Not Reading the 19th-Century Novel, and the DH/PH Relationship

Not Reading the 19th-Century Novel, and the DH/PH Relationship

This past semester, my course tackled the traditional DH assignment – “(Not) Reading a Nineteenth-Century Novel.” In a class focused on how DH fits within graduate study of English departments, the premise of the assignment made a lot of sense. These are literary scholars looking to understand how these tools fit within their research goals.

But as a public human(ist), my interests in the course were slightly different. Public humanities is for me a pedagogy – a collection of tools, methods, and theory to address reframing scholarship for community engagement and public works. So my biggest question coming out of this assignment was quite simple: what do these tools do to public understanding of a work?

Here’s where I struggle as a public human(its): so much of digital humanities still focuses on the quantification of data. The visualizations, the mapping, the word clouds, the timelines — they’re impressive. In working through a corpus, these tools can do incredible work for the data inside. And the presentation of this information makes for a new entryway — for publics who view the world quantitatively, for those teasing a new theme of a work, layering macro perspectives, etc.

Maybe I haven’t seen tools like Voyant and Mallet at their full capacity. But I found myself so concerned with the processes — how did they work, what did they look for, how do they get cleaned data — that the results mattered very little to me. Instead, I was focused on what we could do with data in this form. The texts I worked with didn’t translate well to public audiences, but how would more workable texts do in this environment? And how would people use them? Do we ask publics to use the results, or to work with the tools themselves? Do we ask audiences to create their own interpretations with DH, or do we use DH to give them new interpretations of a work? 

Tools of DH are obviously adding to the methods at my disposal, and of course scholars will be expected to use them in their research. To not “not read” with digital analysis seems careless in the current state of the field. But promoting these tools as just another form of analysis lacks both introspection of the process and the dissemination of knowledge.

But in my interactions with the public, the current tools being discussed fell short of my expectations. To just leave it at that — that these tools are simply “expanding” our analysis — seems limiting for what tech can do for humanities publics. At the end of the day, we can always make the data more accessible. But is that connecting public humanities and digital humanities in a new, innovative way?

Read against the grain of digital analysis, rather than with it, can present an entirely new line of questioning. It allows us as scholars to consider what we value within a work and why we value it that way. And this is where I see public humanities coming in with the use of these tools. Part of the struggle in macro-field public humanities is that we’re always asking big questions. What does it mean to read? What constitutes a library? What makes something literary? If we start getting audiences to look against the grain with us — to use these tools and methods to reach the bigger questions and bigger audiences — we can ultimately speak to some truths the public humanities can’t right now. 

The real question for me: how do we support this? How do we get from “this is what digital can do” to “this is what digital does?” And are we using digital to think bigger — about our data, our humanities, and our humanity?