April 19th, 2010 | rob nelson
Below is what I proposed for this year’s THATCamp. (I hope I’m not misremembering or misrepresenting Tom–or more likely making too much of an offhanded comment. If I’m doing any of those things, my apologies, Tom.) Rereading what I wrote a few months ago, the questions I pose at the end strike me as perhaps too abstract for a session. And perhaps I’m wrong and there are exemplary digital scholarship projects that use the medium to make arguments–arguments that have had an impact among humanists, digital and non-digital alike. Maybe if anyone else is interested in these kinds of questions about digital humanities, new media, and argumentation and has examples of the best and most exciting digital scholarship being developed those projects could be listed in comments on this post. A session might be organized around discussing the most promising directions and techniques for presenting arguments and engaging humanities questions using new media.
During the session at last year’s THATCamp on whether all history before too long would be digital history, Tom Scheinfeldt said something to the effect that digital history was more often than not synonymous with public history. I disagreed with him then, but I can’t dispute that he’s right that most of the notable digital history projects that have been developed to date have tended to have a public history orientation. While there have been some projects that have been developed to present arguments, they are few, and for the most part I sense that they haven’t had a substantial impact among academics, at least in the field of history.
At this year’s THATCamp I’d like to ask why that is. While of course still a small minority, more humanists are now employing computational techniques in their research–whether that be using GIS or text mining or social network analysis or a number of other techniques and tools. But with a few exceptions these techniques are used to produce conventional scholarship, to inform and shape linear, textual essays and monographs. There isn’t much digital scholarship that uses new media. (There are a few exceptions–Vectors comes to mind.) Why is that? Is new media ill suited for presenting arguments, markedly inferior to linear prose? Does the relative absence of argumentative digital scholarship just reflect the newness of new media? Have we just not figured out how to use the medium to make arguments yet, or maybe time is needed for the larger scholarly community to be both willing and able to read and thoughtfully engage with digital scholarship? While digital history and new media has enriched the field of public history, as a medium of expression (as opposed to a set of methodological tools) can and will it have a similarly significant impact upon more narrowly academic scholarship?
I do have an unrelated idea for another session. I know a number of THATCampers have offered undergraduate digital humanities or digital history courses. I’d really welcome the opportunity to have a discussion about how to organize and teach such a course. I’ve long thought about developing such a course, but I’ve struggled the logistics of asking students to “do” digital humanities without devoting too much class time to teaching them some modest technical skills.