Definitions that Matter (Of ‘Digital Humanities’)

In a recent post, “‘Digital Humanities’: Two Definitions,” I tried to point out an ongoing conflict in the deployment of the term “Digital Humanities.” While my goal was in part to show the practical range in definitions of DH, that was not really my main purpose. A lot of the time, definitions aren’t all that important. The meanings of words change all the time, and even more than that, can be changed all the time, for all kinds of reasons. But in some contexts, definitions and conflicts over definition can function as proxies for or even realizations of other kinds of conflict, including deep political and cultural conflicts. In such cases the definitions of words can matter a great deal; the stretching and contracting of definitions can matter very much, even if there is no essence to what a word “really means.” What’s at stake is not the meanings of words per se, but significant matters of power. That’s what’s happening in discussions of the definition of Digital Humanities, and it is those matters of power that have raised the kinds of concerns expressed at the “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” panel at this year’s MLA convention.

I agree that most academic formations experience growing pains and that these naturally produce definitional perplexities. But I do not agree that the definitional problem in DH exclusively results from these ordinary phenomena; if it did, I’d be more inclined to agree with the widespread sentiment that this conversation is unimportant and/or uninteresting (see, e.g., Ted Underwood, “How Everyone Gets to Claim They Do DH“ and “Why Digital Humanities Isn’t Actually ‘The Next Thing in Literary Studies‘”). I am sympathetic with Rebecca Harris when she writes that “the problem of definition, it seems to me, is inspired by the formation of a field that doesn’t very much want to be defined,” and that “an analogous academic instance, I think, is the advent of ‘Queer Theory’ or ‘Queer Studies’ as an academic discipline.” I think, however, that DH adds something dramatic and different to this general process of definition–and that at least some people in DH, such as the authors of the Digital_Humanities book discussed in the earlier post very much do want the field to be defined–and in fact that this difference is why it’s important to attend to the question. General discussions of the definitions of fields seem less interesting and important to me, as they appear to be for others, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. (I should be careful to state here, as I have in several other of my comments on this topic, that what I am most interested in and most concerned about is the claim that DH can be understood as a part of the profession of literary studies; many of the remarks I will make do not apply to DH in relation to other disciplines, or as a standalone enterprise.)

The difference in DH, and the reason definitions of it matter so much, is that from its inception, some very powerful people and institutions have insisted on one definition, even when many others do not accept or endorse that definition, and these persons and institutions have been able to enforce that definition in one critically important sphere that has no parallel in Queer Theory, deconstruction, or any other recent movement in literary studies: newly-available, large-scale, field-defining grant funding. Further, the availability of unprecedented amounts of grant funding to English professors has had a follow-on deformative effect in perhaps an even more critical venue: hiring. These, in turn, have had consequences (though, I think, less obviously dramatic ones) for promotion and tenure standards, although I’ll leave those aside for the time being.

My point in that earlier post was to show that there is a clear and distinct sleight-of-hand at play in definitions of DH, and that this sleight-of-hand contravenes what many–perhaps most–of those of us practicing DH want, and what many English professors would prefer if they thought it was up to them. In this game two different messages are used depending on which one is advantageous at any given moment. Message 1, the “narrow” definition, as advanced by the authors of the Digital_Humanities volume, according to which DH refers exclusively to the building of tools and archives, is used inside the field, especially for funding and hiring. But when concerns are raised about the narrow definition, especially from outside the field (of DH), the “big tent” definition comes out as message 2, which relies on the literal meaning of the terms “digital” and “humanities,” and according to which anything that combines the two inherently qualifies as DH. The effect of this shift is precisely to destabilize the criticisms occasioned by the apparent differences between narrow DH and other practices in the study of literature. This is why, despite my endorsement of the “big tent” definition, I also see something approaching disingenuousness occurring when we simply assert that by wishing it we can make it so. Apparently, we can’t make it so, not just by affirming it–at least not until we come to grips with the major forces that are driving the promulgation of the narrow definition.

Yes, grants remain available across the spectrum of humanities subjects, including the “big tent” DH topics–but those individual grants are not labeled Digital Humanities, and that labeling often turns out to be decisive. Further, my understanding is that those other streams of funding are available in approximately the same number and the same amounts they have been for decades. What changed the funding scene in humanities departments in general and English departments in particular was the availability of 6-figure project funding specifically and exclusively targeted for the narrow version of DH.

Interestingly, when the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) was starting up, it too offered the “big tent” definition of DH. Here is a passage from its “About ODH” page from 2006 (quoted in Juola, “Killer Applications,” p.81; as far as I can tell it’s no longer available on the NEH website):

NEH has launched a new digital humanities initiative aimed at supporting projects that utilize or study the impact of digital technology. Digital technologies offer humanists new methods of conducting research, conceptualizing relationships, and presenting scholarship. NEH is interested in fostering the growth of digital humanities and lending support to a wide variety of projects, including those that deploy digital technologies and methods to enhance our understanding of a topic or issue; those that study the impact of digital technology on the humanities”“exploring the ways in which it changes how we read, write, think, and learn; and those that digitize important materials thereby increasing the public’s ability to search and access humanities information.

And here is the parallel passage from its “About ODH” page today:

In the humanities as in the sciences, digital technology has changed the way in which scholars perform their work. Technology allows humanists to raise new questions and radically changes the ways in which archival materials can be searched, mined, displayed, taught, and analyzed. Digital technology has also had an enormous impact on how scholarly materials are preserved and accessed, generating challenging issues related to sustainability, copyright, and authenticity. ODH therefore supports projects that employ digital technology to improve humanities research, education, preservation, access, and public programming. To that end, ODH works with the scholarly community, and with other funding agencies in the United States and abroad, to encourage collaboration across national and disciplinary boundaries. In addition to sponsoring grant programs, ODH also works collaboratively with the field, participating in conferences and workshops with scholars, librarians, scientists, and other funders to learn more about how to best serve digital scholarship.

While the second passage is longer and in some ways more abstract, it is also more specific and restrictive; projects must “employ digital technology,” but ODH no longer mentions supporting projects “that study the impact of digital technology,” a major bone of contention in the ongoing DH definition controversy. There is also very little (though not nothing) that points toward the use of existing technology to arrive at new insights, but instead focuses on methods that start from the presumption that humanities research needs to be “improved,” “new questions” must be “raised,” and “radical changes” are called for, all of which dovetails conceptually with “building new tools,” because there is something wrong or at least out-of-step with existing forms of literary scholarship. I won’t try to understand or reconstruct the narrative that explains how this change occurred, but it does seem to echo exactly the dynamic that concerns me: when the thing is public, when others are looking and wondering, the “big tent” definition is used; but when we get down to brass tacks, it’s the narrow definition that actually holds sway, and it’s important for that narrow definition to define the field as far as funding and hiring go.

I was curious about how this pattern has played out in the actual grants, so I read through several lists of the grants ODH has awarded since it was formed in 2007. I’ll admit that I was surprised by how exactly this funding conforms, almost entirely, to the narrow definition.

I couldn’t find an easy way to download all of the data, so here I’ve compiled a table of the ODH grants in 2010 (I’ve uploaded the complete data in an Excel spreadsheet of 2010 ODH grants). I’ve broken them down into categories that I’ve tried to make as fair as possible. There are just under $5 million in grants; of that about 1/3 goes to archives, 1/3 to tool-building, and 1/3 to workshops; in terms of the number of grants awarded the percentages are slightly different, but still go almost entirely to these three activities. There is exactly 1 grant that can reasonably be said to foreground interpretation or analysis. There are none that “study the impact of digital technology.” Based on my reading of the recent NEH records, this is a representative sample of ODH funding, and it is important to reiterate that while it by no means encompasses all of the grants NEH awarded that touched on digital topics, it does include all of the ODH grants, and therefore all of the grants formally labeled “Digital Humanities.” What is especially notable is exactly what the change in ODH mission wording would lead one to expect: there is virtually no funding for interpretation, analysis, or tool use as a primary activity. (The only topic that arguably might be framed misleadingly by my rough categorization is pedagogy, but only very subtly so: between a third and a half of the 12 workshops can be said to have pedagogy as a focus of the workshop being held–that is, they are workshops for teachers and other educators– but as Katherine Harris so rightly keeps emphasizing, this is not direct funding for pedagogical projects.)

Project Type Number % of Total $ Amount % of Total
Archives, Exhibits, Editions, Dictionaries 19 29.69% $1,480,560 30.29%
Tools, Applications, Prototypes, Standards 31 48.44% $1,711,112 35.01%
Assessment, Evaluation, Publishing 1 1.56% $92,662 1.90%
Interpretation, Analysis, Tool Use 1 1.56% $99,244 2.03%
Workshops, Institutes 12 18.75% $1,504,327 30.78%
Pedagogy 0 0% $0 0%
Total number of grants: 64
Total amount of grants: $4,887,905

The data speak pretty clearly: ODH funds go overwhelmingly to the building of tools and archives; secondarily to workshops of various sorts; and almost not at all to projects that are primarily interpretive or pedagogical.

Now, it’s important to say that ODH is not exactly a static organization of government officials who make decisions and impose them on academic disciplines. My understanding is that the staff of ODH determines the general outlines of grant programs along with setting some of the criteria for ranking grants, and then that panels of experts–mostly, but not exclusively, academics, although the prevalence of DHers who are not primarily tenure-track professors suggests that ODH experts would not be restricted to professors–rank the grant proposals. I don’t know who is on those panels; I’ve never been asked, and none of my close friends who engage with the digital but consider interpretation and analysis the primary job of humanities professors tells me they’ve been asked, but that’s a small group. Given the impact of this funding on English Departments, and given the difference between the priorities suggested by the “narrow” definition and the other practices of English professors, I think it is fair to see this disjunction as worrisome. What are the limits on external funding for activities not generally recognized by a field? The worry here is that the number of non-DH English professors–the number of non-narrow-DH English professors–who have authority over this field-transforming funding is extremely low””quite a bit lower, arguably, than those of us who oversaw the incorporation of a variety of theoretical discourses into literary studies. If what DH did was recognizably very similar to what non-DH professors had been doing, there would be little cause for alarm. But if you want to isolate a single force that has brought critiques like the ones at Dark Side of the Digital Humanities into being, it is this: a field-defining amount of funding has been injected into English, accompanied by claims that English professors do not know or understand the parameters of our own field, and that we are “backward” or “traditionalist” or “conservative” for suggesting that we do.

This is part of why my major concern is not with the existence even of “narrow” DH–more power to it–but with its troubling relationship with English Departments. The claim that “narrow” DH looks much like other forms of English scholarship is hard to maintain–indeed, a great deal of hand-wringing about new tenure standards and so on exists because DH scholarship does not look like other English scholarship. Whitney Trettien, in “So, What’s Up With MLA?,” is right to ask, “if we’re going to agree DH is a discipline, we should start having conversations about its disciplinarity at appropriately disciplinary venues. MLA is not that.” But DHers show no sign of retreating from MLA, despite their certainly having conferences of their own. Matt Kirschenbaum, in “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?,” spends much more time defining DH and placing its history among the English professors who have practiced it than he does asking the deep question the second part of his title suggests: why should non-DH English professors accept DH as a part of their discipline, when and if it overtly rejects so many of the methods and activities of our discipline?

This is where the double definition of DH seems especially concerning. The double definition licenses a statement, call it the “big tent,” under which “we just do what you already do, so you have to accept us as genuinely part of your project.” But then the narrow definition licenses almost the diametrically opposite sentiment: “what we do is very different from what you do, so you have to change your standards and methods to get on board with us.” Like many other things in the digital world, DH ends up asserting both that it is “completely different from and exactly the same as” other forms of English scholarship.

closeness over time

Chart of network closeness over time, Elijah Meeks,

I can summarize my concerns in the form of some propositions about the effects that the narrow definition and the funding streams available to it have had on the study of English literature and the profession of being an English professor, and about the way that the two definitions of DH function inside and outside DH. These are by no means “laws,” but as rules of thumb they aren’t bad, and they approximate fairly well what I tell and have told PhD students in English:

  1. Many, perhaps even most, DH practitioners endorse the “big tent” definition of Digital Humanities.
  2. To get funding labeled Digital Humanities, you should nevertheless conform to the “narrow” definition.*
  3. To get hired in an English Department to a job labeled Digital Humanities, you should nevertheless conform to the “narrow” definition: you should foreground tool & archive building and background your commitment to interpretation, especially of the digital world.

These propositions suggest further, disturbing ones:

  1. The definition of DH is not up to the majority of its practitioners, but to an influential subset of practitioners, including funding bodies that are formally outside the profession itself.
  2. These practitioners know that the “narrow” definition is unwelcome to many, and so will often in public endorse the “big tent” definition to others, especially to “outsiders,” while continuing to insist on the “narrow” definition in critical field-defining activities like funding and hiring.

Now if we examine the entire range of jobs available to English professors whose primary focus is in some way or other “the digital” (see 2013 Jobs in New Media Studies and Digital Humanities) we observe these propositions in action: there are virtually no jobs listed in English departments in which critical study of the digital, even of digital literature, is foregrounded, let alone in which it appears minus DH (such jobs are now almost exclusively found in Media Studies departments); most digital jobs in English Departments foreground explicitly “narrow” definitions of DH and most explicitly mention funding, by which they clearly mean the kind of unprecedented and explicitly narrow-definition funding offered by ODH, not the general humanities funding available to all humanities professors. Together, the funding and hiring data suggest some further propositions, the last of which is one that I base largely on my own experience and anecdotal observation:

  1. If you want to be hired in an English Department and study digital media in any sense, you would be wise to make a significant investment in “narrow” DH.
  2. If you want to be hired in an English Department and study digital media in any sense, your critical engagement with digital culture will in most cases be at best a secondary area of interest.
  3. In some cases, a significant or primary investment in critical studies of digital culture (very broadly construed) may be directly detrimental to being hired in an English Department, in a way different from the study of other primary source materials, in part because it may be seen as interfering with the pursuit of funding.

Of course, there is a politics at play in this, which I’ll leave aside for now, having probably said enough semi-explosive stuff to get myself in real trouble. But to anyone observing the study of English in 1993 and today in 2013, the fact that the only new movement anyone is talking about in English Departments is one in which critique, politics, interpretation, analysis, and close reading are at best playing second fiddle–where people seriously say “more hack, less yack” as if they are watchwords for the discursive humanities, and declare that building a database is so inherently theoretical that no additional theorizing or contextualizing of it is necessary–the fact that it’s virtually impossible to get hired as primarily a critical scholar of the digital in English departments, when all we are in other topic areas is critical scholars–might appear something less than accidental.

It is notable that when (narrow) DH speaks about the discipline of English, it has very little good to say. DH thinks the research methodologies, pedagogical approaches, career paths, promotion and tenure requirements, of literary studies as currently construed all need to change radically. It often asserts these necessities with a voice of technological inevitability and authority–anyone, it says, who understands “the technology” will see the inevitability of these changes, and thus anyone who does not see these changes as necessary inherently does not understand the technology, etc. I am heartened by the insistence on the part of so many young DHers that the narrow version of DH, especially as a construal of literary studies, is unacceptable. What remains is for us to reflect this back onto the scholars who have been convinced to see themselves as “non-digital,” and who accept the story of technological inevitability as if we English professors did not have the authority and even the responsibility to determine the constitution of the discipline. As a new crop of students (and some professors) who do understand the technology come forward, but who maintain that the changes to the study of literature necessitated by the digital are much less thoroughgoing than narrow DH often tells us, we are seeing signs that literary scholars are learning how much is at stake in ceding authority over our own field to those who reject both that authority and the procedures of the field itself. One can only hope that at some point in the near future, professors of literature will again exert enough authority over our field to be able to choose the funding and hiring protocols we see as significant, rather than following the lead of a small group of people (many themselves avowedly not English professors) whose members tell us that we don’t understand how to practice our own discipline.

*UPDATE 4/26/13: Please see my next post, “Definitions That May Matter Less (For NEH-ODH Grants),” for an important update from the NEH about its commitment to funding a broader range of projects.


I appreciate helpful feedback on earlier versions of this essay from an anonymous reviewer, Tara McPherson, and the participants in her Spring 2013 USC course CTCS 677: The Digital Humanities and Digital Media Studies.

Works Cited

  • Patrick Juola, “Killer Applications in Digital Humanities,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 23:1 (2008), 73-83.
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  • By Right Reaction and the Digital Humanities on July 3, 2015 at 8:49 am

    […] were not dealing with sampling (aka the usual meaning of “statistics”) but with an analysis of the complete list of all ODH grants for a single year, and a briefer examination of all the grants for other years, in which virtually no grants are […]

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