The Amorphous Identity of Digital Humanities

When I first started at the Graduate Center, one of my classmates mentioned that she was pursuing a double concentration through the MALS program in both Fashion Studies and Digital Humanities. Not being familiar with Digital Humanities at the time, I asked her what exactly that term meant. It seemed to be a bit of a surprise to her that she was unable to find a concise, clear answer to this, ultimately leaving it at “it kind of touches on everything.” This encounter was one of the primary reasons that I had wanted to tackle this Steven E. Jones piece from The Emergence of the Digital Humanities.

I don’t have a lengthy post, as I feel the author, even in the context of this being the book’s introduction, plainly laid out his goals for showing the how’s, why’s, and struggles within academia that has produced digital humanities as the popular and growing field that we now know it to be. I do however want to give further consideration to this subject of identity.

On its own, humanities is already a sprawling classification that would also fit into my classmate’s definition of “it kind of touches everything”, so when in combination with the technology-based aspect, it’s legitimate to question what it does it and what it doesn’t constitute the digital humanities. In one of his responses to this, Jones uses very appropriate imagery of a flower with many overlapping petals to elucidate the complexity of assigning firm boundaries when dealing in such a rich, and perhaps subjective area.

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4 thoughts on “The Amorphous Identity of Digital Humanities

  1. I agree that both Humanities and DH have contested and shifting boundaries. I do wonder how the question of the canon rubs up against the question of DH. As someone who works with non-canonical/archival texts, can DH be used to promote greater access (whatever that means) of texts to a larger number of people? Can it be used to rethink the more traditional boundaries of the Humanities? Or, given the internet’s sordid beginnings, does DH reflect the university’s increasingly neoliberal direction? I know this isn’t either/or exactly, but I keep thinking of Haraway’s call to action from the 80s and wonder how it corresponds with the DH of today.

    • This is an insightful wedge. It seems like DH is uniquely positioned to potentially redefine questions surrounding the idea of the cannon in most humanities fields. The Open Syllabus Project ( might be a good place to start if you choose to pursue this question more thoroughly. By examining the declared cannon against statistical analysis of thousands of syllabi, a clearer impression of what is being taught might cause the cannon to fracture. Or, to put it another way, the notion of the canon could develop an updated definition to account for what/how subject matter is being taught over time. It’s impossible to read every good and worthy book. That being said, the cannon should not be allowed to rest on its laurels.

  2. Kat, thank you for your post. It reminded me of my conversations with family and friends mentioning to them that I decided to pursue another Master’s program. The natural questions, “In what” or “What are you studying.” My natural response, “Digital Humanities” and natural response, “What is that?” The funny part of the response to the question, is that I myself, was not 100% sure of the answer. I was in the area of “sort of know”, but “not to sure what it really is.” It was not until I read Matthew Gold’s (my professor at the time) article called “Looking for Whitman: A Multi-Campus Experiment in Digital Pedagogy” that I had a better understanding of what digital humanities meant and what I was preparing myself for.

    Here is a link to the article. I hope that it can help you understand DH more and clarify the uncertainties that are associated with DH. It is only a portion of DH, but shows clearly what Digital Humanities can be.

    “Looking for Whitman: A Multi-Campus Experiment in Digital

  3. This reading made me think about the need for a “proper” clear and specific definition of the DH as a field of study. On one hand, I do recognize that I want to question what it does and what it doesn’t constitute the digital humanities, but in doing so, aren’t we diminishing its boundaries / potentiality? After reading this introduction, I am aware that there is a call for its legitimation within the Humanities area, however, at the same time, regarding its interdisciplinarity (“a flower with many overlapping petals”), can DH be considered a “movement”? Is advantageous / useful a less static term able to capture its interdisciplinarity?

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