Digital Humanities

By Iris Doubleday

The digital humanities, a field of study that is increasingly gaining attention within the sphere of higher education, combines digital technology with traditional humanities studies. This dual focus creates a combination of the old and the new that is relevant to contemporary society and the current job market. Universities and smaller liberal arts colleges are increasingly embracing this adaptive field as it offers new insights into traditional modes of study, bringing a new awareness to the humanities while simultaneously strengthening the job prospects of students. 

I was first introduced to the digital humanities in Wheaton College’s main requirement for English majors, a course called Approaches to Literature and Culture. In this course we were required to read traditional literary theorists while at the same time discussing issues such as authorship and canon in relation to the internet and reading the studies of Franco Moretti on how quantitative methods can be applied to literature. Wheaton also offers the course Computing for Poets, taught by professor of Computer Science Mark LeBlanc. This course is open to students with little to no experience in Computer Science, and provides them with a safe environment in which to learn the Python programming language and use it to create software that analyzes large bodies of text. In “Computer Science for the Rest of Us,” published in the New York Times in March 2012, Computing for Poets is listed alongside other examples of courses which teach “‘computational thinking’ – the general concepts programming languages employ.” This kind of teaching stresses the importance of understanding software fundamentals, emphasizing the need for teaching computational thinking as a basic skill for all students.

Knowledge of these basic programming skills provides students with an advantage in the job market. The field of digital humanities gives students a chance to credential themselves with technological skills that will appeal to employers while continuing a study of the humanities, thereby providing a more flexible option for those who wish to study more than Computer Science alone while still retaining its benefits. In “How the Humanities Compute in the Classroom,” Marc Parry, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, discusses how the field of digital humanities has begun to “work its way into the academic ecosystem” due to the advantages it provides for students faced with today’s job market. According to Parry, the subject also allows colleges to demonstrate the “continued importance of the humanities” as it provides this traditional field with a more practical application.

Complications and setbacks remain, however, due to the general lack of knowledge concerning the digital humanities and its use. Carl Straumsheim speculates in “Digital Humanities in Demand,” published by Inside Higher Ed, whether the subject has gone mainstream, discussing its prominence at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting this year, but he also acknowledges the challenge of making the digital humanities understandable to those who question what it is. Overall, however, the growing interest among students in the subject is prompting an increase of awareness. While the subject remains marginal within the scope of traditional academic fields, the digital humanities are increasing in prominence as the benefits of a joint focus on tradition and innovation become clear.

Iris Doubleday is a senior at Wheaton College majoring in English. Wheaton College is home to the Kappa of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.