'Hacking' and 'Yacking' About the Digital Humanities

DH scholars will, increasingly, be 'working in packs' and chasing down bigger topics

Serge Bloch for The Chronicle

September 03, 2013

The conference of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations is an international event that attracts the most prominent figures in the field—along with a large and growing number of relative newcomers—to showcase projects and offer critiques, usually at the same time, demonstrating the inseparable nature of practice and theory that DH insiders call "hack" and "yack."

One wag on Twitter suggested that the words should be tattooed on the fists of DH'ers everywhere so they can dramatize the struggle of "right hand and left hand," á la Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter.

The host of this year's conference was the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, co-directed by Katherine L. Walter and Kenneth M. Price, at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. The conference has been held since 1989, though its member organizations have been meeting separately for much longer than that. Last year it was held in Hamburg; next year it will be in Lausanne, and then in Sydney in 2015. (I last wrote about the conference—from more of an outsider's perspective—when it was at Stanford University in 2011.)

Based on this year's meeting, Walter predicts that, increasingly, "humanities scholars are going to be chasing down bigger topics by working in packs," and that academic culture will accept new forms of scholarship, particularly work that reaches across institutional lines and seeks to connect with the public. Price observed that the spread of DH is "remaking the power dynamics of faculty, students, and alternative academics."

Bethany Nowviskie, director of digital research and scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, served as chair of this year's program committee. As she described it to me, "The program becomes both a showcase of the best scholarship in our field and an evolving projection of our identity as an international community. Our attendees represent diverse intellectual traditions and linguistic, cultural, and social or academic norms. Add to that the complexity and richness of DH as a community of practice—the field is not merely interdisciplinary; it is interprofessional as well—and you may begin to realize what a trick it is to put on an event like this."

The "digital humanities," in various guises such as "academic computing" and "digital scholarship," has a history that goes back at least as far as the 1940s, when Roberto Busa began his collaboration with IBM to produce the 56-volume Index Thomisticus, a research database on the works of Thomas Aquinas.

The conference's lifetime-achievement award, informally called the Busa, is given every three years. This year's recipient was Willard McCarty, a professor of humanities computing in the department of digital humanities at King's College London and author of the field-defining book Humanities Computing (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Matthew Jockers introduced McCarty as the "Obi-Wan Kenobi of the digital humanities."

"I began computing in the humanities in 1993," said Jockers. "It was a time when an English major with a laptop was considered a dangerous rebel. At times I was scared, and I felt alone in a dark side of a galaxy far, far, away." Jockers, co-founder with Franco Moretti of the Stanford Literary Lab, is now an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska.

In his keynote lecture, "Getting There From Here: Remembering the Future of Digital Humanities," McCarty reflected on building a career in an era that established a "confrontation between the computation model of mind and the human, affective mind," suggesting the difference between the mechanistic Empire and the organic power of the Force in Star Wars. From the beginning, he said, he had a sense of having "fallen into computing." Using technology suggested an "expulsion from Eden."

That false duality lies at the root of our anxieties about the relationship between the humanities and technology. "Changing the name to DH and being popular with the boys and girls does not solve our fundamental problems," McCarty said, because those problems are epistemological, theoretical, and maybe even spiritual.

Don't become a DH'er because it is the "Next Big Thing," he said, or because it's being hyped as revolutionary. Do it because you love the field for its own sake, while remembering that much of the work being done in it still doesn't count for tenure and promotion, even though that seems to be changing.

When asked after his talk about his love-hate relationship with technology, McCarty said, "It's a struggle. We've been so product-oriented that we've taken the struggle as less important than building the device. The struggle is the point of it all. And we should not emerge unscathed. If we are not changed by computing, we are imprisoned by it."

According to McCarty, DH can puncture the complacency of the humanities, but it should be less an evangelical enterprise than a multidisciplinary exploration of the limits and failures of computing, recalling Busa's fundamental question, "Why can the computer do so little?" Building projects is a basic expression of the exploration of deeper questions, but, McCarty said, quoting Jerome McGann, "We are only beginning to understand what is possible. We have only just 'touched the hem of the quantum garment.'"

In her talk, "Uncovering the 'Hidden Histories' of Computing in the Humanities, 1949-80," Julianne Nyhan, a lecturer in digital-information studies at University College London, raised questions about how digital humanities became institutionalized.

How, for example, did DH establish itself—and secure money for centers, positions, and space in the curriculum—by using a rhetoric of revolution and underdog status, even as the field gained prominence? How has DH failed to consider the social conditions of its own production? And what works—beyond the textual—are crucial for understanding this history, with which the field still is coming to terms?

If DH'ers have been mistreated in academe as they built their careers—dismissed as indulging in a fad or building a Trojan horse for yet another attack on the humanities—how can its practitioners avoid replicating that kind of treatment toward other new fields to come?

Nowviskie observed that "the conference both began and ended with a call for greater diversity: intellectual, cultural, linguistic, and demographic." The committee worked, she said, "to create a more intellectually balanced event," including stronger representation of "feminist practice and cultural critique, digital archaeology, physical computing and fabrication, and DH pedagogy, activism, and advocacy—without shutting out core areas like computational linguistics, scholarly editing and text encoding, spatial analysis, and data modeling and mining." Her Web site describes the extensive changes in peer-review procedures that the organizers followed to make the conference more inclusive.

In her concluding plenary lecture, "Is There Anybody Out There? Building a Global Digital Humanities Community," Isabel Galina, a researcher at the Institute for Bibliographic Studies at the National University of Mexico, noted the frequent observation that "the DH community is predominantly made up of white male scholars from a handful of English-speaking countries," and how "issues related to ethnicity, gender, race, language, and class have begun to crop up more frequently in mainstream-DH communication channels."

Galina offered strategies for overcoming some of the barriers to inclusiveness, especially the challenges of multiple languages, unevenly distributed technology and infrastructure, and global travel in an era of constrained budgets. "Methods that have worked effectively in one cultural setting may fail spectacularly in another," she said.

One aspect of inclusiveness that caught my attention, as someone who works at a liberal-arts college, is "minimal computing." Small colleges don't have the technology resources of large universities. So the question Galina raised about differences between countries is also relevant to different types of institutions: "How and in what ways does experience in mid- and low-income economies inform ongoing assumptions about how research and collaboration are conducted in high-economy countries?" For example, developing a media-rich online project that depends on high-speed Internet access is, in effect, making a political decision about whom you are going to reach.

Ultimately, it is impossible to represent adequately the variety of presentations and countless social interactions that constitute a conference on this scale. Scott B. Weingart has created a helpful online table of submissions and acceptances by keyword (find it on his blog,, which provides a snapshot of what DH'ers are doing and what they are interested in learning more about. Scholars in the field such as Kathi Inman Berens and Geoffrey Rockwell, among others, have placed their conference notes and observations online. And Twitter—the major outlet for collegial interaction beyond the physical conference—contains an extensive stream of observations and comments that can be found under the hashtag #DH2013.

If I had to identify an overarching theme for this year's conference, it is that the DH community—and the larger communities to which its members belong—must struggle to find ways to become more inclusive, not because we're "nice," but because that's what scholars should do: Work together to figure out what we don't know.

In the conference's opening keynote, David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, described that struggle as "activist remembering." We need to "distinguish between material of which history is made and history itself. History is not merely a matter of collecting materials that you then survey. We need to recover what we have forgotten."

Valuable as they are, new tools and scholarly approaches carry with them some anxiety about what we have neglected, how we are producing or perpetuating new forms of ignorance and exclusion. As McCarty observed, "We need to push back the fences of the lost." And for that project, theory and practice are complementary and inseparable.

William Pannapacker is a professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.