Drucker, Johanna. Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship. Debates in Digital Humanities. Matt Gold ed. U of Minnesota P. 2012.
This contribution by Johanna Drucker opens with two very poignant questions for the dh world: 1) “are [humanists] actually doing anything different or just extending the activities that have always been their core concerns, enabled by advantages of networked digital technology?” and 2) “have the humanities made any impact on the digital environment? Can we create graphical interfaces and digital platforms from humanistic models?” (85).
I am particularly interested in this question because I am co-designing a platform specifically intended to aid in humanities research – the Writing Studies Tree. Putting a research question, or problem, first, and designing to meet this goal seems to me the correct order – and also addresses Drucker’s inquiry. However, Drucker’s point that “protocols for information visualization, geospatial representation, and other research instruments have been absorbed from disciplines whose epistemological foundations and fundamental values are at odds with, or even hostile to, the humanities” (85-86). Data in the humanities tends to rely on context and interpretation – it does not stand alone as purely quantitative. For instance, in the Writing Studies Tree we are visualizing relationships between people and institutions, but these visualizations only show the quantitative data concerning dates, locations, and titles (mentor, chair, instructor, student), it does not, and in my opinion should not, show the qualitative data concerning the nature of those relationships. When we presenting this tool to our colleagues at the Conference on College Composition and Communication audience members want the program to show “negative” relationships, for example a falling out between an adviser and advisee. This subjective information can be visualized (I joking suggested changing the colored line to look like yellow and black striped caution tape), but should it be? How does representing those emotional or affective descriptions advance research in field of writing studies?
When Drucker claims “the ideology of almost all current information visualization is anathema to humanistic thought” it seems she is assuming that the humanities does not have an interest in quantifiable data, nor does it question the presentation of “what is.” To be honest, I think she is playing devils advocate here, but it is clear that humanists do grapple with quantifiable data in many fields, especially history, art history, and classics where dates, times, locations, and quantities (number of people, words, paintings, books, etc.) are continuously vital to their work. And, as Drucker rightfully points out, after Father Busa’s first wave of concordance, many humanities scholars are successfully “counting, sorting, searching, and finding nonambiguous instances of discrete and identifiable string of information coded in digital form” (87). Franco Moretti’s work is probably both the best and most well-known example of this work in literary studies. Also, coming from a background in composition and rhetoric, training in analyzing visual rhetoric was a critical part of my education and is now an objective of my teaching. I do not think it is a fair criticism of humanities scholars that we do not analyze maps, graphs, charts, and images, however I do agree that we fail to train emerging scholars to create accurate representations in various media. This is why I fully embrace a constructivist approach to teaching and learning, in fact it is the foundation of my teaching philosophy. I believe the rise of the digital humanities ethos and the availability of open access (free as in beer and speech) tools have encouraged others to concentrate on pedagogy based on making/building as well. But I still see a lack of training in graduate programs in the humanities to collect, visualize, and report data accurately.
Drucker’s vision of this training reimagines traditional forms of visualization, in particular maps, to reveal the cultural regimes that constructed our knowledge of those places, spaces, and events. Although I cannot fully comprehend how this vision would materialize, I am convinced that “without minimizing the complexity involved in realizations and aware of the risk of cartoonish special effects, my point is that by not addressing these possibilities we cede the virtual ground to a design sensibility based in engineering and games” (92). Along with Drucker, I wonder how the humanities can create new forms of digital scholarship that push the boundaries of how and why we can and should be building and making.