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The “D and H” Divide in the Digital Humanities

November 8th, 2013

Kimberly Hall

Author: Sarah Lozier

As a humanities graduate student interested in looking at digital media, digital processes, and digital sociality, it is tempting to define myself professionally as a Digital Humanities scholar.  But this definition isn’t particularly helpful, since it almost always elicits the response — “And what does that actually mean?”  Indeed, being a DH professional seems to “mean” differently for different people, and these definitional slippages become increasingly problematic when it comes to those non-research necessities of being an aspiring academic (getting jobs, applying for grants, and teaching undergraduates).  In an effort to think through some of these slippages and their politics, I’d like to look at one specific resource for DH professionalization — the University of Victoria’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) — to think about what this program suggests effective DH professionalization is and does.

The DHSI is “a week of intensive coursework, seminars, and lectures,” all focused around issues pertinent to the digital humanities.  This year’s twenty-seven seminars cover a wide range of topics ranging from “Text Encoding Fundamentals”  to “Electronic Literature in the Digital humanities,” but all twenty-seven are organized along a kind of divide between building digital skill sets — coding, software use, etc — and dealing with fairly traditional issues of humanities study applied to digital objects — “reading” electronic literature, applying “theory” to digital media, etc.

This divide strikes me as potentially indicative of the larger problem of professionalizing in DH, and that is the question of what a DH professional does. While these seminars cover topics dealing explicitly with navigating the Digital and topics dealing explicitly with navigating the Humanities, there aren’t any seminars that explicitly deal with digital AND humanities navigation, DH as one unit.  They suggest that DH is still D and H, Digital and Humanities.  The problem with this “and” is analogous to the problem of the hyphen conceived as the splice that Katherine Hayles discusses in the fifth chapter of How We Became Posthuman.  That is, D (and) H imagines a “separate but equal” relationship between the items on either side of the and, even as it officially splices them together (DH) as one item.  Scholars who do this thing called “DH” must actually do “D and H,” making the discipline a necessarily exclusive rather than inclusive one.  In the hectic world of the modern academy, where tenure is disappearing and we are asked more often than not to work “for free,” today, being a DH professional is all but closed off to those who already have the time and resources to equivalently pursue D and H — established, funded academics.  Until we can more effectively splice D and H into DH, this exclusivity and definitional slipperiness will continue to exist.