Might as well Call it the Digital Humanities


This post was inspired by an assignment for my 500-level Intro to Lit Theory class. Or rather, this post (along with the others in this series) is the assignment for my class. My professor, Michael Malouf, assigned students to research a theory and to generate a lit review outlining the basics: origins, key figures, theoretical claims, critics, legacy, etc. Researching Digital Humanities—as theory, applied to literature—appealed to me because unlike most of the other theories on our list of choices, DH is a living, moving, breathing thing, and as such, it is difficult to pin down. It seemed to me that it might be more interesting to research a theory that is alive, dancing and weaving, rather than one that has been relegated to the annals of history, along with the answers to the juiciest questions about its meaning and significance.

And I was right; it has certainly been interesting to try to pin down answers about DH. It has also been laughably difficult to get a solid answer for even the simplest question. Take the name, for starters. The term “Digital Humanities” can be traced almost to the precise moment of its inception. DH scholar Matthew Kirschenbaum tracked down its origin in an email exchange with early DHer John Unsworth, an editor of Blackwell’s first Companion to Digital Humanities. Unsworth explains how the term evolved while choosing the title for that volume:

The real origin of that term [digital humanities] was in conversation with Andrew McNeillie, the original acquiring editor for the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities. We started talking with him about that book project in 2001, in April, and by the end of November we’d lined up contributors and were discussing the title, for the contract. Ray [Siemens] wanted “A Companion to Humanities Computing” as that was the term commonly used at that point; the editorial and marketing folks at Blackwell wanted “Companion to Digitized Humanities.” I suggested “Companion to Digital Humanities” to shift the emphasis away from simple digitization.”

The name stuck. The MLA database indicates that in 2002, 7 articles included keyword “digital humanities,” while 11 included “humanities computing.” By 2012, there were 172 published articles with keyword “digital humanities” and only 27 with “humanities computing.” Digital Humanities FTW. 


Screenshots of results for search term “digital humanities” in the MLA database. Fig 1 represents a basic search spanning the years 1967-2016; Fig 2 represents a subject heading search spanning the years 1997-2016. 

Don’t think, though, that the matter has been settled. Just a few years ago, Chronicle of Higher Education columnist William Pannapacker penned an op-ed titled “Stop Calling it Digital Humanities,” in which he called for a name change to digital liberal arts (or DLA) “with the assumption that we’ll lose the “digital” within a few years, once practices that seem innovative today become the ordinary methods of scholarship.” Though this suggestion seems not to have caught on (there are zero MLA results for this term, in any year) the fact that scholars are still quibbling over what to call it as recently as a couple years ago indicates, possibly, a deeper unrest within the theory in general—namely, what it is.

More on that in my next post.

This post is part of a four-part series (links below) that seeks to explain the role of Digital Humanities in literary study, written as an alternative to a traditional paper in my Lit Theory class. I welcome (encourage!) feedback on my work, including corrections to my research and/or interpretations. I hope you will consider commenting if you have something to add to the the ideas presented here. —KF


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