Just this morning I learned that today was “Day of DH [Digital Humanities].” The About Page of Day of DH 2013 explains that the goal of the project was to determine “Just what do digital humanists really do?” Participants from around the world were encouraged to share their experiences and activities for one day (not even necessarily with digital technology), comment on each others experiences, and take a stab at defining what exactly DH is. Today was a busy day for me and I didn’t have the chance to live-tweet my experiences or create an account on the site matrix, so I’ll just share my experiences and thoughts here.
Today was good. I gave three tours of the Indiana State House, all of which were quite different from each other. The first group was composed of student pages who worked with their local legislator in the House of Representatives for the day. We give these page tours to students while the Indiana General Assembly is in session, and today many of the students came all the way from Gary, which is about three hours away from Indianapolis, very close to Chicago. The second group was composed of 4th graders from Lafayette, where Purdue University is located. The third group was composed of adult lawyers from Fort Wayne. So it was a pretty diverse day in terms of who came to the State House and where they were coming from.
I spent a few hours studying my readings and assignments for both my Digital History and Historical Methods classes. For the latter, I read portions of Richard Slotkin’s book Gunfighter Nation. Our assignments for Digital History can be found here. When I got to my Digital History class, we discussed the nature of databases, how they’ve evolved over time, and the interests of the people and institutions behind these databases. We talked about the pros and cons of Google Books for a while. It was mentioned that one of Google’s primary concerns was getting books onto their databases as quickly as possible, which means that their metadata (“data about data,” more or less) is lacking. Another person mentioned that Google Books keeps track of all the books a person looks up. I mentioned that while I use Google Books frequently, the idea of Google having that information at the tip of their fingers concerns me. I pointed to Google’s complicity in enforcing draconian censorship restrictions on internet usage in China (although this has recently changed, apparently), and I asked an open question wondering what would happen if the U.S. government suddenly demanded that Google hand over its records regarding users’ search queries on Google Books. Would the government ever want to see if someone was studying material that could be deemed a national security threat? Would Google comply in handing over this information? How is a “national security threat” defined these days, anyway?
I had chicken nachos for dinner after class. They tasted awesome.
Here’s a picture of us in class, minus two of our cohorts who were unable to attend, sadly. I’m on the far right.
I think the biggest success of Day of DH 2013 for me was that I even knew such an event existed in the first place. It seems that as I learn more about digital technology and the digital humanities, the more I realize the shortcomings of my education up to this point. I received a fine education at my undergrad institute, but I never once had a class that seriously analyzed the implications of digital technology in the study of history or education. Day of DH has existed for five years now, and we never would have participated in anything like this. The idea of learning about “distant reading” never existed. The idea of taking a class to learn how to better use digital technology in the classroom and educate students on how best to use these resources was never contemplated. In fact, when I first started my undergrad experience in 2006, my school didn’t even have the digital capabilities to allow students to sign up for classes online! We had to sign up in person at the main campus center, and some people who had specific classes and times in which they needed to take these classes sometimes spent the night at the campus center or got up at 3 or 4AM to get there early.
I think a large part of my shortcomings with digital technology, however, are self-imposed. Yes, I wasn’t really encouraged to embrace digital technology while in undergrad, but I also had an unhealthy skepticism about digital technology. I taught myself how to do basic HTML coding by creating wiki pages about bands like Time Lapse Consortium and hockey players like Jeff Nielsen (yes, very nerdy), but I rejected tools like Twitter and WordPress Blogs as frivolous and not worth my time. There were other elements of DH I was completely ignorant of, many of which I am still ignorant of today.
Going forward, I think the challenge for me in all facets of life–not just DH–is being more open to new ideas. Of course, not all new ideas are good ones, and skepticism is a good thing, within reason. But far too often I find myself saying “no” before even trying something. Day of DH 2013 reminds me to appreciate the views and ideas of others and to be open about moving out of my comfort zone, if only temporarily. Questions remain about how to best utilize digital technology in a way that enhances the study of the humanities. Questions also remain about the role of digital technology in the classroom (MOOCs, online courses vs. classroom courses) and how best to “share authority” between humanities institutions with an online presence and their audiences (crowd-sourcing projects, perhaps?). The good thing is that I’ve now got a stake in the game and can better position myself to help enact good measures going forward, and I’m excited for what the future holds. Better late than never, right?