What’s in a Name?

Last week’s discussion got me thinking about how we us words, and what we expect out of them when we use them to label things. For instance, the name digital humanities. Seems benign enough, right?

But the term seems ready to join the pile of other labels that, although at some point distinct, have become hopelessly ambiguous ( I am thinking of words like ‘jazz’ when attempting to define a style of music, ‘English’ when attempting to outline a discipline of study, ‘beauty’ as an ideal aesthetic category).

As far as I can survey the field, I am a digital humanist, if

I) I use text mining to figure out the frequency of a given word in 18th century British periodicals.

II) I map visually the location of tweets that pertain to a certain topic.

III) I study how video game platforms limit the type of games that are designed for them.

Some might indeed argue that the umbrella term of digital humanities, which is capable of encompassing the above examples, is needed for a nascent field; that a protean and mutable category allows for new scholarship to develop outside of calcified distinctions. To this point, I readily agree. On the other hand, I still assert that finer brush is needed when painting the purpose of digital humanities inclusion within literary studies. It might be cumbersome to say, “I’m an 18th century British literature scholar using text mining to discover the prevalence of a given word between 1756-59,” or “I use certain forms of social media to locate how a given event has affected different communities throughout the nation,” or “I examine how new forms of technology shape the experiences that we have through them,” and indeed it lacks some of the cachet that the designation of the digital humanities confers. But the descriptions are precise; they allow us to communicate quickly and clearly what our work is to our colleagues and to the public; and they cordon off the digital humanities (ah! I used it myself!) from being lumped in with MOOCS, and other plans that seek turn higher education into a digital, impersonal experience.