Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Digital Humanities as "the Next Big Thing"?

Scholarship and projects related to digital humanities have been on the rise for quite some time now. And apparently, some observers see the developments as far more than a passing trend. According to William Pannapacker in his post The MLA and the Digital Humanities, "Among all the contending subfields, the digital humanities seem like the first 'next big thing' in a long time, because the implications of digital technology affect every field."

Nearly 20 sessions were devoted to digital humanities at the conference, providing a multitude of ideas on utilizing new media to enhance pedagogy, views of genres and canons, collaborative literary projects, and interactive scholarship. One of the presenters my panel shared her research concerning the emergence and implications of fashion blogs by overweight women of color, and another one of the presenters highlighted her research concerning a survey and documentary project focusing on black women that utilizes digital photography, google maps, and film.

Clearly, digital humanities projects are wildly diverse and quickly expanding.

Pannapacker observes that
Digital-humanities panels tend to skew younger than most, and the sessions are well attended but not usually packed, like celebrity panels -- perhaps the field is still too emergent and collaborative. No doubt, one of the problems faced by the digital humanists is how their work is valued in the status economies of the profession. Many panelists speak in a tone of urgency with the expectation of skepticism. (I used this tone myself, when explaining the field to administrators.)
Later he explains that although "many pioneering digital humanists" have been producing work on new media and digital technologies for quite some time "the fact that so many digital humanists are young -- almost 'digital natives' -- is not without consequences for a profession that, for the most part, has chosen to exclude them from the tenure-track, or prefer traditional modes of individualistic scholarly production to the collaborative possibilities opened up by the Internet."

So on the one hand, the large numbers of younger scholars involved in digital humanities suggests some important shifts in where the field might be headed. But at the same time, the routine exclusion of younger folks indicates that a large number of potential newer folks might choose (or be forced to choose) employment outside the profession of English.

In this regard, Pannapacker offers a disheartening and possibly accurate closing assessment,
At the very moment when our profession needs revitalization and willingness to embrace change, we have shut out the generation that is poised to provide it, and most of them will have to take their skills and enthusiasm elsewhere.

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