Disciplinary Heresies and the Digital Humanities

Cross-posted at Clio Machine:

(This post is a continuation of some of the questions I raised in my original THATCamp proposal.)

Are the humanities inherently valuable, both in terms of the skills they impart to students and because the value of humanistic scholarship cannot be validated by external (often quantitative) measures?  Or are the humanities experiencing a crisis of funding and enrollments because they have not adequately or persuasively justified their worth?  These debates have recently resurfaced in the popular press and in academic arenas.  Some commentators would point to the recession as the primary reason for why these questions are being asked.  We should also consider the possibility that the mainstreaming of the digital humanities over last couple of years is another (but overlooked) reason for why questions about the value and worth of the traditional humanities are being taken more seriously.

As humanists have pursued academic prestige, they have long resisted the notion that intuition is important in their analysis and interpretation of texts.  (Although I think this is more true in history than in literary studies, perhaps because the latter is considered more “feminine” than the former.) Humanists have distanced themselves from the notion that their subjective study is somehow speculative or irrational.  They have been much more comfortable describing their work as imaginative and creative.  What all of this posturing overlooks is the advances that cognitive scientists have made in explaining intuition over the last few decades.  For instance, they have shown that humans are hardwired for instantly recognizing the emotions felt by other people.  They have also explained how our minds are programmed to find patterns, even where none may exist.  This tension was captured in the title of a recent book by a respected psychologist, Intuition: Its Powers and Perils.  From this new perspective, then, intuition is taken for granted or ignored by almost all humanists but it is actually central to much of their work.

This debate over intuition raises important questions for traditional humanists working in the digital era.  Would traditional humanists argue that their close reading of texts, which has become the hallmark of humanistic scholarship, is an example of this new concept of intuition at its best, since it is theoretically rigorous and excels at finding new patterns in old texts?  Or will traditional humanists increasingly feel that their research methodology is threatened by what Franco Moretti calls “distant reading,” precisely because it risks exposing the limitations or perils of their intuitive models of scholarship?  How would traditional humanists react if they knew that various digital humanists have searched Google Books to test the arguments set forth in some monographs and found them lacking when text mining revealed an significant number of counterexamples that were missed or ignored by the authors?  These and other examples should get us thinking seriously about the advantages and disadvantages of relying so heavily on anecdotal, case study, and close reading research methods in the humanities.

Data and databases have become the holy grail of the new class of information workers.  One recent books applies the term super crunchers to these data analysts.  Recent articles in the popular press describe how large data sets allow trained professionals to find new patterns and make predictions in areas such as health careeducation, and consumer behavior.  In fact, we have probably reached the point this country where it is impossible to change public policy without the use of statistics.  Even the American Academy of Arts and Sciences jumped on the statistics bandwagon when it launched its Humanities Indicators Prototype web sitelast year, presumably in plenty of time for congressional budget hearings.  The fact that the humanities were the last group of disciplines to compile this kind of data raises some troubling questions about the lack of quantitative perspectives in the traditional humanities.

The humanities and mathematically-driven disciplines operate at almost opposite poles of scholarly inquiry.  In the humanities, practitioners privilege crystallized intelligence, which is highly correlated with verbal ability.  This has given rise to the idea that a “senior scholar” in the humanities accomplishes his or her most important work in their 50’s or 60’s, after a lifetime of accumulating and analyzing knowledge in their particular specialization.  By contrast, the most mathematically-inclined disciplines prize the abstract thinking that characterizes fluid intelligence.  This other form of general intelligence peaks in a person’s 20’s and 30’s.  As a consequence, the Fields Medal, widely considered the highest award in Mathematics, has never been awarded to a mathematician over the age of 40.  So if the digital humanities require young scholars to learn and excel at computational and algorithmic forms of thinking, we should be asking ourselves whether most senior scholars in the humanities will resist this as a perceived threat to their systems of seniority and authority.

Digital humanists have already written and talked quite a bit about how tenure and promotion committees have rejected some digital scholarship for being non-traditional.  Further compounding this problem are what appear to be significant cultural differences.  Almost all traditional humanists work on their scholarship in isolation; digital humanists collaborate often, sometimes because this is the only way to assemble the requisite technical knowledge.  Traditional humanists distinguish their scholarship from that produced in the social sciences, which they often think lowers itself to the level of policy concerns.  Digital humanists, by contrast, are almost universally oriented towards serving the needs of the public.  And while traditional humanists place a premium on theoretical innovation, digital humanists have so far focused much more on embracing and pioneering new methodologies.

Digital humanists will have to seriously ask themselves whether their embrace of social science methods will be considered heretical by traditional humanists.  Online mapping and work with GIS in the digital humanities is clearly borrowing from geography.  The National Historic Geographical Information System, which maps aggregate census data from 1790 to 2000, is obviously influenced by demographic and economic analysis.  The Voting America web site, overseen by the digital humanist Ed Ayers, builds on decades of studies in political science.  Text mining is catching on as digital humanists adapt the methods of computational linguistics and natural language processing.  What remains to be seen is whether the digital humanities will take this flirtation to its logical conclusion and follow the example of the computational social sciences.

All of this might sound quite unlikely to some of you.  After all, most, if not all, of us have heard the mantra that the digital humanities is a misnomer because in ten to fifteen years all humanists will be using digital methods.  But for that to be true, digital humanists will have to fall into the same trap as traditional humanists: believing that others will follow our example because the correctness of our way of doing things seems self-evident.  But as we have seen, there may actually be significant differences in the ways that digital humanists and traditional humanists think about and practice their disciplines.

Let me conclude with a few questions that I would love to see discussed, especially as part of a session at THATCamp.  Will the methodologies and mindset of the traditional humanities become increasingly anachronistic in today’s data-driven society?  Will the digital humanities have to team up with the computational social sciences and create a new discipline, similar to what happened with the emergence of cognitive science as a discipline, if traditional humanists realize that we could radically change their research methods and therefore decide that we are too heretical?  What if this departure from the traditional humanities is the only way for digital humanists to become eligible for some share of the 3 percent of the GDP that Obama has committed to scientific research?  If digital humanists decide instead to remain loyal to traditional humanists, then what are the chances that young humanists can overthrow the traditions enshrined by senior scholars?  Won’t traditional humanists fight attempts to fundamentally change their disciplines and oppose efforts to make them more open, public, collaborative, relevant, and practical?

10 Responses to “Disciplinary Heresies and the Digital Humanities”

  1. Clio Machine » Disciplinary Heresies and the Digital Humanities Says:

    […] Cross-posted at THATCamp: […]

  2. ShermanDorn Says:

    At one level, digital humanities will probably go the way of history departments that began accommodating quantitative research (including recognition in T&P), esp. after the development of quantitative social history in the 1960s and 1970s. But that accommodation was limited in many departments to the “oh, yeah, you’re one of Them, but we like you and know you do good stuff. Just don’t ask us to learn about logistic regression” type. So you’ll see the “we’re all good intellectuals” accommodation in plenty of places.

    In terms of the broader intellectual questions, that’s probably going to depend heavily on the type of graduate training that exists for the current and next cohort of doctoral students in the humanities. Here, we’re asking what may be an impossible stretch: “Learn the latest tech, learn the deep knowledge of the discipline, oh, yes, and don’t forget that most of you will not have R1-type jobs where you’ll be able to do your day job, continue to read in the discipline, and also conduct the research that’s publishable.” I think we’re inevitably going to see fragmentation/specialization, which will produce interesting work but leave the bigger intellectual questions on the table, or at least to the side.

    But I wouldn’t assume that’s any worse than the fate of quantitative social-science history. There are plenty of productive social and cultural historians who acknowledge the role of quantitative research, and they’re willing to put in a table (or two) in a book.

    So maybe one conversation at THATCamp could focus around, “how could the fate of digital humanities be better than quantitative social history?”

  3. Sterling Fluharty Says:

    I appreciate you adding a historical perspective to this discussion. You are absolutely right that the failed flirtation with quantitative methods, particularly the grandiose claims that never panned out, hang as an ominous shadow over history, and the humanities more generally, to this day. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why history shifted away from the social sciences and is now almost completely identified with the humanities. I can’t help but wonder, though, whether history could evolve again, since it has changed in significant ways before.

    You sound fairly optimistic about intellectual accommodation. I suppose I am less sanguine. I have known professors whose colleagues have voted to deny them tenure because they strayed too far outside of the orthodoxy for traditional historical methods. Examples would include privileging oral history over textual records, straying too far into the realms of economics or sociology, or violating the cardinal rule of individual authorship. Maybe we need to do a better job of testing the waters and figuring out how far our fellow humanists will allow us to stray from the traditional research methods of the humanities before we are considered heretics.

    I think you raise a fair question in asking whether we can realistically expect doctoral students in the digital humanities to learn the ins and outs of interdisciplinary work spanning the cognitive, computer, information, and social sciences. There are a lot of reasons to expect what you say about specialization to come true. But if fragmentation has been the default mode for academic disciplines over the last few decades, we should also be asking how it was ever possible for cognitive science, which is interested in computational approaches to intelligence, to emerge as a new and distinct discipline that is now represented in programs on over sixty college campuses. Another example, perhaps closer to our disciplinary homes, is the recent rise of academic centers and doctoral programs in social complexity and the computational social sciences. Were these just exceptions to the overall general pattern in academia? Or do they suggest that the impulse to engage in interdisciplinary work has sometimes overwhelmed disciplinary boundaries?

    I love your final question. I look forward to what others have to say about avoiding the pitfalls of quantitative social history in the 1970s. There may be lessons in our past that prove relevant for navigating the disciplinary terrain of the present and future.

  4. mr. mentor Says:

    Mr. Fluharty presents a rather muddled series of comments none of which add up to much of an analysis. He arrives at conclusions that his analysis fails to develop. What is the essence of his position? That the humanities must become more like the sciences because in doing so the humanities will be able to gather more research dollars because research dollars are given out on the basis of quantitative disciplinary practices which tradtional humanistic studies do not engage in to the extent tha Mr. Fluharty would like. Of course, he assumes that the sciences and social sciences can be “validated” by quantitative methods and for any one who has studied the Philosohphy of Science, which Mr. Fluharty clearly has not, would see this as a point needing debating. As one who claims to be a graduate student in history, Mr. Fluharty seems unaware of the Annales School that in the 1950’s moved to introduce more quantitative methods to the study of history. Therefore, to claim that there is anything new about “digital humanism” seems more a result of his limited reading and research. In addition, just this week the Able Prize in Mathematics(known as the Noble Prize for Mathematics) was awarded to 65 year old NYU Prof. Gromov. Previous winners have been even older. Therefore, the claims about the Field metal etc. seems a bit thin. That there is need to re-think the place of the humanities is clear but to do so in the limited way Mr. Fluharty seems more a product of his own limited reading. In addition, what is the difference between the close reading and analysis taught by traditional study and the close observation and precise thinking taught by the sciences? Clear and precise thinking is something that cuts across disciplines and methods. Mr. Fluharty also conflates mathematics with science which it is not, science with the social sciences with little regard to the history of the social sciences in the 19th and 20th centuries. One can go on to point out other flaws. However, a word of advice: do not put your name to many more of these kinds poorly considered writings. You do not want to create a track record to be followed by professors on a search committee.

  5. Sterling Fluharty Says:

    Dr. Francis Jones of Stevens Institute of Technology:

    I respect your right to share your opinions about me and to insult the field of digital humanities. I noticed that your comment seemed much more directed at the readers of this blog than at the author of this post. So I look forward to hearing what my colleagues have to say. I am not ashamed by what I wrote. And you can thank me for helping you to take your own advice and attaching your name to your writings.

  6. Larry Cebula Says:

    Too linky and not enough cowbell.

    I never know what people mean when they say they want the humanities to be relevant. Of course history is relevant, it explains how you got here. What people seem to mean by “relevant” is either practical (“History will make you a better lawyer!”) or political (“So you see, the Halfway Covenant illustrates why you should vote for Obama.”). Either way, I’m agin’ it.

    As to the mainstreaming of digital humanities, let us hope so. This quarter in my digital history class a student raised an interesting point. I forget the exact wording but he pointed out that the same dozen names came up again and again in many of the things we were reading, and they all seemed to work at a half-dozen places, and their claims to fame were a limited series of high-tech online history projects (ie: Valley of the Shadow)… The gist of his comment was that digital history seemed more like an expensive private fraternity than a widespread movement. I gave him an A right there.

    (And Sterling, you and I could learn from Mr. Mentor, prickly as he is.)

  7. Sterling Fluharty Says:


    Is that what you say about Wikipedia articles also? 😉

    Maybe we can just agree that as long as we work with or produce for the public, then what we do is bound to be relevant for them at some level.

    I share your enthusiasm about the mainstreaming of digital humanities. I would have smiled too if a student of mine had made that kind of observation. I guess it remains to be seen how egalitarian our field of digital humanities will become.

    You are absolutely right that we can do a better job of learning from our critics. I have sought out some of their writings and put them on my reading list:



    But let me just state for the record that I will not lie about who I am or what I believe in order to get a job. My department has already tried, more than once, to punish me for my blogging. I expect similar resistance from many others in our profession once they realize the stakes involved. I just hope there will be mutual respect, genuine dialogue, a tolerance for new ideas, and willingness to change when doing so makes sense.

  8. ewg118 Says:

    I find the phrases “digital humanities” or “digital history” to be weird sometimes. If someone gets an MA in digital history, what does that mean, exactly? How does it differ from an MA in history? What about a degree in digital humanities? The humanities are quite broad. I agree that the digital humanities should be mainstreamed, i. e., that technological approaches to humanities research and teaching become integrated into traditional approaches, and that we no longer see the traditional humanities/digital humanities as a black and white issue–that text mining, visualization, geospatial analysis, etc. are just part of the humanities.

    I think that there are already many students and scholars who are using technological tools but see no distinction between their work and the work undertaken by colleagues who are not using those tools. I think that you can see this in the field of archaeology. Archaeologists started using technology to aid in their studies about 30 years ago. In the last 10, GIS has been readily accepted throughout the field. Many are using it, and there is no longer a distinction between archaeologists who use GIS and those who do not. The challenge, then, is to figure out how to get scholars from other humanities disciplines to recognize the potential of technological tools. I have a feeling many scholars are not as close-minded about technology as some of use would think. And those that are highly resistant to the tools, even after illustration of tangible results, can be dealt with (as one wise man once said about this issue) one funeral at a time.

  9. THATCamp » Blog Archive Says:

    […] dovetail nicely, I think, with those that have been raised by Sterling Fluharty in his two posts. The panel at last year’s THATCamp that I found the most interesting was the one on […]

  10. Sterling Fluharty Says:

    Your questions have perplexed even some of the best in digital history. Just check out the discussion in the Interchange that appeared in the Journal of American History. I agree with you that it would be wonderful if traditional historians embraced their digital colleagues with open arms. But if Dan Cohen’s tweeting tonight was any indication, we can expect a fair amount of resistance from these stakeholders in our profession. Trying to outlive these individuals may sound workable to you, but I think that overlooks how and why the traditional methods of history are reproduced in each successive generation. But please feel free to prove me wrong. I think we share the same goals.