On “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You”

I really like Adeline Koh’s stuff, and her recent “Letter to the Humanities” is no exception. Here are some of my favorite parts of this piece:

After explaining the basis of Humanities Computing: “Too many in this field prize method without excavating the theoretical underpinnings and social consequences of method. In other words, Humanities Computing has focused on using computational tools to further humanities research, and not to study the effects of computation as a humanities question.” Not only do I agree with Koh on this point, but I’d further argue that a lot of humanists (who may not see themselves as having anything to do with computers or the digital world) would do well to hear her call. Reflexively revisiting the connections between methodology and method is a move that should be taken up broadly and far more seriously.

Koh suggests that humanists interested in the digital humanities should “champion the new wave of digital humanities: one which has humanistic questions at its core.” In other words, let’s pay attention to the potential value of new tools and methods, but let’s not abandon what we’re good at. “[I]nstead of pouring more money into tool building or the latest and greatest 3D printer, let’s not limit the history of the digital humanities to humanities computing as a single origin point. Let’s consider “sister fields” to the digital humanities as actually foundational to the digital humanities.” Koh’s focus on what I might call origin stories here is one that can be productive in a number of ways. In the final chapter of my dissertation, I resist drawing hard conclusions and instead imagine how the field of technical communication might look different to us if we imagine origin stories for it other than the most commonly accepted one.  What becomes possible then? Who gets included if we see technical communication as an ancient tradition rather than one born to serve U.S. engineering departments alone? Koh points out that for digital humanities, such a move means we can “redefine what we mean by the “best,” … digital humanities research. ”

Finally, this:

“The insistent focus on computing and methodology in the humanities without incisive, introspective examination of their social implications is devaluing the humanities. We shouldn’t be pouring federal money into building tools without making the ideological structure of the process explicit and their social effects and presuppositions open to inspection; we shouldn’t be funding the digitization of canonical (read: white, often male) authors without the simultaneous digitization of works by people of color, especially women of color. To do both is to betray some of the most important lessons which the humanities has learned with the rise of women, gender and sexuality studies, race, ethnic and postcolonial studies and disability studies.”

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