Metaphoric Confession: A “DH” Tent and A Digital Garden

I confess to being an outspoken newbie to the “digital humanities,” but I’m keenly surveying the field, and I’m glad to read critiques of it. There are things that I confess both excite and concern me deeply about DH, to do with authority, quality, and inclusiveness. David Golumbia’s blog post on “definitions that matter (of ‘digital humanities’)” shocks and sobers this eager digital romanticist…and it strikes me as yes, quite apt in its critique of the “big tent” metaphor for DH. The big tent disguises its own digital divide, warns Golumbia, and when we consider the awarding of grant funding for “DH” projects, we begin to see a more narrow definition–and we can readily intuit who need not apply.

I am glad of this warning note from the self-pronounced “digital skeptic.” And I confess to the weakness of exceptionalist bias! I want my own projects to be different, to be inclusive and instructive, to educate and uplift and help to transform what we understand of literature and culture of past centuries. I want my practice of coding to reach out and include students and colleagues, to help disclose new topics of discourse, to help build new communities.  Can there be a culture of coding, and a cultivation of the intellect and imagination through the digital humanities? If so, it’s not going to appeal to everyone, and the time and money to do it seems to be limited, as Golumbia warns.

Maybe humanities research needs to be esoteric, and whether digital or not, should not be puffed (to use an old-fashioned 19th-century term) with hot air to outsized tents that blow away and disappear as funding streams are cut.  I can say, though, based on my humble experience, that much experimentation with humanities computing for teaching and research need not require a start-up grant or millions of dollars. Good experimentation of any kind does take time, and that time certainly can be defined in dollar amounts. Is my time well spent? Six months ago I was not sure, but in connecting with people who care about sharing knowledge, and in devoting much time (and losing sleep many a long night of coding!) in the past spring, I am confident in saying, yes, this is worth my energies, where I am placed now. I think it worthwhile, since I can, to try to grow a digital garden, with deep roots and rhizomatic linkages and, I hope, perennial blooms that outlast the current (funding) season.

For very practical reasons, in working with noncanonical texts, I believe that learning to code is the best direction for the kind of feminist archival and rediscovery work we’re doing…but I confess a great concern about the direction of grant funding in our times: Is there money and support for research into *noncanonical texts and topics*? Must the “digital humanities” be defined by dollars? I’d rather it were defined by collaborative connections, like my Digital Mitford project team coming together out of mutual interest on the fly (and on the cheap!) this year and the social discourse we can engage in through organizations like HASTAC.

Down to earth with me! Try googling “digital garden” and…I see one project which is really much more earthy but seems to share my digital idealism about building community and improving discourse! This is as good a moment as any to consider that imaginative constructions in texts script and shape and drive our interactions, that “what is now proved was once, only imagin’d”. . . and written, and coded, and read.

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Elisa Beshero-Bondar

Associate Professor of English http://about.me/ebbondar

3 thoughts on “Metaphoric Confession: A “DH” Tent and A Digital Garden”

  1. I agree that digital humanities is a great way of distributing distributing non- canonical texts. I am excited about this aspect of the project. I hope to learn some broadly transferable lessons that I can apply in eventually disseminating and contextualizing the work of my two favorite neglected authors: the American expatriate New Woman novelist and essayist Julia Constance Fletcher and the Victorian “working class serial fiction” author James Malcolm Rymer, author of Varney the Vampire and inventory of Sweeney Todd.

    I also want to thank Elisa for making this workshop accessible in ways DH sometimes isn’t.
    A direction in which this nascent field should not head is creating makework for expensive software or hardware. I have seen enough digital humanities projects that assume researchers own iPads or gaming machines. We are letting content and end user needs dictate project management, which is great.

    One question: should I bring notes / bibliography for annotations of my first mitford story? Is there a style sheet? Will we learn this later, after learning oxygen? Thanks.

    1. Yes–there will be a style guide, and it’s sort of under construction at the moment. (I should quit blogging and work on my coding!) Yes, if you have notes for your Mitford story, and a good text to start with, bring that! One thing we’ll be working on is taking texts from sources like Gutenberg, or from plain text, and setting up structural markup using regular expressions to find white spaces and blank lines and ends of lines, etc…
      Source of texts is another matter: We need to be really clear about the derivation of source texts, and in some cases, I expect we’ll be versioning: and we might have to start with a base text from an electronic source that we then add to based on what we see from manuscript…When we work on TEI, we’ll talk about information that goes in the header, where you’ll be identifying what texts you’re working with and how…Fun times coming! 🙂

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