Digital Humanities—Ways Forward; Future Challenges

Honoring David Kammerling Smith and the Digital Public Sphere; Acceleration?; Digital Humanities for the People(?); Infrastructure as Privilege; Computation, Cultures, and Communities; Digital Humanities and Generational Shift

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
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Sally Debra Charnow Professor, Hofstra University, USA sally.d.charnow@hofstra.edu

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Jeff Horn Professor, Manhattan College, USA jeff.horn@manhattan.edu

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Jeffrey S. Ravel Co-director, Comédie-Française Registers Project, USA ravel@mit.edu

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Cindy Ermus Director, University of Texas, USA cindy.ermus@utsa.edu

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David Joseph Wrisley Professor, NYU Abu Dhabi, UAE djw12@nyu.edu

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Christy Pichichero Associate Professor, George Mason University, USA cpichich@gmu.edu

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David Kammerling Smith Professor, Eastern Illinois University, USA dksmith@eiu.edu

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Abstract

Have digital tools and methods accelerated the rate of scholarly production over the last 20 years? If so, has this acceleration been beneficial for scholarship? This article considers examples of accelerated historical scholarship as well as calls for a “slow history.” Through an analysis of the author's own experiences with the digital humanities, it examines the advantages and disadvantages of digital technologies in the field of history. It concludes that online resources and digital technologies have expanded the archive for the historian and created new ways to reach other specialists and the general public. Nevertheless, historical scholarship must still rely on carefully crafted, well-argued prose whose production cannot be accelerated by new digital technologies, although recent developments in the field of artificial intelligence may ultimately challenge this situation.

In recent decades, the field (or, at times, discipline) of digital humanities (DH) has revolutionized the scholarly profession and beyond—and with good reason. Seen at times as a democratizing force, DH has led to the creation of an increasing number of open- access databases and scholarly publications, the launching of massive archival digitization initiatives, and the development of numerous digital tools that help streamline the work of the academic researcher, student, and educator. In many ways, then, its benefits are manifest. Yet, recent years have also begun to reveal numerous problems that could influence various aspects of our trade as well as what—and how—information will be available in the future. This article discusses some of the advantages and disadvantages of DH and invites the reader to reflect on what we can do to help mitigate these problems.

Exciting new modes of digital scholarship have emerged in recent years, providing us with expanded windows onto the past. This process has been accelerated by somewhat democratized ways of digitizing and analyzing source material. A main issue of contemporary knowledge production using digitized sources is how power can so easily be reinscribed into access to archives. The choice to digitize collections, even the existence of collections themselves, creates a great opportunity for research but also runs the risk of reinforcing the privilege and worldviews that have shaped and continue to shape the very processes of digitization and digitalization. Drawing on examples of Western and non-Western digital scholarship, this article argues that, although the digital facilitates greater public knowledge of collections, when it comes to decolonizing our research subjects, it also introduces significant layers of complexity.

This article advances an analysis of the development and state of critical digital humanities. It posits two modalities for this approach to digital humanities (DH). The first is a modality of inward-looking, functional self-critique that comprises a rethinking of computational genesis stories, logics and methods, institutions and infrastructures, and digital capitalism, and the second is an outward-looking critique best understood as a form of situated sociopolitical engagement that embraces epistemic and social justice projects that are decolonial, anti-racist, inclusive, collaborative, and multilingual. Through these analyses, the article offers a vision of critical digital humanities in its mission to critique the ideologies, social inequities, and epistemological hierarchies that are built into technological products and computational logics and that are concomitantly fostered by knowledge- creation industries of universities, corporations, governments, and the GLAM[R] sector. In this way, the article shows how critical digital humanities helps us to envision the role that DH can play in processes of recovery, reparations, emancipation, and community-building.

Drawing upon over 20 years as Editor-in-Chief of H-France, I argue that the scholarly profession, established in Cold War era, pre-digital institutions, has only begun to adapt to the transformations introduced by the global digital humanities. A generational shift is currently underway as younger scholars more natively adept with digital technologies use their skills and forms of new media to press for changes in hiring and tenure practices, to demand greater progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues, and to insist that the academy confront the collapse of academic positions in the humanities and provide training for and recognition of alternative career paths. I call upon professional organizations to undertake difficult conversations and take leadership in reshaping professional organizations for a post–Cold War, digital age, especially in terms of funding priorities. Scholarly organizations will best gain influence through collaboration.

Contributor Notes

Sally Debra Charnow is Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at Hofstra University. She is the author of Edmond Fleg and Jewish Minority Culture in Twentieth-Century France (Routledge, 2021) and Theatre, Politics, and Markets in Fin-de-Siècle Paris: Staging Modernity (Palgrave, 2005); and the editor of Artistic Expressions and the Great War: A Hundred Years On (Peter Lang, 2020). She is currently (2023–2024) the Co-President of the Society for French Historical Studies. Email: sally.d.charnow@hofstra.edu

Jeff Horn is Professor of History at Manhattan College. He is the author or editor of nine books, most recently A People's History of the World since 1400 and Voices of a People's History of the World since 1400 (Oxford University Press, 2022). He is currently (2023–2024) Co-President of the Society for French Historical Studies. His next project, The Terror: Revolutionary Government and the French Revolution, is scheduled to be published by Polity Press in 2025. Email: jeff.horn@manhattan.edu

Jeffrey S. Ravel studies the history of French and European political culture from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. He co-directs the Comédie-Française Registers Project, a collaborative digital humanities venture between the Bibiliothèque-musée of the Comédie-Française theater troupe, MIT, NYU, the University of Victoria, the Sorbonne, and the Université Paris Nanterre. He has co-edited an online, open-access, bilingual volume of essays inspired by this project: Databases, Revenues, and Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680–1793 (MIT Press, 2020). He also directed the Visualizing Maritime History Project, a digital archive of two maritime history collections conserved by the MIT Museum. Email: ravel@mit.edu

Cindy Ermus is Director of Medical Humanities and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She specializes in the history of science, medicine, and the environment, especially catastrophe and crisis management, in eighteenth-century France and the Atlantic World. She has also published on digital history and the future of the historical profession. She is the author of The Great Plague Scare of 1720: Disaster and Diplomacy in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Cambridge University Press, 2023) and Urban Disasters (Cambridge University Press, 2023), and she is co-founder of and executive editor for the open- access, peer-reviewed publication Age of Revolutions (https://www.ageofrevolutions.com; Twitter @AgeofRevs). Email: cindy.ermus@utsa.edu

David Joseph Wrisley is Professor of Digital Humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi. His research interests include comparative approaches to medieval literature in European languages and Arabic, digital spatial approaches to corpora, neural methods for handwritten text recognition across writing systems, and open knowledge community-building in the Middle East where he has lived and researched since 2002. He co-founded two digital humanities training events, the Digital Humanities Institute – Beirut in Beirut in 2015 and the Winter Institute in Digital Humanities in Abu Dhabi in 2020. Email: djw12@nyu.edu

Christy Pichichero is Associate Professor of History, French, and African and African- American Studies at George Mason University. She is the author of The Military Enlightenment: War and Culture in the French Empire from Louis XIV to Napoleon (Cornell, 2017). Her articles on critical race theory, Afro-feminist microhistories, French exceptionalism, and other topics have appeared in journals such as PMLA, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, French Historical Studies, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, and H-France. She is a public intellectual featured on National Public Radio, NBC News, Forbes, The Hill, and other media outlets. Email: cpichich@gmu.edu

David Kammerling Smith is Professor of History at Eastern Illinois University. He has been associated with H-France in various capacities from 1995 until the present and served as H-France's Editor-in-Chief from 2001 to 2021. Email: dksmith@eiu.edu

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