Keep the H in DH

MLA 2017

“Keep the H in DH” will address the contributions of humanistic inquiry to the computational tools and methods taken up by digital humanities practitioners. While many humanists acknowledge the ways that technology can enhance conventional scholarship and pedagogy, difficult work remains to be done to establish practices through which humanities disciplines can address, and possibly amend, the limitations of digital tools. In her blog post on “The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities,” Miriam Posner envisions ways to dismantle “the machinery of the archive and database so that it doesn’t reproduce [reductive] logic.” Taking up that challenge, this panel aims to articulate the skills, specific to humanities practices, that can identify and recover complexities that are lost when using technology to collect, analyze, and visualize data. Panelists will offer new ways to theorize digital work, suggesting specific models for creating digital projects that go beyond representing data to perform robust cultural, social, and political critique.

The panel will begin with two papers that reveal discipline-specific methodologies that are often overlooked in digital studies and propose new ways to apply these approaches to digital work. The latter half of the panel will draw on panelists’ experience creating scholarly databases to demonstrate the centrality of humanistic inquiry in building compelling digital projects. To promote discussion, each 12-minute presentation is designed as a provocation to both explore and critique the intersections of digital work and conventional scholarly practices.

In “Childhood Studies at the Digital Turn,” Spencer D. C. Keralis will open the discussion by examining the parallel emerging fields of digital humanities and literary childhood studies. Childhood studies arise from a peculiar interdisciplinary nexus within the purview of both education and library science, but remain largely uniformed by trends in critical studies and literary theory. Likewise, digital humanities rely on the interdisciplinary convergence of informatics, computer science, digital preservation, and literary studies, but have avoided engagement with cultural studies and critical theory. Keralis’s research shows that none of the major recent anthologies and monographs on digital humanities address children’s literature or childhood studies as subjects of digital inquiry, and no intervention in literary childhood studies in the past ten years has incorporated digital methods, beyond relying on digital archives of primary texts. This paper will reveal how the canonistic and nationalistic foci of mass digitization projects have resulted in the exclusion of children’s literature from the digital record and will suggest ways these divergent fields can converge.

Arguing for the inclusion of environmental humanities methodologies in digital practices, Alicia Peaker will interrogate the ways humanists might remake the digital tools used to perform distant readings of large corpuses of texts, specifically to facilitate ecocritical engagements with the complex natural worlds of novels. Beginning with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth (1917), “Keeping the Nonhuman in DH: A Case for the Digital Environmental Humanities” will offer a set of suggestive digital practices that situate humans and nonhuman others within the fictional ecosystems of the novels they inhabit. This approach will demonstrate the ways that both traditional close reading and more recent distant reading techniques can be dangerous positions to occupy in relation to our environment. Remaking code and tools to engage with ecological concepts embedded in the novels, Peaker argues, places both makers and readers in new and idiosyncratic relations to each novel, inviting reflection about human and nonhuman (including digital) traces in the Anthropocene.

Lindsay Van Tine will take the Early Novels Database project (END) as a case study to explore the possibilities of humanistic data creation, and will model the kinds of computational results that such an approach can enable. In “Better (Meta)data In, Better DH Out,” Van Tine will focus on the adaptation of END’s metadata schema as it has expanded to include not only works that have been traditionally regarded as novels, but also adjacent and often overlapping genres. Since 2009, collaborators on the END project have been compiling a dataset that provides human-created, richly nuanced metadata that enhances researchers’ ability to work with digitized corpora. The value of high-quality metadata is often overlooked in a digital humanities environment whose most recognizable method is “distant reading” through computational analysis of full-text corpora. While these corpora have enabled literary research on a previously unimaginable scale, Van Tine will argue that the missing or low-quality metadata associated with many digitized texts limits the potential of computational methods to generate truly humanistic research.

In “New Approaches to Presenting Archival Evidence of Performance in Early London,” Diane Jakacki will examine the Records of Early English Drama’s developing REED London resource. This born-digital resource explores ways archival references to early London theatre transform our understanding of medieval and early modern culture, and reasserts the centrality of humanistic inquiry in digital endeavors. Collaborators involved in REED’s digital turn are dedicated to supporting, extending, and better communicating best practices of archival interaction. As REED continues to negotiate bridges between its traditionally published collections and re-focused digital presentations, the gathering of London-specific archival references offers a crucial opportunity to reconsider how these archives establish new parameters for gathering, transcribing, and (de)constructing access to these records. Jakacki will share her experience as a collaborator on the project, highlighting the interdisciplinary humanistic approaches that push back against the temptation to privilege the digital for its own sake, and offering strategies for moving from analog to digital in ways that preserve scholarly rigor through humanistic inquiry.

While these papers will demonstrate the potential for digital humanities practices to develop more transparent scholarly practices that recognize structures of power and dismantle often-invisible ideology, we still must ask why humanistic inquiry is not recognized across disciplines as a valuable contribution to new modes of research. This panel aims to interrogate the political, institutional, or scholarly commitments that insist on the siloing of humanities practices, and to generate strategies to negotiate these boundaries.