In Sessions on September 3, 2015 at 5:57 pm



  • Introductions
  • Review of course syllabus
  • Review of September schedule
  • Categorizing the digital humanities

Reading for Next Week:


  • Write a 300-500 word response to the above readings and bring  a hard copy with you to class

Notes: 8 Ways of Looking at the Digital Humanities

Perhaps the easiest way to begin defining the digital humanities is to address the impact of digital media and related technologies on the methods and “matter” of the humanities as traditionally conceived. 

On the one hand, we might think of the digital humanities from the point of view of its impact on humanist methods, techniques, and tools, in short, the digital humanities as the use of digital technologies to study the traditional subjects of the humanities. On the other hand, digital media has become its own object of study for humanists, so much work in the contemporary digital humanities might be described from the other end of the spectrum: as the use of contemporary methods of the humanities in studying digital objects.

In the Wikipedia entry on the digital humanities cited in today’s reading by Kirschenbaum (“What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?“), the authors/editors make (or once made!) a distinction between the emphasis in digital humanities work as done by English scholars in Literary and Cultural Studies (in which the change in method is more pronounced) as compared to Rhetoric and Composition Scholars (in which the change in object of analysis is more pronounced). One might see, for instance, this distinction in the work of Jerome McGann, who has adapted traditional techniques of textual criticism to create digital editions of canonical works of literature, or, to give just one more example, in Franco Moretti‘s transformation of the literary-analytical technique of close reading to the data-mining technique of distant reading. In Rhetoric and Composition Studies, however, there is a more prominent history of studying digital media and its attendant techniques (e.g., folksonomies or sampling) as forms of communication and persuasion in their own right. However, this categorization is far from tidy in contemporary scholarship and it is safe to say that changes in both methods and matter are quite common across the different specializations of English Studies (consider for instance, Marjorie Perloff’s work on digital poetics or Casey Boyle’s proposal for “rhetorical editions” of canonical works, which we will read later this semester, both of which blend the method/matter distinction).

Thirdly, given much of what we’ll be reading in this class, we might think of the digital humanities as a refining and formalization of what used to go on under the more general banner of “new media studies.” Here we could trace a shift from scholarship that focused on the expansion of types of representational media to work that focuses on more complex forms of connectivity, arrangement, and interaction. Appropriately for this course, we might consider that shift around the ways that “digital rhetoric” has been disputed and embraced in this history. In one of the more influential works of new media scholarship in this century, The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich associates the rise and fall of rhetoric with that of the printed page as the dominant mode of media:

Traditionally, texts encoded human knowledge and memory, instructed, inspired, convinced, and seduced readers to adopt new ideas, new ways of interpreting the world, new ideologies. In short, the printed word was linked to the art of rhetoric. (76-77).

For Manovich, the decline of the dominance of print leads to the decline of rhetoric as well, and thus “the sheer existence and popularity of hyperlinking exemplifies the continuing decline of the field of rhetoric in the  modern era” (78). As he goes on to write, this decline is attributable to a flattening of the amount of rhetorical tropes dominant in digital media–Manovich suggests only metonymy, the trop of substitution, remains prominent in hypertext–and thus it is hard to imagine a “rhetoric of hypertext” that would match that of traditional text.

However, as the large amount of readings we’ll be covering this year emphasize, “digital rhetoric” has emerged over the past decade or so as an active field. One might attribute this change to Manovich’s rather restricted notion of rhetoric–one that seems to reduce it to simply rhetorical tropes–but the more important shift is likely that from an early scholarly focus on digital media as a collection of “post-cinematic” media forms that replicate and extend the work of the “first” new media of film, to the study of the diverse ways in which contemporary media not only created new forms of distribution for visual and textual material, but integrate complex connections and patterns of interactivity between to the (now equally complicated categories of) producers, consumers, and “users” of media. In the first chapter of his Digital Rhetoric, Douglas Eyman gives us a concise definition of the titular topic and its use in the present, reframing and doubling James Zappens’ 2005 definition of the term:

  • the use of rhetorical strategies in production and analysis of digital text
  • identifying characteristics, affordances, and constraints of new media
  • formation of digital identities
  • potential for building social communities
  • inquiry and development of rhetorics of technology
  • the use of rhetorical methods for uncovering and interrogating ideologies and cultural formation in digital work
  • an examination of the rhetorical function of networks
  • theorization of agency when interlocutors are as likely to be software agents (or “spimes”) as they are human actors

Most of the works in and around digital rhetoric we’ll encounter in this course will fall into one or more of these categories.

We might find a fourth and fifth way of looking at the digital humanities in the humanites’ traditional role of studying what is common to “humanity” and in having, at least more so than many other disciplines, an emphasis on the populist appeal of its work to nonspecialists. On the one hand, the digital humanities is one way in which the humanities is keeping itself relevant in a moment in which its canonical texts do not have the same cultural capital they once held, and to make such work more publicly accessible than it was before; as Kirshenbaum suggests in his essay, “the digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways in which we are generally unaccustomed.” On the other hand, the digital humanities also marks the moment in which the groundfloor for participating in the creation of digital media has rapidly fallen. As traced, for instance, in Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s book Datacloud: Toward a New Theory of Online Work, the rise of symbolic-analytic work within most countries’ economies coupled with attendant technological advances has led to a “deskilling” of such processes as information architecture and digital design; as these kinds of tasks becoming increasingly common and increasingly simpler to perform, it makes sense that the humanities would begin to study them as important parts of shared popular culture.

This latter point brings us to two more ways of looking at the digital humanities, particularly from a pedagogical perspective. As work in digital media becomes more common and easier to learn, it makes sense that we would use contemporary media and technologies to teach traditional topics in more efficient or effective ways as well as to adapt to the changing needs of what students need to learn, particularly in regard to composing in new media environments. The piece we read for today by Conatser (“Changing Medium, Transforming Composition“) gives us an example of both objectives: Conatser both uses XML to improve the evaluation/commenting process of student’s papers while also teaching students how to compose themselves in XML.

Finally, in the piece by me (“A Natural History of Networks“) I asked you to review today, I give a final way of looking at the digital humanities in the present: as simply the latest shift in a continual reworking of the boundaries of different fields and disciplines that has been taking place for many centuries. All of the above might be taken as different vectors of this larger process, but I’d like us to keep in mind that shift–and the suggestion that the transmutable nature of the humanities, or of Rhetoric, or of Composition–is far from a new dynamic.


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