DH and Practice-Based Media Research


Definitions of DH frequently emphasize that DH is about making stuff, producing artifacts, rather than simply theorizing in an abstract sense. For example, in an earlier response to this survey, Pamela Ingleton observes that “ at stake in the ‘digital humanities’ is this question of ‘making:’ producing, building, coding, programming, engineering—in other words, practical interaction with technology as opposed to theoretical analysis of it.”

However, there is also a current in media studies that emphasizes the importance of making media objects as well as studying them. Geert Lovink writes “No more vapor theory anymore!” (10). Accordingly, scholars like Alexander Galloway, Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz have called for a practice-based form of scholarship that involves the actual production of media artifacts. In his proposal for an MLA special session on “Critical Making in Digital Humanities,” Roger Whitson lists several notable examples of such scholarship; others that come immediately to mind are Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux’s art games, or Nick Montfort’s interactive fiction and constrained poetry generators.

I feel that this sort of creativity-based research ought to count as digital humanities, and that we need to avoid what David Golumbia calls the “narrow” definition of DH, by which DH is limited to the creation of scholarly tools for working with large archives.

Let me discuss this in terms of my own creative practice. I originally became interested in media studies largely because of my existing interest in comic books and graphic novels. There is a longstanding tradition of using the comics medium to theorize itself. The two most influential English-language books about comics, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, are both by professional cartoonists rather than academics, and the former actually is a comic, while the latter includes numerous example comics drawn from the author’s previous body of work. Using comics to theorize comics is a good idea because first, in comics, you can state an argument verbally and illustrate it visually at the same time. And second, when you theorize comics by making comics, a feedback loop is created in which the practical insights you learn while making comics can then be applied to your theoretical practice.

For example, while learning to use Bitstrips for a project I’m working on for Digital Humanities Quarterly, I created several comic strips that experimented with various aspects of comic page structure – panel borders, order of reading, word balloons, etc. None of these comics have much artistic merit, but they all represent practice-based attempts to think through how comics work. Similarly, this past semester I had my students write a paper in which they analyzed a comics page, then illustrated their analysis by redrawing the page in a different way and explaining how their redrawn version of the page was more or less effective than the original. (One of the most effective responses to this assignment is shown in this Prezi, with the student’s permission.)

I don’t know if this sort of thing counts as digital humanities or as practice-based media research or as both or neither. (I would note, however, that my artistic talent is very limited and that without tools such as Bitstrips and Comic Life, it would be prohibitively difficult for me to engage in this sort of theoretical exploitation; similarly, my students were able to use such tools to produce more sophisticated comics than they could have otherwise.) But maybe that’s precisely the question. Does there need to be a distinction between one specific type of practice-based research that falls into the privileged category of digital humanities, and other types of practice-based research that are just media studies?



Lovink, Geert. Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture. MIT Press, 2003. Print 


My strongest connection to the digital humanities came in the classroom. Digital production as learning tool has continued to be a valuable asset to me. In a class I was working with while taking an independent study, students did a similar assignment, they remixed footage from existing film to create a trailer for a different genre. Students not only created great works, they showed their understanding of the formalistic and genre conventions better than any test. That project included a reflective essay on the choices they made in creating their remixes. I agree that the digital humanities is a powerful learning tool as well as scholarly tool.

Because the comic in the prezi is hand drawn, I wonder if lower technology based modes of production can be included in the digital humanities? In a class I taught in literature last year, I mixed digital projects (like meme creation exercises) with lower tech projects (hand drawing sets as explained in stage notes). My students enjoyed and claimed to have learned from both types of exercise and saw no big differentiation between high and low-tech activities. 

Thanks for the comment. In my ENGL 1102 course this semester, all three projects involved creating comics, but the final project asked students to actually create a comic. I specified that they had to use some combination of digital and paper technology, because I wanted them to investigate how those modes of production interact. (I chose not to post any examples of that project for practical reasons -- I don't have access to the students' permission forms at the moment -- but I will plan on posting some of them on my blog later.) Most of them used Bitstrips, although one adventurous group of students actually coded their own website from scratch. 

I think the interaction between paper and digital technology is fascinating. My interest in this topic stems partly from a lecture that Julie Phillips Brown gave last semester on Brad Bouse and Amaranth Borsuk's Between Page and Screen, a paper book that is meant to be viewed on a webcam. My general feeling on this is that we need to be aware of the physical, material support of digital technologies, and that one way to do this is to think about the interaction between digital and low-tech modes of artistic creation. 

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