Caught Between Expansiveness and the Desire to Draw Boundaries

Hi, all!  I’m Katie Kaczmarek, and I “fell into” digital humanities when I was searching for a category to define my interests when applying to doctoral programs.  During my five years as a high school English teacher, I had to take classes on using technology in the classroom, where I came across this article by Marc Prensky which describes that the current generation of students growing up with technology literally have a different process of reading than those of us who grew up before it was omnipresent.  So I’m interested in investigating what features of online/hypertext literature or interactive media Young Adult print authors are using to appeal to those types of readers.  The more I learn about Digital Humanities, the more excited I am to become a part of it, because like Charity, I want my work to have some practical use to the colleagues I left behind.

After looking at all the readings, the digital humanities field seems to be suffering from the tension between wanting to be expansive and inclusive (Building doesn’t mean just coding!  Collaboration is key!) and from wanting to have clear and specific boundaries (You’re not a digital humanist just because you have a blog!  How is this different from what you could have done in print?).  Golumbia points out that even the Digital_Humanities book uses both the narrow definition of digital humanities as “tool-and-archives” and the “big tent” definition without distinction, though it leans towards the narrower definition.  I’m wondering how much of this need to draw boundaries and create a specific definition is born from a desire to legitimate the field within academia.  Universities already struggling to figure out how to assess digital humanities project-work no doubt appreciate the guidelines suggested in the “Short Guide to Digital Humanities”.  But the ability for people with so many diverse interests to participate in the field is part of what gives it vitality, and as Bianco notes, when you start reducing heterogeneity to create standards, you start to limit diversity, and lose potential ideas and results.

One of the other unique features of digital humanities that I find exciting and refreshing for the academic world is the fact that in the project-based world of DH, 1) failure is to be expected and 2) projects are encouraged not only to build off of previous work, but to be continued.  The fact that failure is an acceptable step in the process makes DH a much less intimidating field to step into, especially for a recovering perfectionist like me.  I also like the encouragement to collaborate with others and take their work farther, and the fact that your work can have even more of a lasting impact.

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About Katie Kaczmarek

1st year English Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland. I'm interested in investigating how print authors are changing the way they write to appeal to the generation who reads differently because they have grown up with technology.

5 thoughts on “Caught Between Expansiveness and the Desire to Draw Boundaries

  1. Katie, you bring up some very interesting points. As I stated in my introduction, I want to work in publishing and the article you posted sounds like it offers some very good insight on how DH is changing that world. Additionally, I think it’s great that even though we may see tweeting or blogging as something to pass the time or a fun hobby, we are somehow contributing to a bigger project. Maybe we won’t leave impressive ruins like the Mayans, but we will have sufficiently detailed the minutia of our lives for future DHers to dissect.

  2. Hey, Katie. I haven’t had a chance yet to read through the article you linked to on the different reading processes of modern students (I’ll get to it ASAP, though, because it sounds really interesting). That said, your mention of it got me wondering: if we want to teach students to engage with texts and to question them actively as they read (after all, how many of us read with a pen in hand to scribble obscenities and underline key passages?), how do we do that if we understand that today’s students may have a different reading process? In order to engage with texts in the same way, would they feel more comfortable having a keyboard (or a touch screen) to annotate a text as they read, rather than a pen? Again, I’ll get to the article as soon as I can–maybe it speaks to these concerns–but the ideas were floating around in my head while reading your post.

    • Chip, trying to figure out how to reach these new readers is the other half of what I’d eventually like to work on. I know Katherine Hayles at Duke University is working a lot on this topic, but I haven’t yet had the time to really delve into her work.

  3. Thank you for the Prensky article. It gives me a bit of hope for myself — after all “digital immigrant” sounds so much better than “technologically impaired” or “old stick-in-the-mud”! Prensky’s idea that the generation of students we teach already thinks in this way is the biggest motive for me to learn more about DH. The question of how to communicate with them in the same language seems much more tangible than the loftier issues of the articles we read that attempt to define DH.

    I agree that allowing failure to be ok is an essential aspect of DH, but I’m not sure that this actually makes it less intimidating. After all, I could say “I failed, but I learned some useful stuff in the process” but that wouldn’t mean much if my employer held a less flexible philosophy. (I’m still trying to figure all this out.)

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