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Digital Humanities is Growing at Penn State—What Does That Mean for the Future of Literature?

Increasing numbers of faculty and students are taking on digital humanities projects at Penn State. Here's what that means for the present, and some thoughts on what it could mean going forward.


Whether you embrace it, are skeptical of it, or don’t know what it is, digital humanities is here and growing.  At Penn State in particular, digital humanities (DH) is growing in palpable and substantial ways.  The recent hire of Dr. Gabrielle Foreman, Director of The Colored Conventions Project—a project to digitize and study records of Colored Conventions, a precursor to the NAACP, from the late nineteenth century—was a huge boost to Penn State’s digital humanities stature.  Moreover, Penn State will be adding a new Center for Black Digital Research in the near future to aid in the ongoing research for this project and others.  In addition, Penn State is taking the lead in organizing this year’s annual Douglass Day at Howard University, a celebration of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s birthday.  The event, co-organized by Dr. Shirley Moody-Turner, the founder of the Anna Julia Cooper Digital Project, will feature a crowdsourcing project to transcribe various published and unpublished writings—including newspaper clippings, financial records, and personal correspondences—of Anna Julia Cooper, the fourth African American woman to ever earn a Ph.D. for her philosophy dissertation on the Haitian Revolution.
Dr. Gabrielle Foreman

What does all this growth in DH mean for the traditional humanities?  Specifically, what does the digitization of literature mean for how scholars access, engage with, and interpret text?  Aside from African American literature, Penn State graduate students in the humanities are working on projects ranging from scansion (a quantitative method of determining poetic rhythm) databases of early modern poetry, to misogyny in Silicon Valley, to rhetorical analyses of presidential campaign speeches.  Do these projects represent fundamentally different ways of understanding literature, or just the utilization of new technology to supplement old research methods and methodologies?  Can DH exist in the realms of both the digital and the humanities, or must one take precedence?

Many students became engaged with DH upon beginning master’s degree work at Penn State.  Sabrina Evans, a first-year dual-Ph.D. student in English and African American Studies and Project Manager for Douglass Day 2020, says she has been committed to issues of accessibility, particularly making the materials of “Black women more accessible to scholars, graduate students, and interested community members,” since she first came to Penn State.  Lauren Cenci, a first-year M.A. student in English also began working in DH her first semester, looking at Beaumont and Fletcher’s A Wife for a Moneth in Professor Claire Bourne’s seminar.  Finally, Rob Nguyen, a first-year dual-Ph.D. in English and Visual Culture said he became aware of the type of DH work he could do from within the English department after taking Professor Brian Lennon's “Software, Platform and Code Studies” class.

Lauren Cenci

Thinking specifically about the issue of how DH relates to traditional humanities, Evans, Nguyen, and Cenci gave different answers.  Evans said that she believes digital and traditional humanities “are the same thing, but with different technology,” but that DH “changes how we define literature,” allowing people to consider writings that might have been published in non-traditional ways and difficult to find in physical form.

Certainly, the relationship between DH and traditional humanities is complex, particularly as we reflect upon how DH might change what counts as literature while retaining something essential about the study of humanities.  Nguyen suggested that DH and traditional humanities can be “quite similar,” but, for him, the difference is that the object of analysis can change—a close reading of computer code, for example.

One unifying theme that emerged, however, is that DH allows for more accessibility than traditional humanities.  Evans points out that DH can make books freely accessible online for her students who might not be able to afford them otherwise.  Cenci echoed this sentiment and added that DHgives anyone the opportunity to enter literary fields.”

Sabrina Evans

However, DH might also have some drawbacks or at least potential obstacles to consider.  For example, while DH certainly does increase accessibility in these ways for some, there are also limits to access for those who cannot afford computers, who do not have internet access, or who live in places where the government might censor information.  Another potential obstacle is the way scholars think about the ostensible objectivity of data.  Nguyen said, “Thinking of text as data rather than language could be troublesome without adequately framing what one means when they say data.”  Nguyen warned against “privileging data as just the facts,” since scholars must also be able to critique the potential biases inherent in how that data gets collected.  Essentially, the concept of raw data is a fallacy since “purposeful human decisions” go into any data collection process.

While DH is flourishing at Penn State, it is not entirely clear what direction the field is heading.  Heather Froehlich is the Literary Informatics Librarian at Penn State who works with a wide range of projects and, in her own words, “support[s] faculty, students, and staff across the Penn State system working with questions of text and language at scale.”  She offered a broader perspective on the issue.

“I think there are two real potentials for DH,” said Froehlich.  “The first is that Digital Humanities just becomes part and parcel of the humanities writ large and it stops being this whole unique thing that insists on standing alone. We don’t talk about test tube chemistry, so why talk about computer humanities? The other outcome is that DH becomes subsumed into data science initiatives, where practitioners are more closely aligned with computational methods and computational forms of inquiry. This version of digital humanities is more focused on the ‘digital’ than the ‘humanities’ part of the equation.”

Robert Nguyen

Engagement with digital humanities comes down to how researchers value the “digital” in proportion to how they value the “humanities.”  It’s unclear if DH just provides new ways to do the same work, or if digital humanities will become a field more concerned with data than with whatever fundamental qualitative ‘humanity’ scholars assume when they say ‘the humanities.’  What is clear is that whatever direction DH takes will depend on how institutions support this burgeoning research area, and how much care researchers take in perceiving how computers, data, and algorithms continue to exist within the frameworks of racism, sexism, and other forms of bias that complicate the important work of the humanities—traditional and digital.


***By Justin Smith, 2019-2020 CALS Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Heather Froehlich