Tag Archives: Defining Digital Humanities

How to Read Wikipedia


Wikipedia is no longer simply a open sourced encyclopedic reference. It is no longer just a website or a “thing,” it has also become a verb. If a person has a question or wants to know something, they are likely to “wikipedia it.”  When Wikipedia first emerged on the world (-wide-web) stage, educators and academics alike condemned it as non-academic and unreliable. However, today even these groups have, in part, reconciled with the notion of Wikipedia as a source of knowledge, reference, and a valuable tool for basic research.

At the same time it is more important than ever for teachers and students alike to understand the edit and content process and development of Wikipedia from behind the curtain. If users rely on Wikipedia as the first stop for information then essential questions should follow for responsible users: Who is creating the entry? Who is editing? What changes are being made, and why?

To answer these questions, users should go to the “History” tab to see a timeline of edits made and check the user profiles of those doing major edits. In addition links to page view statistics and revision history statistics (see media at top of blog post) can give a broader visual breakdown of edits and editors. This information can help the user to view editor profiles, assess their bias and credentials, the frequency of edits, and the general historiographical development of the entry. (I struggled with how best to use the “talk” tab.)

For example, with the Wikipedia entry for “Digital Humanities” reveals several interesting and important factors about its creation and development. The page began in 2006 as a definition with separate sections to explain DH objectives, lens, themes, and references. In 2007 and 2008 editors clearly believed DH to be focused on the computing aspect of DH project, with an entirely new section on Humanities Computing Projects (with three addition subsections). By 2012 the section headings seemed more settled, though expanded:

1 Objectives
2 Environments and tools
3 History
4 Organizations and Institutions
5 Criticism
6 See also
7 References
8 Bibliography
9 External links

The definition of DH also continued to shift, expand, contract–with many slight word changes that seemed to focus on the digital process and learning rather than the machine itself and programming. From 2014-2016 the open source, web-based nature of DH is clear and the discussion about DH as interdisciplinary and a transformative pedagogical development seems to be settled. The definition, application, and scope of DH continues to evolve. The basic organization of the page has remained although sections have been renamed, eliminated, split, and images have also been added.

Contributors and editors come from a wide range of persons connected to the Digital Humanities: librarians, professors, but also persons with no profile or title, like John Unsworth and Matilda Marie. There also appear to be institutional oversight and monitoring. In particular, there are several professors associated with the University of London such as Simon Mahoney and Gabriel Bodard, both of whom have profile and biographies attached.

Nearly 15% of all major edits are being made by digital humanists who have content specialization in the classics. There were also people more focused on computer science early on rather than academics focused on the humanities. The definition of “Digital Humanities” and particular phrases certainly generated the most controversy. That and the fact that the word “controversy” was actually added to one of the subheadings. It shows that DH and those who use it still struggle with defining its uses as well as the study of DH. What should a digital humanist be able to do, know, and to what end? These questions seem to drive issues that stir controversy.

This Wikipedia page reflects DH developments as a new area of intellectual inquiry, expression, and dissemination. But as a part of the larger theoretical exercise, analyzing this Wikipedia entry from the back end proved to be immensely eye opening. Not simply from the standpoint of understanding the “what” (its process and content evolution) but also deciphering the “who” behind Wikipedia. As author and software engineer David Auerbach states, “Wikipedia is a paradox and a miracle. . . . But beneath its reasonably serene surface, the website can be as ugly and bitter as 4chan and as mind-numbingly bureaucratic as a Kafka story. And it can be particularly unwelcoming to women.” As of 2013, women made up less than 10% of Wikipedia editors. As Ben Wright noted, “This disparity requires comment.” I would add that as digital humanists and educators, our awareness of this issue (and others such as the dominant Western-centric lens of Wikipedia) can be the first step in addressing these problems. We can also commit our efforts to being part of the solution.

Defining Digital Humanities

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For Module #1 we were tasked with reading five articles and completing three hands-on activities. All of these assignments encouraged me to delve deeper into the many meanings and iterations of what Digital Humanities (DH) represents.  As Amanda Visconti, a Digital Humanist, writes for the London School of Economics and Political Science, “We’re builders, tech users, teachers, and thinkers around digital tools exploring literature, history, and other cultural heritage fields” (http://bit.ly/29Ye3zb). She describes the heart of Digital Humanities as a professional field of people who do many different things and who expressed intellectual inquiry in a variety of ways. For me, one part of defining DH is to define “who” is a Digital Humanist. Visconti explains that someone involved in DH is not one but all of these things: builders, tech users, teachers, and thinkers. I concur. The second part of defining DH is the “what,” which is drastically more complex. In many ways, to answer the “what” is to trace the field’s history from Humanities Computing through the “digital turn” which has landed us in our current understanding of DH. Today there is an emphasis on analysis and experiential learning over production and data dissemination that suggests, as one author wrote, “To do digital history is to create a new framework, an ontology, through the technology for people to experience.” From quantitative to qualitative, from an ends to a means, from breadth to depth–seems to be the focus of DH post-2004.  However, DH does encompass a unique and distinctive skill-set that is both technical as well as pedagogical. So all of that to say, here is my best attempt to define Digital Humanities.

Digital Humanities is a subject that encompasses technology, critical thinking, creativity, and scholarship in a way that lives online and allows individuals and groups to participate as both producers and consumers. It is inherently multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and accessible but focuses on text and data related to the humanities and social sciences. DH also represents a paradigmatic shift — providing a new framework for the ways in which we ask questions, learn and transfer information, and simultaneously teach/learn. It is both a cycle and a matrix that maintains two common factors: 1) the use of mechanized media and 2) the study of the human condition. Beyond these two factors the manifestation of Digital Humanities, as a philosophy and methodology, is intentionally fluid and dynamic.