Building Relevance

Hullo, all!  Once again, my name is Clifford or Cliffie, as you prefer.  As I almost always have to explain I might as well start with it: I’m the ninth generation female Clifford in my family, it goes back over 200 years, and the name is a corruption of an old Gaelic female name “Glyfford” (or something there about) meaning “spirit/witch of the woods.”  That out of the way, I am a second-year master’s student interested in Victorian Literature, Horror, and–more recently–the digital humanities.  I, too, took Technoromanticism with Professor Fraistat and then Professor Kraus’ Book 2.0 and fell in love with the field.

During my undergraduate studies (at a liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere), I had a classics professor who described the campus humanities building as such:  “On the first floor there is the Classics and Archaeology Departments, forming the corner stone that supports everything else, essential to the stability of all other disciplines.  When you go up the stairs you have a choice, on the left, the sinister side–those of you studying languages will understand that–is the theology department.  On the right–the proper side, if you will–there is the philosophy department.  Finally–bloated, full of itself, and thoughts lost on airy nothings–the English department takes up the top two floors, barely allowing the structure of the building to contain their airy thoughts that no one–other than other English majors–care about.”  I was an archaeology major then, but I suspect my professor was more than a little horrified when at the end of my sophomore year I switched studies to join the English Department.  From then on I was “English major” and called upon to “decipher the meaning of Homer” rather than translate–not that I minded, I’m rubbish at ancient Greek.  However, the point of all this is that I don’t think his is an uncommon view of English majors or English departments.  There seems to be the idea that a degree in English isn’t useful, it doesn’t “do” anything, and–worst of all–nothing one writes about matters to anyone outside the field.  Science majors can improve or even save our lives with their studies, engineering students can design the world of tomorrow, but what does English and the humanities “do” for us?

Digital Humanities pushes back against this and that, I think, is essential to its definition.  As Kirschenbaum writes, “digital humanities, with a culture that values collaboration, openness, nonhierarchical relations, and agility might be an instrument for real resistance or reform” (“What is DH” 5).  He also states, “This [transformation] is manifested in the intensity of debates around openaccess publishing, where faculty members increasingly demand the right to retain ownership of their own scholarship—meaning, their own labor—and disseminate it freely to an audience apart from or parallel with more traditional structures of academic publishing, which in turn are perceived as outgrowths of dysfunctional and outmoded practices surrounding peer review, tenure, and promotion (“What is DH” 6).  Not only is DH about doing things–inventing, experimenting, investigating–to learn, but it is doing things to improve–in my opinion–even the way Universities and publishing work.  Thus, while DH is a method–actually a myriad methods inspired by or built upon the use of technology–to study literature, it produces and can “do” things that is truly exciting.  It refutes my professor’s accusation and removes us from the lofty and bloated classrooms.  DH produces things of genuine merit and use both to academia and outside of it–archives, web sites, twitter conversations, blogs, altered reality games, altered and “hacked” books, and far, far more.  To me, that is the most important definition of DH, as a method to investigate and create inside and outside of the classroom and to reinvent the world and the way in which we define “literature” and the “book.”  And so I have to agree with Ramsay, “Personally, I think Digital Humanities is about building things. [. . .] If you are not making anything, you are not…a digital humanist” (“On Building”).

One thought on “Building Relevance

  1. I definitely agree with your assertion that the Digital Humanities pushes back against the notion that an English degree cannot accomplish anything outside of the academy. The Digital Humanities presents itself as a means to begin collaborating with others and building new and exciting projects that influence, not simply academics, but people outside the academy as well. As a second-year master’s student, I suppose one of my frustrations has been writing papers that do not even have the potential to impact or even interest people outside of the academy. This is one of my big draws to DH. I want to collaborate to build things that are useful, not simply to my fellow academics, but to the people I know and care about who do not engage in scholarship.

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