A Wide Angle Lens on DH

Reviewed by Alyssa Arbuckle

A broad, sweeping representation of the field of digital humanities (DH), Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016—edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein—is a touchstone for those who study, practice, or administer the digital humanities. This collection includes standard book chapters, but also incorporates blog posts, synopses of conference presentations, interviews, and position statements, and it is available in print or online. Debates in the Digital Humanites 2016 situates itself among other recent DH book collections, such as Doing Digital Humanities (Crompton, Lane, and Siemens, 2017), Between Humanities and the Digital (Svensson and Goldberg, 2015), and A New Companion to Digital Humanities (Schreibman, Siemens, and Unsworth, 2016). Beyond the first, seminal Debates in the Digital Humanities (Gold, 2012), Gold and Klein’s 2016 iteration also builds on previous collections, including Hacking the Academy (Cohen and Scheinfeldt, 2013), A Companion to Digital Humanities (Schreibman, Siemens, and Unsworth, 2008), and Understanding Digital Humanities (Berry, 2012).

Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016 differentiates itself from its contemporaries by sheer scope. At an impressive 579 pages, the collection includes fifty pieces from over sixty contributors, bookended by volume and series introductions by Gold and Klein. The editors purposefully frame DH as an “expanding field”—one that is integrative and malleable, and that connects various nodes of thought and theory in a network rather than adhering to limited definitions. Gold and Klein include interventions that range across areas as diverse as archaeology, code studies, pedagogy, and text analysis, with many stops in between. This variety of material makes the collection set immediate disciplinary standards for those seeking a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted digital humanities. There is another defining feature of Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016: it includes far more chapters that deal overtly with identity politics than any of the collections listed above. In addition to the expected tool-, method-, and pedagogy-based contributions to a DH collection, this volume offers ruminations on the intersections between DH and queer studies, critical race studies, and feminism, as well as more general calls to heighten critical interventions in the field.

Following a succinct introduction by the editors, this volume is divided somewhat arbitrarily into six parts. For brevity’s sake, I will outline representative selections from across the collection. In the first section, “Histories and Futures of the Digital Humanities,” authors ruminate on the development and possibilities of the field. Melissa Terras and Julianne Nyhan revisit a DH origin story—of Father Busa and his famed concordance—and draw attention to the female punch card operatives who assisted Busa’s work; Steven E. Jones discusses how DH “is a response to and a contributing cause of” William Gibson’s concept of network eversion (a blurring of the boundary between online and offline); Miriam Posner calls for “interrogations of structures of power” in order to truly diversify the field’s next steps. The second section, “Digital Humanities and Its Methods,” presents a broad perspective of methodology. Elizabeth Losh and others urge colleagues to embrace an “ethos of generosity” predicated on collaboration and inclusion; Tanya E. Clement considers the range of methodological perspectives from the social sciences that are or could be employed in DH; Bethany Nowviskie warns of the inevitable disenfranchisement that the growing institutional practice of replacing secure jobs with contingent labour will bring. Part three, “Digital Humanities and Its Practices,” showcases DH in action. Wendy F. Hsu suggests that DH practitioners interested in the Public Humanities need to “participat[e] as partners with the public” by engaging with communities from the inception of a project instead of viewing community members as an afterthought or object of study; Andrew Stauffer warns of the dangers of mass digitization, out of a concern that it may lead to the disposal of editions whose differences might not be obvious or recognized as valuable for study; Amy E. Earheart and Toniesha L. Taylor detail their pedagogical project White Violence, Black Resistance, which engages students in archival research on local, racially-charged history. The fourth section, “Digital Humanities and the Disciplines,” incorporates chapters from various fields embedded in, related to, or aligned with DH. Roopika Risam surveys the “lessons for digital humanities to be learned from black feminism”; Matthew Battles and Michael Maizels locate digital art history and DH within the larger context of art history as a discipline; Sheila A. Brennan outlines the difference between Public Humanities and DH. In part five, “Digital Humanities and Its Critics,” Brian Greenspan considers the pros and cons of the field’s frequently utopian rhetoric; Ryan Cordell urges more nuanced digital pedagogy than a survey DH course; Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and others aim to find a productive way forward despite the neoliberalism that characterizes “the economic framework within which we are reluctantly operating.” Finally, the sixth section, “Forum: Text Analysis at Scale,” collects “position statements from a range of scholars who have contributed to the discussion around a topic of pressing import to the field”—in this case, textual analysis.

Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016 is an eminently useful anthology for students, faculty, researchers, librarians, administrators, and citizen-scholars alike. Gold and Klein present reflections on many pressing issues in DH, and do not shy away from incorporating divergent positions. As its precursor did in 2012, Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016 is sure to become a frequently referenced resource for those working in, or interested by, the field.

This review “A Wide Angle Lens on DH” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 154-156.

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