Will DH Save the Humanities?

Currently, I’m experimenting with text analysis tools such as AntConc and Voyant for topic modeling. Ted Underwood’s blog entitled “Topic Modeling Made Just Simple Enough” introduces the uses and purpose of topic modeling, showing that researchers can extrapolate topics and infer discourse from a great number of texts. This makes text analysis seem more of a superficial close reading, allowing readers to get a sense of topics and themes, while topic modeling allows for more customization and a macroscopic view of a corpus. While certainly not a means to replace close readings of texts, topic modeling enables humanist researchers to conduct wider analysis of many texts in far less time than they would otherwise, which means they will present findings and add to scholarly discussions more quickly or more nuanced than traditional humanists.

Research produced with a much wider scope that breaks traditional disciplinary boundaries, perhaps completed in few years rather than a decade… So this is digital humanities. It has huge implications for academia, as it redefines humanist scholarship, which calls for a re-evaluation of not just the importance of the humanities, but also the system of awards in academia in how scholars are promoted and funded. After all, most funding agencies, in whatever form, seem to fund research that provides quick results. Moreover, it seems that digital humanities can help solve the crisis that has plagued both the humanities and pure sciences in academia.

While I attended Cal State Fullerton, the California State University system suffered draconian budget cuts, forcing faculty to take furloughs, paycuts, while departments had to slash course offerings and suspend hiring, thus forcing students to prolong their stay unless they chose to drop out after even required courses disappeared from registration catalogs. At Cal State Fullerton, the Modern Language Department suspended all but a handful of programs, while other departments cancelled many classes. Suffice it to say that we experienced a metaphorical drought in morale, and the humanities and pure sciences were hit the worst. Now, a few years later, it’s not as bad, but the many in the Cal State system and CSU Fullerton administrators continue to regard the humanities as “esoteric,” less-worthy of funding, and supporting present-est research and preferring STEM to reign. I’m hopeful that digital humanities will reshape this discourse about humanities and show that they are just as worthy of funding and research attention.

After all, digital humanities provides new forms of scholarly communication (I know, I’m stating the obvious). But if it likens to the methodologies of disciplines that our culture deems “more important,” as we see with computational analysis such as topic modeling, maybe the digital will bring a more positive view of humanities.