Thursday, January 31, 2013

Collaboration in the Digital Humanities: Truly New, or Pulling Back the Curtain?

Welcome to the inaugural post of my blog on the digital humanities, DH Deluge (a nod to my long defunct creative writing blog, Oneiric Deluge).  Although the layout may be a bit clunky for now, I hope to get more into the guts of this thing and make it a bit more attractive in the future.  In the meantime, hopefully the content will be enough to draw you in. ;)  And now, to move onto that content!

I recently saw an intriguing thought on the @dh+lib Twitter (technically, it was a re-tweet, originally posted by @coblezc): "What's new about DH [digital humanities] is that work is done collaboratively, but many humanities scholars want to work independently." (It had two hashtags, I removed them, as they didn't really add to the content of the tweet; deal with it.)  While I definitely agree with the sentiment that scholars in the humanities do prefer doing their research independently, or at least claiming it independently (I mean, who doesn’t want to be able to say, “This is my work, and I did it without anybody else’s help!”), I must question whether the collaborative nature of work in the digital humanities is truly something new.

Much research in the humanities is conducted the same way: a variety of sources are gathered, be the primary, secondary, tertiary, etc., and those resources are then used to cite precedence and examples, to point out support amongst other scholars, to point out the mistakes others before have made.  For this type of research to be legitimate, those sources must come from someone other than yourself; thus there is an inherent collaborative nature to the research we’ve always been doing.  A humanities scholar cannot simply go out and observe “humanities in action” the way a geologist might go out and study rocks directly; but even then, the geologist himself is only able to practice his craft because of the work others have done before him in his field.  Truly, any research is to some degree built on inherited knowledge, with us standing on the shoulders of our predecessors.  Or perhaps stamping on them.  Or leaping off of them into a ravine.  It varies from situation to situation.

Now, I’m sure some might say that this is not the point of the quote above: it is more about direct collaboration in the humanities, scholars working with each other in ways that the humanities has not allowed before, be it because of impracticability, social stigma, or what have you.  To that I would say that anyone who believes the digital humanities is encouraging direct communication is to some degree a fool.  It is no more direct than collaboration by letter, by telephone, by telegram has been: there is still the artificial intermediary brokering the deals amongst the scholars.  All that digital technology has done is speed up modes of indirect communication to such a degree that it gives a false impression that the collaborators exist in the same space.

However, I would still say that there is something new that digital humanities has brought to the collaborative nature of humanities research: transparency.  Whereas before we could so easily hide the fact that we weren’t generating our works in private rooms we occupied one-to-a-person, within which our ideas were born inside of minds working all on their very own, hiding our collaborations behind citations and private correspondences, digital technology has shown that none of our rooms really had any locks on them— and our collaborative nature has been laid bare for all the world to see.

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