What Is Digital humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?
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What is (or are) the “digital humanities,” aka “humanities computing”? It’s tempting to say that whoever asks the question has not gone looking very hard for an 
answer. “What is digital humanities?” essays like this one are already genre pieces. 
Willard McCarty has been contributing papers on the subject for years (a monograph too). Under the earlier appellation, John Unsworth has advised us “what is 
humanities computing and what is not.” Most recently Patrik Svensson has been 
publishing a series of well-documented articles on multiple aspects of the topic, 
including the lexical shift from humanities computing to digital humanities. Moreover, as Cynthia Selfe in an ADE Bulletin from 1988 reminds us, computers have 
been part of our disciplinary lives for well over two decades now. During this time 
digital humanities has accumulated a robust professional apparatus that is probably 
more rooted in English than any other departmental home.
The contours of this professional apparatus are easily discoverable. an organization called the alliance of Digital humanities Organizations hosts a well-attended 
annual international conference called Digital humanities (it grew out of an earlier 
annual series of conferences, hosted jointly by the association for Computers and the 
humanities and the association for Literary and Linguistic Computing since 1989). 
There is Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities. There is a book series (yes, a 
book series), topics in the Digital humanities, from the University of Illinois Press. 
There is a refereed journal called Digital Humanities Quarterly, one of several that 
serve the field, including a newer publication, Digital Studies / Le champ numérique, 
sponsored by the Canadian Society for Digital humanities (Société pour l’Étude 
des Médias Interactifs). The University of Victoria hosts the annual Digital humanities Summer Institute to train new scholars. Crucially, there are digital humanities 
centers and institutes (probably at least one hundred worldwide, some of them established for a decade or more with staffs numbering in the dozens): these are served by 
an organization known as centerNet. There have been digital humanities manifestos 
(I know of at least two) and FaQs, colloquia and symposia, workshops and special 
sessions. Not to mention, of course, that a gloss or explanation of digital humanities is implicit in every mission statement, every call for papers and proposals, every 
strategic plan and curriculum-development document, every hiring request, and so 
forth that invokes the term. Or the countless times the question has been visited on 
electronic discussion lists, blogs, Facebook walls, and Twitter feeds, contributing all 
the flames and exhortations, celebrations and screeds one could wish to read.
We could also, of course, simply Google the question. Google takes us to Wikipedia, and what we find there is not bad:
The digital humanities, also known as humanities computing, is a field of study, 
research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and 
the disciplines of the humanities. It is methodological by nature and interdisciplinary 
in scope. It involves investigation, analysis, synthesis and presentation of information 
in electronic form. It studies how these media affect the disciplines in which they are 
used, and what these disciplines have to contribute to our knowledge of computing.
as a working definition this serves as well as any I’ve seen, which is not surprising 
since a glance at the page’s View history tab reveals individuals closely associated 
with the digital humanities as contributors. at its core, then, digital humanities is 
more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one 
specific set of texts or even technologies. We could attempt to refine this “outlook” 
quantitatively, using some of the very tools and techniques digital humanities has 
pioneered. For example, we might use a text-analysis tool named Voyeur developed 
by Stéfan Sinclair to mine the proceedings from the annual Digital humanities conference and develop lists of topic frequencies or collocate key terms or visualize the 
papers’ citation networks. We could also choose to explore the question qualitatively, 
by examining sets of projects from self-identified digital humanities centers. at the 
University of Maryland, where I serve as an associate director at the Maryland Institute for technology in the humanities, we support work from “Shakespeare to 
Second Life” as we’re fond of saying: the Shakespeare Quartos archive, funded by 
a joint grant program administered by the United Kingdom’s JISC and the NEh, 
makes a searchable digital facsimile of each of the thirty-two extant quarto copies 
of Hamlet available online, while the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, supported 
by the Library of Congress, has developed and tested standards and best practices 
for archiving and ensuring future access to computer games, interactive fiction, and 
virtual communities.
Yet digital humanities is also a social undertaking. It harbors networks of people 
who have been working together, sharing research, arguing, competing, and collaborating for many years. Key achievements from this community, like the text 
Encoding Initiative or the Orlando Project, were mostly finished before the current 
wave of interest in digital humanities began. Nonetheless, the rapid and remarkable rise of digital humanities as a term can be traced to a set of surprisingly specific 
circumstances. Unsworth, who was the founding director of the Institute for advanced technology in the humanities at the University of Virginia for a decade and 
is currently dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the 
University of Illinois, has this to relate:
The real origin of that term [digital humanities] was in conversation with andrew 
McNeillie, the original acquiring editor for the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities. We started talking with him about that book project in 2001, in april, and 
by the end of November we’d lined up contributors and were discussing the title, for 
the contract. Ray [Siemens] wanted “a Companion to humanities Computing” as 
that was the term commonly used at that point; the editorial and marketing folks at 
Blackwell wanted “Companion to Digitized humanities.” I suggested “Companion to 
Digital humanities” to shift the emphasis away from simple digitization. (Message)
at about the same time the Blackwell’s volume was being put together, the leadership of two scholarly organizations opened discussions about creating an umbrella 
entity for themselves and eventually other organizations and associations with like 
interests. as anyone who has ever tried to run a scholarly organization will know, 
economies of scale are difficult to come by with only a few hundred members and 
so the thought was to consolidate and share infrastructure and services. The two organizations were the aforementioned association for Computers in the humanities 
and the association for Literary and Linguistic Computing. The umbrella structure 
that resulted was called aDhO, or the alliance of Digital humanities Organizations. here is Unsworth again, from the same communication:
Conversations about merging aCh and aLLC began at tuebingen, in a bar, in a 
conversation between harold Short and me, in July 2002. a couple of months later, 
I had set a list called “adhoc”—allied digital humanities organizations committee), 
first message dated august 16, 2002. . . . We finally got things off the dime in Sweden, at the 2004 aLLC/ aCh, and after waffling some more about names (IChIO, 
OhCO, and others) we voted, in april of 2005, to go with aDhO, changing “a” 
from “allied” to “alliance.”
By 2005 then, the Blackwell’s Companion had been published and the alliance for 
Digital humanities Organizations had been established. There’s one more key event 
to relate, and that’s the launch, in 2006, of the Digital humanities Initiative by the 
NEh, then under the chairmanship of Bruce Cole and with leadership provided by 
Brett Bobley, a charismatic and imaginative individual who doubles as the agency’s 
CIO. In an e-mail to me, Bobley describes a January 2006 lunch with another NEh
staffer at which they were brainstorming ideas for what would become the Digital 
humanities Initiative:
at the lunch, I jotted down a bunch of names, including humanities computing, 
ehumanities, and digital humanities. When I got back to the office, I Googled all 
three of them and “digital humanities” seemed to be the winner. I liked it for a few 
reasons: due to aDhO and their annual Digital humanities conference, the name 
brought up a lot of relevant hits. I believe I’d also heard from Julia Flanders about 
the forthcoming Digital Humanities Quarterly journal. I also appreciated the fact 
that it seemed to cast a wider net than “humanities computing” which seemed to 
imply a form of computing, whereas “digital humanities” implied a form of humanism. I also thought it would be an easier sell to the humanities community to have 
the emphasis on “humanities.”
In 2008 the Digital humanities Initiative became the Office of Digital humanities, the designation of “office” assigning the program (and its budget line) a permanent place within the agency. That the major federal granting agency for scholarship 
in the humanities, taking its cues directly from a small but active and influential 
group of scholars, had devoted scarce resources to launching a number of new grant 
opportunities, many of them programmatically innovative in and of themselves, 
around an endeavor termed “digital humanities” was doubtless the tipping point for 
the branding of Dh, at least in the United States.
These events will, I think, earn a place in histories of the profession alongside 
other major critical movements like the Birmingham school or Yale deconstruction. 
In the space of a little more than five years digital humanities had gone from being 
a term of convenience used by a group of researchers who had already been working 
together for years to something like a movement. Individual scholars routinely now 
self-identify as digital humanists, or “Dhers.” There is an unusually strong sense of 
community and common purpose, manifested, for example, in events such as the 
Day of Digital humanities, organized by a team at the University of alberta. Its 
second annual iteration featured over 150 participants (up from around one hundred the first year), who blogged on a shared site about the details of their workday, 
posted photographs of their offices and screens, and reflected on the nature of their 
enterprise. Digital humanities has even been the recipient of its own Downfall remix, the Internet meme whereby the climactic scene from the hBO film depicting 
hitler’s final days in the bunker is closed-captioned with, in this instance, a tirade 
about the pernicious influence of online scholarship.
Digital humanities was also (you may have heard) big news at the 2009 MLa annual Convention in Philadelphia. On 28 December, midway through the convention, William Pannapacker, one of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s officially 
appointed bloggers, wrote the following for the online “Brainstorm” section: “amid 
all the doom and gloom of the 2009 MLa Convention, one field seems to be alive 
and well: the digital humanities. More than that: among all the contending subfields, the digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time.” (It 
seems fair to say that Pannapacker, who is the author of “Graduate School in the 
humanities: Just Don’t Go,” under the pseudonym Thomas Benton, is not a man 
easily impressed.) Jennifer howard, meanwhile, a veteran Chronicle reporter who 
has covered the convention before, noted the “vitality” of digital humanities with its 
“overflow crowds to too-small conference rooms.” There were several dozen panels 
devoted to the digital humanities at the MLa convention, and one could (and did) 
easily navigate the three-day convention by moving among them.
Crucially, digital humanities was visible in another way at the conference: the 
social-networking service Twitter. Twitter is the love-it-or-hate-it Web 2.0 application 
often maligned as the final triumph of the attention-deficit generation because it limits postings to a mere 140 characters—not 140 words, 140 characters. The reason has 
less to do with attention spans than Twitter’s origins in the messaging protocols of 
mobile devices, but the format encourages brief, conversational posts (“tweets”) that 
also tend to contain a fair measure of flair and wit. Unlike Facebook, Twitter allows 
for asymmetrical relationships: you can “follow” someone (or they can follow you) 
without the relationship’s being reciprocated. tweeting has rapidly become an integral part of the conference scene, with a subset of attendees on Twitter providing realtime running commentary through a common “tag” (#mla09, for example), which 
allows everyone who follows it to tune in to the conversation. This phenomenon has 
some very specific ramifications. amanda French ran the numbers and concluded 
that nearly half (48%) of attendees at the Digital humanities 2009 conference were 
tweeting the sessions. By contrast, only 3% of MLa convention attendees tweeted—
according to French’s data, out of about 7,800 attendees at the MLa convention only 
256 tweeted. Of these, the vast majority were people already associated with digital 
humanities through their existing networks of followers. Jennifer howard, again 
writing for the Chronicle, noted the centrality of Twitter to the Dh crowd and its impact on scholarly communication, going so far as to include people’s Twitter identities 
in her roundup of major stories from the convention. Inside Higher Ed also devoted 
coverage to Twitter at the MLa convention, noting that Rosemary G. Feal was using 
it to connect with individual members of the organization—not surprisingly, many 
of them Dhers. Feal, in fact, kept up a lively stream of tweets throughout the conference, gamely mixing it up with the sometimes irreverent back-channel conversation 
and, in a scene out of Small World had it only been written twenty years later, issued 
an impromptu invite for her “tweeps” to join the association’s elite for nightcaps in 
the penthouse of one of the convention hotels.
While it’s not hard to see why the academic press devoured the story, there’s more 
going on than mere shenanigans. Twitter, along with blogs and other online outlets, 
has inscribed the digital humanities as a network topology, that is to say, lines drawn 
by aggregates of affinities, formally and functionally manifest in who follows whom, 
who friends whom, who tweets whom, and who links to what. Digital humanities 
has also, I would propose, lately been galvanized by a group of younger (or not so 
young) graduate students, faculty members (both tenure line and contingent), and 
other academic professionals who now wield the label “digital humanities” instrumentally amid an increasingly monstrous institutional terrain defined by declining public support for higher education, rising tuitions, shrinking endowments, the 
proliferation of distance education and the for-profit university, and, underlying it 
all, the conversion of full-time, tenure-track academic labor to a part-time adjunct 
workforce. One example is the remarkable tale of Brian Croxall, the recent Emory 
PhD who went viral online for a period of several weeks during and after the MLa. 
Croxall had his paper, “The absent Presence: today’s Faculty,” read at the convention in absentia while he simultaneously published it on his blog after finding 
himself unable to afford to travel to Philadelphia because he hadn’t landed any convention interviews. as numerous observers pointed out, Croxall’s paper, which was 
heavily blogged and tweeted and received coverage in both the Chronicle and Inside 
Higher Ed, was undoubtedly and by many orders of magnitude the most widely seen 
and read paper from the 2009 MLa convention. These events were subsequently discussed in a series of cross-postings and conversations that spilled across Twitter and 
the blogosphere for several weeks after the convention ended. Many seemed to feel 
that the connection to wider academic issues was not incidental or accidental, and 
that digital humanities, with a culture that values collaboration, openness, nonhierarchical relations, and agility might be an instrument for real resistance or reform.
So what is digital humanities and what is it doing in English departments? The 
answer to the latter portion of the question is easier. I can think of some half a dozen 
reasons why English departments have historically been hospitable settings for this 
kind of work. First, after numeric input, text has been by far the most tractable data 
type for computers to manipulate. Unlike images, audio, video, and so on, there 
is a long tradition of text-based data processing that was within the capabilities of 
even some of the earliest computer systems and that has for decades fed research in 
fields like stylistics, linguistics, and author attribution studies, all heavily associated 
with English departments. Second, of course, there is the long association between 
computers and composition, almost as long and just as rich in its lineage. Third is 
the pitch-perfect convergence between the intense conversations around editorial 
theory and method in the 1980s and the widespread means to implement electronic 
archives and editions very soon after; Jerome McGann is a key figure here, with 
his work on the Rossetti Archive, which he has repeatedly described as a vehicle for 
applied theory, standing as paradigmatic. Fourth, and at roughly the same time, 
is a modest but much-promoted belle-lettristic project around hypertext and other 
forms of electronic literature that continues to this day and is increasingly vibrant 
and diverse. Fifth is the openness of English departments to cultural studies, where 
computers and other objects of digital material culture become the centerpiece of 
analysis. I’m thinking here, for example, of the reader Stuart hall and others put 
together around the Sony Walkman, that hipster iPod of old. Finally, today, we 
see the simultaneous explosion of interest in e-reading and e-book devices like the 
Kindle, iPad, and Nook and the advent of large-scale text digitization projects, the 
most significant of course being Google Books, with scholars like Franco Moretti taking up data mining and visualization to perform “distance readings” of hundreds, 
thousands, or even millions of books at a time.
Digital humanities, which began as a term of consensus among a relatively small 
group of researchers, is now backed on a growing number of campuses by a level 
of funding, infrastructure, and administrative commitments that would have been 
unthinkable even a decade ago. Even more recently, I would argue, the network effects of blogs and Twitter at a moment when the academy itself is facing massive and 
often wrenching changes linked both to new technologies and the changing political 
and economic landscape has led to the construction of “digital humanities” as a freefloating signifier, one that increasingly serves to focus the anxiety and even outrage 
of individual scholars over their own lack of agency amid the turmoil in their institutions and profession. This is manifested in the intensity of debates around openaccess publishing, where faculty members increasingly demand the right to retain 
ownership of their own scholarship—meaning, their own labor—and disseminate it 
freely to an audience apart from or parallel with more traditional structures of academic publishing, which in turn are perceived as outgrowths of dysfunctional and 
outmoded practices surrounding peer review, tenure, and promotion (see Fitzpatrick 
on “planned obsolescence” in this issue).
Whatever else it might be then, the digital humanities today is about a scholarship 
(and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed, a scholarship and pedagogy that are bound up with infrastructure in ways that 
are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, a scholarship and 
pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people and that live an 
active 24/7 life online. Isn’t that something you want in your English department?