Digital Humanities: My Introduction 1.1

appropriation by Christopher OttingerFor those who have yet to drink the digital humanities “Kool-Aid” (it’s the blue stuff they drink in Tron), for the next three posts I will chart my own introduction. My entrance largely follows from attending a seminar that meets twice a quarter on Saturday mornings entitled, “Demystifying the Digital Humanities” (#dmdh). Paige Morgan and Sarah Kremen-Hicks organize the seminar and it is sponsored through the University of Washington’s Simpson Center for the Humanities.

In this post I want to outline a brief definition of the digital humanities, and I will conclude by suggesting some things that you can do to advance your own understanding. Because these posts stem from my own introduction, they might be too basic for those already immersed in DH studies. Rather than an in-depth exploration, consider this post as an enthusiastic sharing of information.

Defining the Digital Humanities

During the first session of the seminar we attempted to define the digital humanities. A typical strategy towards definition might ask what a concept “is.” But the organizers challenged us to think about what this concept “does” and what “values” it embodies. The next two installments of this series will cover what you can “do” in the digital humanities. Today, I want look at some values.

Collaboration is one of the main values espoused in the digital humanities. “Instead of working on a project alone,” as Lisa Spiro says, “a digital humanist will typically participate as part of a team, learning from others and contributing to an ongoing dialogue.”[i]

In which case, a digital humanist might post his or her most recent progress, research, or problem on a blog or Twitter feed. Others can then add comments, suggestions, and criticisms. There is also a push toward finding people with the resources to do the job you have in mind (knowing he had the skills, I asked my brother to make the image above for this post). Overall, there is a common avowal among digital humanists that works ought to receive input and support from others before reaching the final product, and in addition, this feedback can come from more people from different disciplines.

Making works more available, as Paige and Sarah stressed, also means a greater willingness to be “open,” even with regards to “failure.” By being more open scholars can overcome the erroneous belief that every “success” equals “positive results.” As in the physical sciences, in the humanities there is little sense in reproducing the same bad experiment more than once. Sharing failures might ultimately lead to less repeat, and potentially more success.

It would be impossible to offer a full definition in this short space, but my conclusion so far is that, without knowing it, many young scholars are already invested in the digital humanities. For instance, writing for the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus blog qualifies as a digital humanist platform and method. I am writing in a public domain, making my interests more open for sharing and criticism, taking risks on what kinds of content I post, and focusing on producing more products more consistently, all of which embodies a DH ethos. During the first seminar in October, upon learning that I already shared many digital humanist values, it encouraged me to go familiarize myself with some of the tools, which I will now discuss.

Getting Started in the Digital Humanities

While not every university hosts a seminar like the one I attended, there are some traveling ones. According to the THATCamp homepage, it is “an open, inexpensive meeting where humanists and technologists of all skill levels learn and build together in sessions proposed on the spot.” These camps take place in cities all over the world and anyone can organize one. Or if you want something more intense, try the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria (see Lindsey Eckert’s post on this site for an overview).

If you really want to jump into the digital humanities fast (this might sound self-indulgent in this context), I think the best method is reading blogs. The problem with blogs is the sheer quantity. But once you find a blog that works, they usually provide a blogroll that includes a list of the author(s)’ own preferences. At the bottom of this page I provide three blogs with three different emphases regarding the digital humanities for you to try (and please respond below if you have others to suggest).

The last thing is coding. It seems scary, but with simple (and free) online tutorials, learning how to code is like getting started with any foreign language: the first day is always the easiest. You learn “hello,” “please,” “thank you,” und so weiter. The difficulties arise later. But anyone who has travelled abroad knows that a small handful of phrases can actually satisfy a large range of interactions. For instance, it takes a few minutes only on to learn how to make “headings” in your blog post (like the emboldened titles above). Headings actually allow search engines like Google to more easily recognize your key words and phrases, which I didn’t realize until I started learning a little code. Ultimately, learning how to code can help you appreciate the rules that govern your online experience.

Last, I think it’s important to divulge why I became interested in the digital humanities. Because my dissertation started to focus more on tools, geometry, and the imagination in the eighteenth century, I found myself on the historical end of digital space. It made good sense then to start exploring current trajectories. But as I hope to show in the next two entries, “doing” digital humanities does not necessitate digital humanities “content.” Your introduction might be more about method, pedagogy, or even values. That said, it is worth having a good reason to invest your time in DH studies. As graduate students, time is always in short supply. But if it’s the right conversation for you, be open, be willing to fail, and enjoy the Kool-Aid.

Some Suggested DH Blogs:

If our blog is the only one you are reading with any frequency, perhaps the next place to go is The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker. This blog features a number of authors writing on the latest trends in technology, teaching, and the humanities. For starters, try Adeline Koh’s work on academic publishing.

Ted Underwood teaches eighteenth and nineteenth century literature at the University of Illinois. His blog, The Stone and the Shell, tends to explain DH tools, values, and protocols for “distant reading.”

For a more advanced blog, in terms of tools and issues, I have found Scott Weingart’s the scottbot irregular resourceful, interesting, and it is also a great example of how to up the aesthetic stakes of your own blog.


[i] Spiro, Lisa. “This Is Why We Fight.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 2012. 16-35. Print.

11 thoughts on “Digital Humanities: My Introduction 1.1”

  1. Captivating stuff, and bravo for attending a Saturday seminar–even meeting twice quarterly. I was especially struck by your discussion of “values” in relation to DHers.

    As you get at, for DH initiates, there’s already some resonance with an ethos of collaboration and openness that tend to bring with us to the community. I’m just curious what you might think that stems from. Namely, what is it about being trained when we were as undergrads and grads that predisposes us towards this sort of working method?

    1. Good question, Jacob. In terms of values, I think we could ask the same question with regards to what draws romanticists to romanticism, or Deleuzians to Deleuze (not that these two are synonymous): There is a wish for something more than the given, the inherited, or the imposed. Does it have to do with training as undergrads? I think we’re talking about too many “timelines” to limit it to “beginning at undergrad” or even “beginning at high school.” First, there must be larger narratives already in place for the sake of “being ready” to be open, right? For instance, you can’t have all this openness and collaboration among average “citizens” prior to the eighteenth century.

      Given the specific values I identify above, I think the most important first step is deconstructing the concept of “romantic genius.” It still plagues everyday conversation and even academic research. If you want to espouse collaboration, openness, and failure, then we have to do away with this image of the artist-academic-engineer-etc as an autonomous being working on some “higher plane.” Yes, at some point we all have to go to our respective rooms to type the essay, dissertation, or whatever, but even Zarathustra has to come down from his mountain on occasion.

  2. Nice piece. I’m eager to read the next 2. Cheers for doing this.

    I think you are exactly right about coding. It seems intimidating and bewildering at first, but the very basics are easy to grasp and you can do quite a lot with them before actually falling into really complex problems (and maybe finding a solution to those problems). It is actually pretty fun. That said, I do think there is an expectation for DH jobs that you use DH for research and incorporate it into your written work. But maybe that’s a misreading on my part.

    1. Good point, Chris. I don’t want to mislead people. Perhaps we should say, if you only want to introduce yourself to dh, then feel free to dabble. But like any skill or task, to do it well will require a tremendous amount of work, hours, and dedication.

  3. Aaron, thank you for introducing this topic and starting this series of posts. I had the pleasure of meeting Paige Morgan at STS a few years ago and have enjoyed participating in discussions with her over Twitter. As someone who came to DH by accident, but immediately found a home, I have a lot to say about how important it is to try and learn DH skills by working on a digital project – *someone else’s project* ideally (IMO). I also think, to respond to Jake’s question, that DH is all about collaboration because in my experience the making of digital texts and archives, maintaining of archives, visualizations, analyses, and what have you take a small interdisciplinary village. For Laura’s Poetess archive, e.g., Romanticists (prof and students) + computer scientists (admins + students) and a succession of editors have been required to build and maintain that project over the years. I think we’re asked to think about working collaboratively because the labor is impossible (or darn near so) flying solo.

    1. So glad you brought up the issue the “project,” Kirstyn. I think that gets at the proverbial heart of DH collaboration…

  4. Thank you for your thoughts on the DH initiation! My graduate students are grappling with these ideas while they create their digital project this semester ( Might I also suggest that you find a DH project to gain experience via DH Commons? After you register, you can log yourself in with certain amounts of expertise (even as basic as proofreading). You may also peruse the other projects to see what they need.

    If you have a moment and are interested, please feel free to comment on student posts over at Beardstair.

    1. Hey Kathy! Thanks for your reply! Any chance one of your grads might want to report on the Beardstair project on It would be a great way to meet more grads working in Rom-DH and learn more about this proj. I’m checking out your phases and it looks like groups will be blogging research, dev, and production work — so in order to not create more work for your students perhaps they could reblog here about the project, if they choose? They are welcome to reblog here or write a new blog about the project.

      Just an open, friendly invitation if it would work and be useful/fun. 🙂

      Aside to all: I’m thinking that we could make a lively little collection on the NGSC blog of reviews of grad student DH projects in progress (or complete – but are these things ever complete?) related to 18th-19th c studies. –> Okay, back to work on Daguerre …

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