Why You Should be a Digital Humanist

A few days ago, I got an email from someone who’d read my old post, “Why You Shouldn’t be a Digital Humanist.” I wrote it for the 2013 day of DH and it accurately reflected much of my frustration with both the rhetoric and reality of being a full-time digital humanist. My email correspondent wrote and asked two questions that I thought might be a great way to reverse the post and tell why someone should be a digital humanist. Her questions were: 1) what do you have to study besides history to become a digital humanist  and 2) what would you say are the reasons you became a digital humanist and like it. So here are my answers…hopefully something in here strikes a chord with both my correspondent and the wider world.

Why I became a Digital Humanist?

I became a humanist interested in computing before I even knew it was a thing. For every academic, there is that moment, that kernel of spark that make them excited for doing the work of their field. For me, I was a ten year old kid whose mother had embarked on (what became) a decade-long project to chart her family history. She started when I was really little. In my elementary school years, it wasn’t unusual for her to haul us to graveyards, churches, and libraries to run down family records. Because she had a thirst for knowledge, we were one of the earliest adopters of computers in our neighborhood. My mom found all the cool games of the 1980/90s (Jeopardy, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, etc.) and she basically let us run amok all over the interwebs. I can remember us logging in via that old Compuserve dial-up tone and looking at message boards and registries of files trying to run down family records.

By the time I was in high school, I hung out with the computer science kids who were working for local internet service providers. I learned to build my first desktop the same year I got my driver’s license and, in one memorable evening, watched a friend hack another’s computer to play a prank. I learned HTML and CSS and, when I got to college and my master’s programs, turned that knowledge into putting together websites and digital repositories. I worked on everything from Native American women’s theatre and playwrighting to the work of William Holmes McGuffy. I worked in the Miami University archives doing basic digitization and metadata while processing collections. At least initially, digital humanities was about getting information and putting information out there. (Those roots continue to inform my work on accessibility and open access).

In the early years of my graduate school, the job market tanked (well, when hasn’t the job market tanked for academics?). When I say it tanked, I watched more senior friends who were on the market competing with thousands of others for a single US history job–something totally standard today but to me, in 2002, was totally shocking. I knew I’d have to compete, but I had no idea that I’d be competing with faculty from my own institution in the same job search. In my spare time (whatever that means), I was doing some side work with faculty and departments on campus re-building their websites. I did some digital work for the nascent Native American House/American Indian Studies program as well as the American Indians of Illinois Online program. This continued off and on for a couple of years while I was teaching and researching for faculty within the department. Then, in january 2008, a round of emails went to all of the “old” (read: those in the program for more than four years) graduate students that our funding had been cut and we were no longer going to be automatically given a teaching or research appointment. The email read something like: we love you; you are working hard; we want you to finish your dissertation; but we’re out of money and we need the money to recruit new students; they are more important to us because we need to remain in the top 10% nationally; go forth and find a job somewhere else on campus.

I’d just started working part-time for Vernon Burton, then history department faculty member and director of the UIUC Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Vernon wanted help getting primary sources online. So I spent hours running down digital versions and either hyperlinking or PDF’ing the various files and posting them. By now, you’re bored, right? Nothing too exciting here….just me trying to make a living with skills I’d had for decades. So, what changed for me? How’d I actually become a practicing digital humanist? I spent another couple of years working for ICHASS as a graduate assistant. It gave me a hands-on learning environment where I basically was encouraged to have agency and sink or swim. I learned alot but….

The reality is I didn’t identify myself as a digital humanist until I had to go on the job market looking for new jobs. For me, the digital work I was doing was just another set of methods and theories that I’d deploy as needed in my research and job. It wasn’t like I all of the sudden discarded my identity as a historian and said “Today, I am digital humanist.” Instead, I’d say I became a practicing digital humanist when I needed to advocate for the work I was already doing. By this I mean it was only when I had to defend my methods, theories, projects, and daily practice that I was forced in adopting the label “digital humanist.” For me, using the title is a bit of cultural declaration—a quasi-political statement that allows me to place others on notice that my disciplinary worldview is not limited to analog methods and approaches. Generally, I weigh my audience when I introduce myself.

In a group of digital humanists, I always refer to myself as a 19th and 20th century cultural history of the US…subfields: sport, native american history, race/identity/representation. In a group of historians, I still usually identify as a 19th and 20th century US historian….I just throw in the digital humanities title because it places colleagues on notice that I’m embracing a broadening definition of what constitutes interdisciplinary history. Some this interchangeability resides in the answer to why I like digital humanities.

Why I like Digital Humanities?

Straight up, I like digital humanities because it is an uncertain field, one in flux, where you often can meld, mold, and interweave differing approaches and methods…..in a public way. I like the digital humanities because I’ve seen the power of the digital to transform learning, democratize access, and provide new in-roads into previously closed humanities questions. As I once told a grad school friend, I like DH because it is on the margins of my field and allows me space to follow my intellectual curiosity…and I get to do it within a collaborative framework. I love being able to bounce ideas off others…to learn about their disciplines and implement across fields. The digital humanities allows me to engage where my brain goes…not stop at some arbitrarily assigned border known as “the historical professional”.

What do you have to study to become a digital humanist?

I’d argue that a wise historian should explore all these things:

statistics and probability

data curation and preservation

digital archives and repositories

the basics of programming (html, css, php)

the basics of servers and infrastructure

copyright, permissions, and the legal structures associated with data sharing and reproduction

user experience and interface design

project development and resource management

And then from there, they should pick where their intellect takes them:

literary analysis

network visualization and analysis

image analysis

sound analytics

mobile applications


social media

digital rhetoric


specific programming languages etc.

This is why I co-direct the Humanities Intensive Learning & Teaching Institute (www.dhtraining.org/hilt). There is so much to learn about digital humanities and no one program or faculty member or institution can offer it all (although some are trying).  At the end of it all, I think what you should learn is what you are passionate about….and what others tell you they learned to get where they are. That’s what I’ve done and it seems to be working out marginally well for me so far….but check back in another 10 years. I might have changed my mind.




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