To paraphrase Shakespeare, that is indeed the question.
It’s a question I heard quite often after informing family and friends I would be moving to Ireland to undertake a Digital Humanities degree. At the time, I usually described it as “the intersection of computing and technology with the humanities,” which, while technically correct, doesn’t fully capture the range and diversity in this field and its tools.
In April 2011, at the Defining Digital Humanities program at Columbia University, Dan Cohen (then Professor of History and Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, presently founding Executive Director of the Digital Library of America) presented his own definition of Digital Humanities:
Digital Humanities is the use of digital media and technology to advance the full range of thought and practice in the humanities, from the creation of scholarly resources to research on those resources to the communication of results to colleagues and students.
While there isn’t, as of yet, any one standard definition of Digital Humanities, I quite like Cohen’s definition for a few reasons. Coming from a communications background and having a great deal of interest in media, I appreciate his inclusion of “media and technology” (emphasis mine). Many digital humanists tend to focus on the computing technology aspects of Digital Humanities, for good reason, but I believe media (particularly digital and social media) have an equally important role to play. Cohen’s definition also emphasizes “the full range of thought and practice” in the humanities. Digital Humanities is not limited to one particular area of research; indeed, the diversity and broad reach of Digital Humanities projects are part of why it is difficult to define the field.
Most importantly, though, by specifically highlighting communication with colleagues and students, Cohen has, in my opinion, narrowed in on two of the most essential components of Digital Humanities. At its core, Digital Humanities is a collaborative process, much more so than any other humanities area. Ongoing communication and collaboration with other researchers and academics is what helps drive Digital Humanities forward, as does the continued education of the next generation of digital humanists, those who will build upon the foundation laid by present-day collaborations.
In that same speech, Cohen also refers to Digital Humanities as “a moving target.” It’s an apt description of a field in constant motion, evolving with each new project. Digital Humanities is a field that will continue to change, just as the technologies used now won’t be the same in five, 10 or 15 years. As a result, a standard definition might remain elusive.
Perhaps the best we can hope for is a definition of Digital Humanities as it stands now, with the understanding that any definition is a fluid idea bound to change. I plan to revisit my idea of a Digital Humanities definition towards the end of the semester and the end of the year. We’ll see how my ideas (and Cohen’s, too!) hold up over time.