Technology vs. Literature: An Insight into the Digital Humanities

After this brief window of intense use of the tools that the Digital Humanities offers, I feel I have become quite opinionated on the field itself.  It should be taken into consideration that my time with the Digital Humanities has only spanned the last two months, and that the majority of that focus has been to one tool (some time was spent using other tools, which I found to be the most exciting, but I will get to that later).  So how is it that I can form a valid argument that is either for or against this field? The answer is that I can only really asses the situation and experience that I had with these tools, and hope that my opinions can be thought upon as different and insightful.

Initial Thoughts…

I admit that my apprehension of this field could have persuaded my opinion.  When first introduced to the Digital Humanities my immediate reaction was such – ‘what was wrong with the good old fashioned reading and annotating?’.  I did not want to give up on the classic method; I enjoy talking with my peers about what happened in a scene and I enjoy developing theories about the characters based on their lines and actions.  But if the tools could help me learn more about the characters, then why should I not make the most of them?

As I began working with my assigned tool I quickly came to the realization that Monk was not letting me do what I wanted it to do, or rather, it was not giving me the results that I wanted.  As seen in my first blog post I was extremely frustrated.  Why could the computer not do what I wanted it to do? Isn’t this what the Digital Humanities is supposed to do for me?  Essentially, why isn’t my experience with the digital humanities giving me more insight to my literary study of Hamlet?  I was under the impression that this tool, among others, was going to help me.  But after Phase 1, I just wanted to throw my computer against the wall, pick up my copy of Hamlet and read!

Once I got the Phase 2 I attempted to be more open minded to the potential of the collaboration of Monk with other tools (such as WordSeer, WordHoard, Voyeur and Tapor).  I admit that I was pleased with the results that  I was getting from the other tools, once my teammate Dayna showed me how to use WordHoard, I found myself often resorting to that tool to answer the majority of my questions.  One of my favorite aspects of WordHoard was that when I searched a word, I got with it the speaker and context of the play (something Monk did not offer me).  This was perfect for my team’s plan of action that which was focused on character development.  So alright Digital Humanities, I will give you that one.

But, as interesting as I found our results to be in Phase 2, and yes I will recognize the fact that some of the results that we got we would not be able to have discovered by just reading Hamlet, I am still unwilling to put all my eggs in one basket.  As much as the digital humanities can help me gain new knowledge about Hamlet, it is also taking away my personal insight into the text.  When I search the word madness into lets say Wordseer’s search engine in hopes to determine whether Hamlet is mad or not, I am essentially not trusting my own reading of the text.

Allow Me To Elaborate…

That last statement may have been a bit extreme, but I find it necessary to make such a claim in order to get my point across.  In working with these tools I found that I became too trusting in their results.  Instead of making my own conclusions about Hamlet’s sanity based simply on what I had read, I was now allowing a program to tell me that this theory was either correct or incorrect, based on the data that I had inputed into the search engine, or just it’s own database.  Now hold on a minute.  Aren’t I an English major? I thought that the whole point of being in this department was to talk and write about our readings, not put it into a computer and have to analyze the data that it spat out at me.  I understand that the Digital Humanities can allow more insight into a text, I will not deny that, but I feel that as a literary lover the action of reading a text must be preserved.  And that the conclusions drawn from the simple act of reading a text must not be deemed as wrong or inconclusive.  Just because I came to the conclusion that Hamlet is sane based on my own personal reading of the play and not from Monk or Voyeur’s results, does not mean that the conclusion should not be trusted.

Essentially, I believe that there should be a balance between the digital humanities and the old fashioned literary studies and that the digital humanities should not be considered the saving grace of literary studies.

This coincides with Ted Underwood’s blog post properly titled “why digital humanities isn’t actually ‘the next thing in literary studies’ ”.  Here Ted describes that the digital humanities should not be the “. . . answer to the question “How should we save literary studies?” ”.  Ted addresses this topic by suggesting that the literary studies do not need to be saved, or rather, the survival of the profession need not depend on the digital humanists.  Based on his argument it seems that they are quick to assume that the digital humanities are the saving grace of literary studies.  But as Ted points out, this is not really their battle.  For one thing the digital humanities can not be the be all end all of this academia crisis because it is not a “movement within literary studies”.  In fact, Ted goes as far to deem the field as extra-disciplinary, saying it includes “historians and linguists, computer scientists and librarians”.  If the digital humanities are not just focusing on english literature, then it should not be expected to be the saving grace of this field.  Ted goes on to explain that the digital humanists are not exactly avoiding the problem in the academia world, but they are doing it in a different way.  They are in fact “rethinking peer review and scholarly publishing” and are trying to get across that when thinking about academia, we must think of it as a “social institution”.  So overall, the digital humanities can help with the revival of literary studies, but we should not be assuming that it is the next best thing.  By associating the digital humanities with the “health and survival of the profession” we must not forget about where we cam from, and what makes literary studies so great in the first place.

My Exploration and Doubts…

One of the main things that I noticed when I began working extensively with these tools was that I was creating questions that I wanted the tools to answer.  These questions were not just some that I made up on the spot, they were based on the text that I had read.  So really if I had not read Hamlet, I would not have been able to come up with questions such as – ‘based on the language used, is it possible to tell if Gertrude’s feelings towards her son changes from Act 1 Scene 2 to Act 3 Scene 4?’, or, ‘based on the language that Claudius uses in his first monologue in the play, Act 1 Scene 2, and his soliloquy in Act 3 Scene 3, how does he really feel about his brother?’.  I used both of these questions in my part of the Phase 2 project simply because I had never really done any type of research into the King and the Queen.  I wanted to learn more about their characters, based on what I had originally read in the text.  Granted I will give credit where credit’s due; WordHoard did give me some interesting results when I searched the word brother in Claudius’ monologue and soliloquy:


Yes, WordHoard was able the isolate the instances that I wanted to study.  But once this moments in the play have been isolated, it still is depending on me to come the conclusions based on my interpretation of these results. In my second screenshot I see that the word brother can be associated with the word guilt (seen on line 40).  But I have come to that conclusion based on reading that part of the text.  As much as this tool (and others) can reveal to me, it is still up to my ‘literary mind’ to process, interpret and create arguments and conclusions based on the results.

And really how different is that, from this?


In The End…

I would like to conclude by saying that I am not wholeheartedly against the entire field of digital humanities; that it should be thrown away and forgotten.  Instead, I am trying to suggest that we create a balance between its use, and our reading. I have enjoyed learning about the digital humanities and what they can potentially offer, but I am unwilling to give up my hard copy of Hamlet just yet.  I hope that my harsh judgement of the digital humanities (especially Monk) has not turned people off of the digital humanities.  I just that in order to get my point across “I must be cruel only to be kind” (Hamlet, 4.1.181).  As much as the digital humanities can offer, we must not throw away our texts, and we should not expect this field to be the saving grace of literary studies.  As Ted Underwood says “the ‘digital humanities’ is the name of an opportunity . . . . the meaning of the opportunity is going to depend on what we make of it”.


Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Robert S. Miola. New York: Norton, 2011. Print.

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