Thursday, March 30, 2017

The "normalization" of digital humanities?

Over at The Stone and the Shell Ted Underwood has a new post, Digital humanities as a semi-normal thing: "In place of journalistic controversies and flame wars, we are finally getting a broad scholarly conversation about new ideas." He goes on to note:
The immediate occasion for this post is a special issue of Genre (v. 50, n. 1) engaging the theme of “data” in relation to the Victorian novel; this follows a special issue of Modern Language Quarterly on “scale and value.” Next year, “Scale” is the theme of the English Institute, and little birds tell me that PMLA is also organizing an issue on related themes. Meanwhile, of course, the new journal Cultural Analytics is providing an open-access home for essays that make computational methods central to their interpretive practice.

The participants in this conversation don’t all identify as digital humanists or distant readers. But they are generally open-minded scholars willing to engage ideas as ideas, whatever their disciplinary origin. Some are still deeply suspicious of numbers, but they are willing to consider both sides of that question. Many recent essays are refreshingly aware that quantitative analysis is itself a mode of interpretation, guided by explicit reflection on interpretive theory.
Underwood notes, however, that "distant reading" is unlikely to become "one of those fashions that sweeps departments of English, changing everyone’s writing in a way that is soon taken for granted." Why not? Because it's too hard.
Adding citations to Geertz and Foucault can be done in a month. But a method that requires years of retraining will never become the next big thing. Maybe, ten years from now, the fraction of humanities faculty who actually use quantitative methods may have risen to 5% — or optimistically, 7%. But even that change would be slow and deeply controversial.

FWIW, it seems to me that cognitive and evolutionary criticism are an easier reach than distant reading, though not so easy as adding citations to Geertz and Foucault. Geertz and Foucault can be assimilated to more or less 'standard' humanities training in discursive and narrative reasoning. Cognitive science and evolutionary psychology cannot. But it is possible to assimilate some ideas from those areas to vague psychology of mental agents or faculties of some sort (such as Theory of Mind) and cognitive metaphor and conceptual blending are not a far stretch from more traditional notions of tropes. But digital reading requires fundamentally different ways of reasoning from evidence to conclusions. And that's not so easy to pick up. And then, of course, there's the process of learning to use digital tools.

1 comment:

  1. When I was young I advised not to take an outside laugauge class at university as I would fail. They had never had a dyslexic student who could complete the Latin course. Was the same at school, the issue was thought to be dyslexia. My childern speak German very well, the issue was one of communication and teaching.

    I have heard these claims before in relation to students moving from English lit, to early medevial studies, presented as a move from the soft to the hard. I always read these things as a sales pitch, engage in mind reading and suspect its the work of an academic who has moved up the food chain and is attemmpting to present themselves in the standard manner. Conservative world with limited narrative options.

    "Adding citations to Geertz and Foucault can be done in a month."

    I spent a couple of years reading the archeology of knowledge, then read some secondary papers, I had little idea what they were talking about or what post modernisim was, it was a translation into a culture I had no experiance or little interest in. It seemed very removed from what I took from the text.

    I don't think it indictes English lit is a soft subject, It works in a different way, as an outsider that looks odd, but then I am not a massive institution fighting for funds and recognition and I have no wish to replicate myself on a large scale.