Well…are you? This question may seem odd at first blush, but it sits at the core of many DH practices. There are many names for this focus on methodology in the humanities and each of them carry a gradation of meaning and emphasis. Whether you are modeling, tinkering, prototyping, or experimenting, you are making something. That something manifests, performs, or organizes the knowledge produced by humanists. DH does not necessarily need a holistic definition, especially when there are excellent articles like this by Kathleen Fitzpatrick published in The Chronicle. I would rather emphasize the trend within the humanities toward a more generative mode. This is nothing new, of course. In Radiant Textuality (2001), Jerome McGann described a new generation of humanities scholars concerned with this maker sensibility:
The next generation of literary and aesthetic theorists who will most matter are people who will be at least as involved with making things as with writing texts.”
His words have proven to be prescient. There is now a creative and productive drive toward making things, whether they are archival quality TEI documents, 3D images, or Arduino projects. The humanities has been so good at producing discourse and entering in dialogue on issues that shape our lives, but the computational tools and technologies available today are radically changing the way we can engage with the public. This engagement is a material difference for humanists. Contributions to public archives and collections goes hand-in-hand with developing software and new platforms for further inquiry. When humanists contribute to a code base as well as a social or political discourse, the tools and technologies available begin to share a parallel evolution and better reflect the needs of the public at large. I can’t help but think of Gandhi’s phrase, “be the change you wish to see in the world” when I imagine what this kind of engagement means for the humanities. History, literature, and philosophy have all made (and continue to make) tremendous contributions to our understanding of social, cultural, and political issues, but DH holds the promise of making this understanding manifest in the world. We can make meaningful things. We can link our history to contemporary life in tangible ways and share it with the world.
But DH is not so grand as all that. The DH Maker Bus based in London, Ontario is a great example of exciting and publicly engaging research. The DH Maker Bus is a technology and computing hub on wheels that seeks to bring technology and training to those who might not have access otherwise. I should also add that this is a project that was conceived and implemented by Beth Compton, Kimberly Martin, Ryan Hunt, and James Graham during the course of their graduate studies. These are students who have taken up the mantra “Make a difference – #getonthebus” and they are receiving attention from the media and public attention for their efforts. The Maker Bus is far from a typical graduate student project. Perhaps this drive to make things is so vital because it is not traditionally associated with higher education. Ryan Hunt has written a great “Introduction to Maker Culture for Historians” that is definitely worth a read, but this maker culture really finds its roots with the tinkerers and inventors busily working in basements and garages. If you’ve ever seen the pages of Make Magazine, you’ll know what I mean. After you’ve spent a few hours tooling around Make Magazine, you’ll likely have a sense of the enchanting qualities of technology. After all, technology is so broadly appealing today because it is capable of so much, and it is increasingly accessible. Accessibility to technology empowers people, and empowering others produces new insights, which is a profoundly humanistic understanding. So, in the end, it is not the technology that really matters. There is a craft and art to all the ways DHers make things, but I suspect that the digital in digital humanities is only a means and not an end. The ways people experience this work and engage with the issues they present is a more tangible measure of success and it’s the change I’d like to see in the world.