The role of digital humanities at Wake Forest

By Laura Aull

Laura Aull

Laura Aull

First, in answering the question of the role that the digital humanities can play at Wake Forest, both in teaching and in research, as well as in collaborative course-based and student-driven projects, It seems to me that interdisciplinary research and teaching, as well as self-driven student applications therein, are a part of the answer to this question, especially given Wake Forest’s place as a collaborative and technologically-rich campus on which several exciting DH-related initiatives are beginning.

Second, in exploring what the text Debates in the Digital Humanities suggests about the ways in which digital humanities projects can serve the humanities at our institution, I think that our ideas about the roles that digital humanities can play at Wake Forest in teaching and research are likewise related to our critiques of some DH theory and scholarship we have seen: there is a danger of exclusiveness and narcissism to re/asking the question of what (does not) define/s DH rather than what DH can look like and contribute to our teaching and research. We discussed our understanding of DH as both able to afford new *means of analysis* of traditional objects of study as well as able to *construct* new tools and objects (not only as one or the other). This more expansive take and, more importantly, how that is actualized in research and teaching, seems to be a more promising direction than retracing the lines in abstract theories about what counts and what does not count as DH.

Third, in drawing conclusions about the lessons we have learned from our discussions about DH theory and our critique of its methodologies, my response builds on my reflections (see above) about the role that digital humanities can play in serving the humanities.  I would like to pose the idea that the question we should really be asking is not , “What is DH?,” but rather “What does DH achieve?” Per some of our discussions, the answer would be new, interconnected and inter-textual ways of enhancing the inquiry we already value and do well in the humanities. To bring the three questions together on this note, part of the process would then include helping students ask questions about the shaping influence of certain DH methodologies and perspectives — not only about the results from DH study.

An interesting part of reading Debates in the Digital Humanities was realizing what it did not address. In its efforts to (re)define and legitimize an emerging field, some of the book ironically verges on exclusive and unproductive discussions about what does and does not “count” as digital humanities. Stephen Ramsey, for example, proposes that DH projects must “build” something rather than only analyze it. This same rhetoric of production matters to other scholars in the book as well; and regardless of the outcome, the debate speaks to the desire to nail down a concrete and restricted, “insider” kind of DH, often one which embraced production of digital artifacts or programs and did not speak of or involve students. We discussed, alternatively, three ways of approaching DH on campus at Wake Forest:

  1. Focusing on how humanist inquiry—sustained engagement and critique of texts and ideas by taking a new lens to them—could be continued and enhanced, not replaced, by DH.
  2. Appreciating many efforts to incorporate digital modes and media into humanities pedagogy, research, and representation, with less focus on whether they “fit” into a rigid definition of DH and more focus on whether they resonated with and helped expand goals for DH (as articulated in “a” and in more detail in the Wake Forest Digital Humanities mission statement).
  3. Emphasizing pedagogy as well as research and representation in approaches to DH. The example in number 1 above, for example, is institutional research, but it directly impacts pedagogy and also involved students in the process.

Following up on these approaches, in response to Alexander and Davis’s question “Should Liberal Arts Campuses Do Digital Humanities?”  (Gold, pp. 368-385), I believe that Liberal Arts campuses should engage in digital humanities practices for two overlapping reasons:

Digital directions are inevitable and should neither be ignored nor wholly separate from liberal arts campuses—lest

  1. the liberal arts become irrelevant, or
  2. DH develops without benefitting from the rich models of interdisciplinary intellectual and public engagement which are essential parts of meaningful liberal arts eduction.

Engagement in best practices in digital humanities is not something, therefore, that should be externally imposed with a rigid definitional framework, but rather should be born of WFU faculty needs and interests, connecting these needs to individuals and resources, and informing best practices as something that emerges from faculty interests and plans.  For this reason, we have brainstormed ideas for outreach sessions, talks, and interactive presentations for faculty in order to appropriately learn and respond to faculty DH needs.


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