Aaron Jaffe: DH and PR

On October 22nd, the Sawyer Seminar welcomed Professor Aaron Jaffe to speak on the state of digital humanities. Aaron Jaffe is a Professor of English and the director of the Commonwealth Center on Humanities and Society at the University of Louisville. His talk, entitled "Being, Online and -Off: The Work of H in the Age of D," shared his experiences as an advocate for the importance of the humanistic disciplines and explored the ways in which the digital humanities serve - or fail to serve - the interests of humanistic research.

If you're unfamiliar with the concept of digital humanities, I recommend "What Is Digital Humanities," a site that you can refresh to find varied (and often humorous) definitions of the term. According to Jaffe, the digital humanities involve the transcription of reality - via things like texts and images - into data and metadata, which is then translated into a visualization or tool that can be used by the public. 

One of Jaffe's more controversial claims is that, in his experience, "STEM" is a PR campaign based on devaluing modes of knowledge that don't fit into the STEM category - e.g. the humanities. STEM has obvious value to the modern university, Jaffe says; it costs money to do properly and, in turn, brings money back into the university. The digital humanites are to some extent an attempt to prove the value of the humanities in the shadow of STEM. Consequentially, the digital humanities often focus on technological gadgetry and not enough on the kinds of questions that truly drive humanities research. In order for the digital humanities to move forward in a positive direction, Jaffe says, these tools should be developed in order to serve the interests of faculty doing humanities research, not necessarily the interests of IT professionals. 

As an undergraduate majoring in the humanities, I am sympathetic to Jaffe's concern for the future of the humanistic disciplines in the university. As someone seeking a career in librarianship, I am very interested in the questions Jaffe raises regarding how to better develop digital tools - for both academic professionals and those outside the walls of the university. I lean towards a more optimistic view of the role of the digital humanities, in which computation and IT enable broader access to the essential questions raised by humanistic disciplines. A computer, in my opinion, can never replace a historian; however, digital projects and visualization tools can be a gateway to greater collaboration, collective intelligence, and information accessibility for the historian in all of us.

What is the role of digital methodology in the work of the humanities? Ultimately, I believe the greater question is: how can anyone possibly navigate the endless stream of 21st century intellectual content without them?