Thursday, August 11, 2016

Ted "no whiteboard" Underwood on Digital Humanities at LARB

Melissa Dinsman interviews Ted Underwood in the Los Angelis Review of Books, #12 in her interview series on digital humanities. Concerned that vexed term, "digital humanities":
This is a great question for me because I explicitly don’t find the term “digital humanities” useful. I understand why people use it. It gives us a way of unifying projects from game studies to archaeology through the simple fact that people use computers. In 2009 that made sense because a lot of changes were happening at once and we hadn’t sorted them out. “DH” had a real value for me as an encounter group — I met a lot of great people and learned a lot. But as these projects mature, it makes less sense to group them together. It’s clear now that they have different goals and different methods. I suspect that scholars of new media and digital archaeologists would get along better if they stopped imagining themselves as competing versions of a single thing called DH. They’re not really competing. They’re different things. So the name I use for my own work is “distant reading,” which names the new perspective literary historians get by considering thousands of volumes at a time. And while Franco Moretti coined this phrase, in reality the project already existed under other names, like book history or sociology of literature. Technology doesn’t have to be central to it. The questions we’re posing are familiar questions about literary history. But digital libraries and machine learning have given us new leverage on those questions because, for instance, we can trace blurry family resemblances among texts instead of defining fixed categories. It was hard to trace loose family resemblances among thousands of volumes by hand.
Along with the tools comes epistemology:
The main thing I would want to stress is that quantitative fields are not grab bags of tools. Statistics is an epistemology. Machine learning is really, honest to God, a theory of learning. These fields can be philosophical interlocutors for the humanities, helping us to think about interpretation on a scale where variation and uncertainty are central problems. That’s a theoretical challenge of a deep and interesting kind. But you only see the challenge if you take those fields seriously.
And, you know, it doesn't really require a lot of funding:
I don’t know about DH, because it’s so broad. But there is nothing inherently expensive about distant reading. If you want to build glossy websites, then maybe you do need to hire a staff of programmers. But that’s not what I do. I’m just writing articles about literary history — very low-gloss. Usually I can do the programming, or grad students can do it. Articles, professors, courses, and grad students are regular parts of the university. We are not an added expense. Could we use more funding? Sure. Fellowship support for faculty and students is always welcome, and it’s particularly helpful in distant reading because the reality is that most faculty and students in the humanities don’t already know how to do this stuff. What we need is training. So I’ve gotten some internal and external fellowships and I’m grateful that they gave me time to try new things. But it’s not like we had to buy a particle accelerator. At UIUC I don’t even have a room with a whiteboard, to be honest.
Ted has an interesting response to Dinsman's quay about the underrepresentation of women and minorities:
I think the source of the problem here is that none of us have formal training. So people with a hobbyist background have an edge and that hobbyist background is not equally distributed. I think you solve that by building equitable institutions. We don’t have a digital humanities program or center at Illinois, and I’m not trying to build one. What we do have is a school of Library and Information Science (LIS). That’s where most distant reading actually gets done on our campus. As disciplines go, LIS is pretty serious about inclusiveness. The majority of students are women.
As for public intellectuals:
I don’t care about public intellectuals. Ideas are what matter to me, not charismatic individuals. Do you know the name of this decade’s most famous paleontologists? Their names don’t matter. It matters whether we’re creating genuinely new pictures of the human past and beautiful theories and exciting debates.

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