Humanities in the Digital Age

An image of a flower. Romantic piano music starts to play as John Lithgow starts to philosophize: “The stem of the flower is in fact STEM […] but the blossom of the flower is the humanities. Without the blossom, the stem is completely useless. […] The humanities teach us who we are.” Although the video “The Heart of the Matter” by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences was made to bring attention to the fact that the humanities are badly underfunded, it also highlights the alleged discrepancy between the humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects. George Lucas’ statement sums it up: “Science is all the how. And the humanities are the why.”

Currently, millions of students and teachers of the humanities are nevertheless forced to rely on technology during the corona crisis. How does this work? Besides from the usual frustration when someone’s internet connection crashes in the middle of a video conference, some humanities scholars like Simon Strick in “Digitally Drunk” argue that this kind of ‘online classroom’ does not work at all for the humanities, in which sensitive topics like racism are often the focus of attention: “What is the PowerPoint document, YouTube-Video, or interactive PDF that best simulates the experience of reading and discussing Gender Trouble for the first time? How do I do ‘mood work’ when teaching 20 people in a virtual classroom on BigBlueButton?” It is easy to understand that online seminars can be a challenge and a major change for teaching in general, but is there really no reasonable way to connect the humanities with technology?

The possible answer to this are called the ‘Digital Humanities’, which combine the traditional humanities disciplines such as literature, history, and philosophy with the application of computational tools and methods. They have, as Alan Liu puts it in his essay “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?”, the potential to use new technologies to help the humanities communicate with, and adapt to, contemporary society. Recently, they are being gradually integrated into the humanities, looking to improve, create and disseminate new means of communication between the humanities and the public.

A great example to illustrate this is SELFIECITY. The project investigates the style of selfies in five different cities across the world to understand how the history of photography can help to better understand the so called ‘selfie phenomena’ and how social media images can be approached theoretically in general. On their website, the researchers did not only present their findings about the demographic of people taking selfies, but also let you navigate the whole set of 3200 photos in an interactive ‘selfiexploratory’ to let you experiment with the data yourself. Therefore, the study does not only show to what extent digital humanists‘ use of technological tools and methods to investigate and to understand human-behaviors help us to be aware about a particular fashion-style and communication of a specific community in a specific time and space, but lets everyone who is interested delve into the experiment for themselves. Is there a better way to study?

Furthermore, Simon Strick argues that ‘mood work’ does not work online and that sensitive topics like racism are better discussed in an offline classroom, where one can read the room’s affects. While one could agree that discussions are more complicated in a video or microphone conference, this is rather due to the unusual circumstances, which are new for both teachers and students. In the first few weeks of the online semester of the CAU, most students did not know how to respond to the teachers’ questions. Do I just start talking or do I have to raise my hand? What if someone else starts talking at the exact same time? Some students even had to mute their microphone for entire sessions because they did not want to disturb their classmates with background noises, which unfortunately prevented themselves from participating in the class at the same time. Situations like these can occur in every subject, no matter if you study humanities or STEM. Lively discussions are definitely more likely to occur in an offline classroom or maybe in a possible future, where students and teachers got used to online classes.

Nevertheless, sensitive topics are not a good reason to completely neglect technological tools and methods in the humanities. Instead, digital humanities can be used to help and support discussions about certain topics. An example for this is the “The Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project”, which was initiated to collect historical records of the arrest, and the protests that followed, of Freddie Gray, a black man who died after he was arrested by the Baltimore Police Department on April 19, 2015. The website contains several pictures, videos and interviews by eyewitnesses and community members, that present a different perspective to the public from what the media portrayed. When the humanities discuss topics like racism, no matter if it happens in an ordinary classroom or in a video conference, they would definitely benefit from the different point of views that can be reached through technology and the internet, instead of just discussing the topic within the – unfortunately mainly white – classroom.

Furthermore, digital humanities are playing a major role in supporting teachers, students and researchers by creating platforms, archives and software that are providing accessible materials and contents in a way that makes learning equally accessible for all learners, be they rich or poor. Two examples are Omeka and WordPress, which are publishing tools that can be used to create attractive visual display of digital collection material and as platforms for creating and publishing digital scholarship. WordPress, on the one hand, is highly recommended and used by many institutions, organizations and schools. One can for instance create forums, which can be a good place to bounce ideas of each other and get a sort of an interactive community discussing specific topics and sharing same interests. More than that, WordPress is also an excellent opportunity to distribute content, surveys, mailing lists and digital publications. The platform also provides a basic setup that is free for everyone to use with reasonable and accessible prices for more functionalities. Omeka, on the other hand, is well-known for providing great plugins – for example ‘Neatline’, which allows scholars and students to tell stories with maps.

In summary, it can be said that although there are still many scholars who claim that the humanities and technology are two areas that do not belong together, the digital humanities are proving the opposite by creating great technological tools and methods that can equally help students and teachers to understand and analyze certain topics. To come back to the metaphor of John Lithgow, who argued that the STEM is completely useless without the blossom that is the humanities – what is a blossom without its stem? Not capable of survival.