How DH Has Helped Me Make Sense of My Field
Early in my graduate studies, when I took the Digital Humanities Colloquium at Boston College, the professor had us read a series of definitions of “the Digital Humanities” to introduce us to the scope of the work we might be doing. Many of these definitions rightly focused on interdisciplinarity, computational analysis, multimedia pedagogy and scholarship, and the need for an umbrella term to encourage institutional support and funding. One definition, however, continues to resonate with me as it is particularly germane to my own field of medieval studies: “[u]ltimately, what sets DH apart from many other humanities fields is its methodological commitment to building things as a way of knowing.” This emphasis on DH as primarily a methodology of building things clarifies what I can do with DH. When conceptualizing a new DH project, I begin by asking myself, “what am I hoping to build to help me know something new about this topic?”
Often, the answer to that question has something to do with the materiality of the topic. As a translator in medieval studies, I have spent untold hours poring over manuscripts and textual editions, navigating the webs of cramped handwriting spilling across pages and the matrices of the apparatus criticus. Text encoding, the DH work I have done with such manuscripts, has given me a deeper insight into the physicality of the scribal tradition and allows me to represent the complexity of the folios. Because DH prioritizes the creation of new material, I get to know the material culture of my field more closely than I might have otherwise.
This digital methodology of “building” gives me a different way of knowing the content and the context of the material I study. Both formats, manuscript and XML file, have their affordances for marking intertextual material, line breaks, section headers, etc., and the painstaking encoding process creates an intimacy with the text which more traditional humanistic scholarship may not allow. In many ways, the detailed encoding (done in an XML file) feels like the practice of copying a manuscript, and the final result visually complements the original folio.
DH methodologies ask me to think about the medieval world in a new way, demanding that I consider how to transfer the technology of the manuscript into digital technology. As I build a digital manuscript of my own, I can almost see through the lens of the scribes themselves, how they constantly referred back to their source text to produce a faithful copy. Digital humanities offers a new entry point to the field and literally allows me to continue the tradition I study, and it doesn’t hurt that the end result is really cool, too!
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