At a faculty discussion this week the topic of a digital humanist turned up. One faculty member turned to another and, behind his hand, remarked “Digital humanist? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Chuckling ensued.
It highlighted for me the tenuous balance that many of us consciously or unconsciously navigate between technology and education. My immediate internal response was “of course it’s not an oxymoron. Humans have digits, don’t they?” And we do have them, on our hands, but also in our work. The code, keystrokes, data sets, and interactive texts that are part of our work as scholars are digitally infused. From a certain point of view, the only humanities scholar who is not a digital humanist is the one who reads all of her research on the printed page, and writes or types all of her scholarship on sheets of paper.
Excepting that, we are all digital humanists (when we open a word processing or browser window, when we send an email, when we reply to a CFP online). The extent to which we critically examine our new media sphere defines whether we embrace or ignore that identity. I can choose to ignore the possibilities that blogging, faster publishing capabilities, and improved communication models open for my academic career. It might be easy, if I don’t see a need to explore them. “Things have been working just fine so far,” I might say. However, the new generation of scholars is less likely to do that because we see where higher education, really, the world in general, is moving, and we want to help shape it.
So, I embrace my identity as a digital humanist, even if I sometimes don’t fully identify with the field of discourse tied to “the Digital Humanities.” I want to interrogate the boundaries of that term, but it does not present a contradiction in terms. In both senses of the word, as scholars and as a species, where would we be without our “digits”?