#beyondDH: The sudden but consequential rise of the Computational Humanities

This week, something happened. Something that I did not expect, at least not so fast and not with so much momentum. But now that it happened, it feels a bit like things fell into place that have been sitting at the edge for a while. So what did actually happen? This post is my very personal and limited view on the events that lead to the emergence of the Computational Humanities community that will have a conference and very likely a journal.

Last Friday, we had the Second Digital Humanities Day at the Ruhr University Bochum. This event went probably unnoticed by most, since the DH2019 took place at the same time. But for me, it marked an important step that I had been working towards for a long time. It showed that the Digital Humanities had found their place at my university, which is not exactly know to be a driving force in the field. However, towards the end of the event, my colleague Jörg Plassen raised an important issue: He wondered if talking mainly about digital editions and research databases did not take the cutting edge off of the digital humanities. For him, advancing the application of computational methods in the humanities seemed to be a core promise of DH that somehow got lost along the way of teaching fellow humanists the TEI. In my response, I suggested that instead of defending a core of “proper” DH against its proliferation, we might as well distinguish between the “digital humanities” in a wide sense and the “computational humanities” as a more specialized, more radical sub- or neighbor discipline.

At the time, I was unaware that the university of Heidelberg held a summer school on “computational humanities” this week. I only learned about it through a tweet by Christopher Nunn about Michael Piotrowski’s talk of the same title.

The organizers of the conference seem to use the term synonymous with Digital Humanities, but they still stress its quantitative aspects:

Computational (or Digital) Humanities (DH) have recently become a hot topic inside and outside academia. DH and its subfields synergise quantitative and computational methods from the areas of computer science, statistics, or computational linguistics with qualitative research in the humanities and social sciences.

2nd Heidelberg Computational Humanities Summer School

Around the same time, Folgert Karsdorp wrote a tweet that gained a lot of momentum:

In a short time, several people expressed interest in the idea. Apparently more people were feeling that the DH landscaped lacked a venue where one could discuss methodological details of computational methods without worrying about being “too techie” (using the words of Natalia Mclean). At the same time, people did not want to be confined to venues like the ACL. This reminded me of something I had read from “the other side of the aisle,” the Computational Social Sciences. A while ago, Ryan Gallagher suggested a “Text as Data” journal that would allow for discussions of computational methods of text analysis outside computer science venues:

Ryan entered the discussion, and Folgert seemed to be determined to make something of the momentum his initiative had built:

The next thing I saw was another tweet by Folgert, who had gone from tweet to community in an incredibly short time:

While I am writing this, the page already lists over 50 supporters. So how could this grow so quickly? If there is a need for this kind of community, where did it hide until now? Of course, there have been similar communities, most notably and most influentially the “Computational Literary Studies.” But there is computational work in the DH beyond the narrow field of literary studies. And whether this initiative is successful in the end or not, I feel that suddenly it is possible to express a vague, hardly tangible unease that accompanied the Digital Humanities for a while.

Again and again, one question would pop up: What’s the future of the Digital Humanities? Will they remain an independent discipline, or be absorbed by the humanities? Depending on the perspective, the latter option could be hoped for as the ultimate transformation of the humanities, or feared as the diffusion of one’s field into an amorphous label attached to any work in the humanities that is powered by information technology—and, what isn’t? The discipline-vs-transformation debate seemed to be an ongoing mystery that triggered various prophecies.

Now I feel I found my personal answer: The future of the humanities will be digital. The discipline will be computational.

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#beyondDH: The sudden but consequential rise of the Computational Humanities by Frederik Elwert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

4 thoughts on “#beyondDH: The sudden but consequential rise of the Computational Humanities”

  1. Just two observations and a “well done”:

    1. The “digital humanities” followed the “computational humanities” or “humanities computing” by decades. See the history of ACH, the US constituent organization in ADHO. Whether your definition is the same as was used in the 1980s is unclear to me, but it’s something to consider: Are you rolling back the clock or crafting something new?

    2. DH has widened the scope of what was CH/HC, as evidenced by the journal name-change from Literary and Linguistic Computing to Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. This big-tent mentality may be dulling DH’s computational edge. Is that part of the motivation for your work towards a specifically computational discipline?

    It is good to see this idea get some traction. I encourage you to keep moving forward since DH will have to—at some point—address the divergence in its ranks.

    1. Thanks for your comment! To be honest, it is not even my specific intention to “work towards a specifically computational discipline.” In most of my work, I am rather working on incorporating digital scholarship into mainstream humanities, or more specifically into my discipline, Religious Studies. What I am describing here is something that I am observing as a bystander, but something that I feel has a momentum that might have a lasting impact on the field, because it reacts on tensions that I have observed in the past. If this is something to be welcomed or to be criticized lies in the eye of the beholder. And of course predictions are subject to uncertainty, especially when they concern the future.

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