Marked or Unmarked? Defining the (Digital) Humanities at #dighum1213

Xaver has passed, the Digital Humanists gone, Herrenhausen Palace has served us its last sumptuous and definitely not virtual repast of venison and salmon, and still the questions remain unanswered.

Why the digital in DH?  Why mark this category in a way that is left unmarked in the social or natural sciences? Could the digital denote a departure from what Gregory Crane calls the “monastic” humanities where value is set through publishing specialized articles in paid journals that are read by the same 50 people? Does the digital denote the need for humanists to be morally engaged, to recognize the imperative of making digitized content useable by the public and thus presenting us with a new editing task that recognizes the profound, wide appeal of detailed knowledge?  Crane would say yes, please.  Let us move away from the a model of the humanities that hides us away and rediscover the roots of citizen science as espoused by the founder of the University of Berlin, Wilhelm von Humboldt.

[Stories of the Susquehanna is definitely rooted in this model of citizen science.  It has always been conceived of in that way and is now moving more and more in that direction.  As we meet next week with citizens of the academy and the river to talk about crowdsourcing stories, I see us following the imperative laid out today by Crane.]

And there are other examples of engaging the public in the power of humanistic endeavor.   How about a nifty device that digitizes 2,000 000 books a year by asking us to decipher text when we need to prove we are human? Our third conference day began with the wunderkind of the internet era, Luis von Ahn, and a presentation that needed no title, just him in jeans and t-shirt, with headset and TED talk in the bag, telling us what most already knew about the power of human computation.  Here he was, the inventor of Captcha, wringing his hands about the problem of selling his second (or was it third?) company to Google, making the question of what he is to do with the rest of his life one that has nothing to do with earning money.   His new endeavor, Duolingo, stems from his desire to help those who cannot afford to learn a foreign language and uses human computation to help get webpages translated at the same time as teaching grammatical concepts and voabulary, all for free.  As he put it, websites need translation, and students need to practice translation, so students are given the opportunity to translate the web.  What about the really poor people who don’t have access to the internet, one graduate student from Mexico asked.  Um, yes, we might have to send teachers there, you know, resort to non-digital learning.  And  he was considering using the profits from Duolingo for that purpose, especially as one of his big customers is CNN.  [While I have enormous problems with his notion of what “learning a language” actually means, von Ahn is producing enormous amounts of language learner data that is of real significance to corpus linguistics.  But we didn’t have time to tell him that as he darted out of the auditorium right after he had delivered his talk.]

But we are not all von Ahns.  Most in the auditorium were graduate students from around the world, the next generation of DHers who are doing the most amazing, exciting, innovative work, showcased in the 30 lightning talks and posters showcased during the conference (that had a 10% acceptance rate).  And it is this generation of humanists that needs to be encouraged, supported, funded, and protected to allow for experimentation, innovation, and discovery (thank you to the Volkswagen Foundation for bringing these young researchers here from, for example, Cameroon and Australia, demonstrating the necessity for the omnes voces in DH).  The older generation (among whom I count myself) who occupy positions as chairs, and program directors, who sit on hiring committees and review committees for tenure and promotion, who review grant proposals have a responsibility  to ensure that DH is not the “Nerdecke in den Geisteswissenschaften”(nerd corner of the humanities) as it was recently dubbed here, but rather is seen as the dynamo that revolutionizes the way in which we compute the human.


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