Is the digital humanities its ‘own thing’?

It wasn’t long ago that I argued (strongly) that the digital humanities is its own thing. There was so much work in ‘the field’ and so many unique and hard-won perspectives that this constitutes a field of practice.  But as my views mature, I am much less precious about the DH and its place in the world (and mine as well!).


The DH is not a field, and this doesn’t matter. The DH isn’t its field because it needs transparent merit structures; with merit, there can never be a field.   What I mean by this is that the DH has failed to produce proper career pathways. 

However, many leading technologists in the broader world rejected academic career pathways for the more risky endeavour of making good technology. If Bill Gates, Ted Nelson or Steve Jobs had followed established career paths, it is unlikely that they would have succeeded. So, for many in the DH, the established academic career mechanisms are not that suitable, so it is better to do something else if you believe in what you do.

I am not being ungenerous and undermining the hard work of others in saying this, but the DH is a community, not a field. Attempts at institutionalising the DH have been clumsy, and even if one identifies with the DH community and firmly believes that it is a field, this means little when confronting the institutional power structures of the established academic disciplines, especially when looking for jobs or applying for grants.  They (the fields) will always win; a historian who paid for someone to build her database or a linguist who outsourced his TEI-XML to India will always trump the student of the DH who stayed up late and learned it herself. It is a problem of misplaced capitalism, not an intellectual problem.   The real DH can only ever be the paid concubine of the disciplines (and maybe this may not be such a bad thing if you are into it). Money talks, so the guy with the biggest wallet will have many concubines.

So perhaps I learned this the hard way, but if you want to be an excellent Digital Humanists, then go and do it. All the other stuff gets in the form of innovation. All sound learning (and careers) are self-directed, and sure, there is a lot of risk in this, but people who succeed without risk don’t follow. And people who fail because they risked something never really fail (but only if they try again). So whether the DH is its own thing and this incessant naval-gazing over its definition is simply the window dressing of careerism, of people unable to find any other interesting questions to pursue.



Leave a Reply