“Interdisciplinary research is disciplinary research or digital humanities are just humanities”

by Grant Glass, M.A./Ph.D. Student and Teaching Fellow | Department of English and Comparative Literature

During the Fall 2018 semester, I joined Dr. Courtney Rivard in her undergraduate research class “English 353: Metadata, Mark-up, and Mapping: Understanding the Rhetoric of Digital Humanities” as a Graduate Research Consultant (GRC). This Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) has greatly influenced what kind of researcher and educator I want to be.

Recently the humanities have stressed doing interdisciplinary work, which famous literary critic Stanley Fish once characterized as “very hard to do.” It is difficult because one has to have a complete understanding of at least one domain in another field’s discourse and concepts. However, with the expansion of digital tools and methods, many disciplines including English have attempted to bridge computing with the humanities with rather limited traction. If the expectations of a scholar are mastery over a particular subject, then doesn’t the interdisciplinary scholar risk alienating their home discipline in order to become interdisciplinary? Courses like Dr. Rivard’s challenged me to take on this question not from a theoretical standpoint, but from a more practical one, where we would teach the students how to critically think about code and algorithms while using those same methods to answer questions in the humanities.

While serving as a GRC, I came to realize that many graduate and undergraduate students are already doing interdisciplinary research. They have no issues reading in another discipline and deploying different methodologies simultaneously. Maybe then the future of digital humanities is just humanities research. Is the practice of doing interdisciplinary research the way out of theorizing about it? Because the nature of contemporary work in the humanities often involves technologies that mediate our research and help us gain access to new material through search engines, this work is already “digital” in nature. Helping undergraduates see they are already doing some sort of interdisciplinary work by mediating their research practices through technology will help shape the future of what research in the humanities looks like. This mediation is not limited to just academics; we all use these technologies. So, much like the New Historicists thought we should talk about the historical context of texts, English 353 advocates for examining the technological context of our research. However, to do this type of analysis is to do interdisciplinary work.

Essentially, through this class, we are making an intervention that digital humanities must become the humanities and therefore we need to dispense with debates centered around interdisciplinary concerns. Once we move on from these debates, combining digital humanities with traditional humanities, we can articulate why the humanities matter more than ever in our ever expanding digital world.

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