital Humanist?,” Town Hall session, Computers and Writing, 2011. Katherine Hayles, Jentery Sayers, Julie Klein, Alex Reid, Cheryl Ball, Doug Eyman
Image on front page by sbpoet and available on Flickr.