Digital Humanities

Recently I saw a posting for position at Dalhousie that includes supporting “digital humanities” initiatives.  “Digital humanities” is a phrase that I’ve heard occasionally but never really understood, so I dug around a bit and apparently “digital humanities” just means people in the humanities using twenty-first century tools to ply their trade.  At first blush it would seem rather odd that there would be a special name for this, but the following comment from Cathy Davis of Duke University sheds some light on utility of it:

Someday I suspect the word “digital” will go away and simply be part of the apparatus of communicating humanist ideas, in the same way that one need not say “digital science” or “digital social science.”  For now, if we don’t use the word, we can lose the technology, and it is useful for designating a new kind and form of funding required for the new humanities since “humanities” once implicitly … meant “cheap.”

I engaged in the digital humanities back the nineties, when I was taking a Shakespeare survey course and a course in dialectology at the same time.  I loved Shakespeare, but hated looking up words in the dictionary.  One minute I’d be crashing through the woods with Hermia and Lysander, and the next I’d be hauling the compact OED down off the shelf and fumbling around with the magnifying glass as I looked up what “visage” meant.  And then there were the false friends – familiar words like “fond” and “excrement” that had completely different meanings for Shakespeare.  How was I supposed to know to look them up if I didn’t know that I didn’t know what they meant?

It puzzled me that I was being asked to read texts in a dialect so different from my own without some sort of direct instruction in that dialect.  So for my term paper in dialectology, I argued for a systematic approach to teaching the syntax and lexicon of Early Modern English and included a glossary of lexical items that occur frequently in Shakespeare but could not reasonably be expected to be familiar to a young speaker of contemporary Canadian English.

This process was only partly digital: I used an online corpus to figure out which unfamiliar words to include, but the definitions and examples had to be painstakingly copied from the the OED, which meant holding the magnifying glass with one hand and pecking at the keyboard with the other.  I don’t miss those days at all.

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