DH and Comp/Rhet: What We Share and What We Miss When We Share

What follows is the text of a short talk I gave at the 2012 MLA as part of the session Composing New Partnerships in the Digital Humanities. Many thanks to session organizer Catherine Prendergast, my fellow panelists, and everyone who took part in the discussion in person or through twitter.

Like my fellow panelists, I joined this session because I’d like to see an increased level of communication and collaboration between digital humanists and writing-studies scholars. There is much to be gained from the kinds of partnerships that such collaborations might foster, and much for members of both fields to learn from one another. I suspect that most people in this room today agree upon that much.

So, why haven’t such partnerships flourished? What issues, misconceptions, lapses, and tensions are preventing us from working together more closely?

A shared history of marginalization

Both comp/rhet and the digital humanities scholars have existed at the margins of traditional disciplinary formations in ways that have shaped their perspectives. Writing Studies has a history of being perceived as the service wing of English departments. Beyond heavy course loads, the field is sometimes seen as being more applied than theoretical – this despite the fact that writing studies has expanded into areas as diverse as complexity theory, ecocriticism, and object-oriented rhetoric.

The digital humanities, meanwhile, arose out of comparably humble origins. After years of inhabiting the corners of literature departments, doing the kinds of work, such as scholarly editing, that existed on the margins of English departments, humanities computing scholars emerged, blinking and bit disoriented, into the spotlight as digital humanists. Now the subject of breathless articles in the popular academic press and the recipients of high-profile research grants, DHers have found their status suddenly elevated. One need only look at the soul-searching blog posts that followed Bill Pannapacker’s suggestion at the last MLA that DH had created a cliquish star-system to see a community still coming to terms with its new position.

I bring up these points not to reopen old wounds, but rather to point out that they have a common source: a shared focus on the sometimes unglamorous, hands-on activities such as writing, coding, teaching, and building. This commonality is important, and it’s something, well, to build on, not least of all because we face a common problem as we attempt to help our colleagues understand the work we do.

Given what we share, it’s surprising to me that so many writing-studies scholars seem to misunderstand what DH is about. Recent discussions of the digital humanities on the tech-rhet listserv, one of the primary nodes of communication among tech-minded writing-studies scholars, show that many members of the comp/rhet community see DH as a field largely focused on digitization projects, scholarly editions, and literary archives. Not only is this a limited and somewhat distorted view of DH, it’s also one that is especially likely to alienate writing-studies scholars, emphasizing as it does the DH work done within the very traditional literary boundaries that were used to marginalize comp/rhet in previous decades.

This understanding of DH misses some key elements of this emerging field:

  1. Its collaborative nature, which is also central to comp/rhet teaching and research;
  2. The significant number of digital humanists who, like me, focus their work not on scholarly editions and textual mark-up, but rather on networked platforms for scholarly communication and networked open-source pedagogy;
  3. The fact that the digital humanities are open in a fundamental way, both through open-access scholarship and through open-source tool building;
  4. The fact that DH, too, has what Bethany Nowviskie has called an “eternal September” – a constantly refreshed group of newbies who seem to emerge and ask the same sorts of basic questions that have been asked and answered before. We need to respond to such questions not by becoming frustrated that newcomers have missed citations to older work – work that may indeed be outside of their home disciplines – but rather by demonstrating how and why that past work remains relevant in the present moment.
  5. The fact that there is enormous interest right now in the digital humanities on networked pedagogy. This is a key area of shared interest in which we should be collaborating.
  6. The fact that DH is interdisciplinary and multi-faceted. To understand it primarily as the province of digital literary scholars is to miss the full range of the digital humanities, which involves stakeholders from disciplines such as history, archaeology, classical studies, and, yes, English, and as well as librarians, archivists, museum professionals, developers, designers, and project managers.

    In this sense, I’d like to recall a recent blog post by University of Illinois scholar Ted Underwood, who argued that DH is “a rubric under which a bunch of different projects have gathered — from new media studies to text mining to the open-access movement — linked mainly by the fact that they are responding to related kinds of fluidity: rapid changes in representation, communication, and analysis that open up detours around some familiar institutions.”

To respond to DH work by reasserting the disciplinary boundaries of those “familiar institutions,” as I believe some writing-studies scholars are doing, is to miss an opportunity for the kinds of shared endeavors that are demanded by our moment.

So, let’s begin by looking towards scholars who have begun to bridge these two fields and think about the ways in which they are moving us forward. I’m thinking here of hybrid comp-rhet/DH scholars like Alex Reid, Jentery Sayers, Jamie “Skye” Bianco, Kathie Gossett, Liz Losh, William Hart-Davidson, and Jim Ridolfo, all of whom are finding ways to blend work in these fields.

I’d like to close with some words from Matt Kirschenbaum, who reminds us, in his seminal piece, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing In English Departments,” that “digital humanities is also a social undertaking.” That is, I think Matt is saying, that DH is not just a series of quantitative methodologies for crunching texts or bunch of TEI markup tags, but rather a community that is in a continual act of becoming. We all need to do a better job of ensuring that our communities are open and of communicating more clearly with one another. This session, I hope, is a start.

3 thoughts on “DH and Comp/Rhet: What We Share and What We Miss When We Share

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