Defining “Digital Humanities” 2012

It’s that time of the year again: the Day of the Life of the Digital Humanities or Day of DH. As has been the case since 2009, hundreds of digital humanities practitioners will take to the blogs and Twitter (follow #dayofDH) to talk about what they do throughout a single day’s work. The goals of the project are various, but among them are highlighting the wide array of activities that fall under the banner of DH. It also doesn’t hurt to sometimes remind people who wonder if college professors work hard enough exactly what we do with our time.

When registering to participate, one of the things you will be asked to do is provide a definition of what “digital humanities” means. If you’ve been around this conversation any time at all, you know that this is a great way to start fights. (And trust me, you don’t want Matt Kirschenbaum to crane kick you.) But in true digital-humanist fashion, asking that question is a great way to create a data set as well.

If you’ve previously participated in the Day of DH festivities (Feats of Strengths, included), you don’t actually have to provide a definition this year.

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And while I thought about skipping the definition this year, I decided it would be interesting to compare my definition this year to last year’s. Here’s what I wrote then:

When I’m asked, I like to say that digital humanities is just one method for doing humanistic inquiry.

This year’s definition starts in the same place but explains what I mean by “humanistic inquiry”:

Digital humanities is just one method for conducting humanistic inquiry. Doing research in the humanities often boils down to finding a pattern–in a single text or across several texts–and then providing an interpretation of that pattern. In digital humanities, computation is used to assist in pattern recognition, pulling out patterns that would be difficult for humans to find unassisted. Interpretation of that pattern, however, remains the most important part of the process.

As I taught my undergraduate “Introduction to Digital Humanities,” I found that the emphasis on pattern recognition was the best way to help the students connect their previous work in the humanities to the experiments we ran in that class. I lose points on brevity, but I hope that I’ve picked up enough on clarity to make it worth it. We’ll see how I do in 2013.