Before I arrived at TCU I had heard the words “digital humanities” thrown around, but had never quite understood them. “What about literature could possibly be digital?” I thought. “And if it just means online journals or blogs, why does it deserve such a cool name?”
After a few times of hearing and not understanding those words, my curiosity got the best of me, and I went to the Digital Humanities page on Wikipedia, which, incidentally, wasn’t much help. I read the first line of that page: “Digital humanities is an area of research and teaching at the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. Developing from the fields of humanities computing, humanistic computing and digital humanities praxis, digital humanities embraces a variety of topics, from curating online collections to data mining large cultural data sets.” Needless to say, although I still had no clue what digital humanities was, I knew I wanted nothing to do with it. Even if “curating online collections” or “mining large cultural data sets” ever appealed to me (they didn’t), my experience with coding and computer science was so limited that it all seemed far out of my reach.
Some time later, I set an appointment with my advisor, Dr. Easterbrook, to register for this semester’s classes. In that meeting, Dr. Easterbrook said something along these lines, “Since you’re American Lit., you’ll be taking Dr. May’s class, I suppose?” I didn’t want to commit. “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” I said, “but I don’t know anything about computers.” Dr. Easterbrook assured me that that wouldn’t be a problem, so I said I was willing to give it a try.
A few weeks later, on the first day of class, I still didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. Dr. May told us we’d be setting up an online archive, and the idea of archival research appealed to me, so I was excited, but also a bit nervous. Fortunately for me, everyone in class shared my sentiments, and Dr. May assured us that we could learn all the computer skills in a semester. I was willing to take him at his word.
Now, at the end of the semester, it turns out that Dr. Easterbrook and Dr. May were both correct, and as much as I feared I would regret it at the beginning, the decision to take Dr. May’s course has already paid off in several respects.
First, although I don’t think I have fully grasped the entire meaning of “digital humanities,” I have a much better understanding of its central problems and possibilities. Over the course of the semester, I have developed a particular interest in the possibility of using the web and other digital tools to bring the work we do in the humanities to a larger audience. For example, it seems clear that humanities departments and the liberal arts in general have recently been struggling to express their academic value in comparison to vocational studies and the sciences. I have come to realize, too, that when I talk to my friends and family about what I’m doing in graduate school, they usually have no idea what I’m talking about. Nor can they really understand why the work we are doing is important. And I think that the web is a perfect platform for illustrating the value of the work we do by showing it to a larger audience.
As an aside, from what I have learned this semester, I have discovered that digital tools can be useful for my own creative work. In my spare time I write short fiction, and it had never occurred to me to use digital tools for writing fiction until very recently when I stumbled upon a Kairos article by Lynda R. Stephenson, titled “Road Trip: A writer’s exploration of cyberspace as literary space.” In that article, Stephenson discusses her own limited knowledge of HTML coding and how learning about HTML has given her new insight into the creative process as it pertains to the web. She also outlines the current state of cyberlit and its advantages, disadvantages, and possibilities. This article was really exciting to me because it opened my eyes to the almost limitless (and as yet untapped) potential of cyberspace for literary experimentation.
The second payoff of this semester is my newfound familiarity with archival research. My undergraduate education was based largely on the Western canon (which in its own way is extremely valuable), but we never really discussed archival research as an option. Thus, on our first day at the archives, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had initially wanted to look for documents pertaining to Native Americans in Texas, but when the archivist informed me that they had nothing of the sort, I decided to open up the first box that looked appealing, just to see what I could find.
The box I chose contained a slave manifest, but when I looked at it, I didn’t find it particularly useful and kept browsing. That was when I found a translated set of legal documents about a San Antonio woman named Maria Calvillo. As it turns out, Calvillo was known for her riding, roping, and shooting abilities, and she ultimately became something of a local legend near San Antonio. As it turns out, the original documents are in Waco and San Antonio and, thus, a bit out of my reach, so I ultimately decided to use a different set of documents for my archival research project. Nevertheless, my first day of archival research gave me a taste of the awesome and interesting things you can find if you are willing to get your hands dirty in the archives.
Despite my initial worries, Dr. May’s class will prove to be extremely valuable in my future research, not only in terms of familiarity with the archives, but also in terms of my newfound fluency—I use the term loosely—with HTML. In addition, I am excited about potentially using both digital tools and archival research for my future creative projects as well.