What’s in a Name? DH vs. DLA

Since February, I’ve been wrestling with William Pannapacker’s Chronicle piece about digital humanities, in which he suggests we should call it digital liberal arts.

On the one hand, I am all for inclusivity: if we want to thoughtfully integrate technology and digital projects into liberal arts classrooms, we need to think across disciplines, between disciplines: all over the curriculum. On smaller campuses, with smaller staffs, it makes sense for all teaching librarians/instructional technologists to be fluent in the digital.

On the other hand, digital humanities is a THING, a discipline, a frame of reference. For students who want to move onto graduate school, understanding this THING, this discipline becomes more important to participate in the conversations underway at centers like CHNM and Scholars’ Lab. Digital humanities as a THING has particular grant opportunities; it’s a discipline in its own right. It is also has a history we can trace back to the 1980s and to humanities computing; this history, this heritage impacts how conversations happen, who gets included in these conversations, and shapes important debates like #transformdh to trace back structural decisions that impact what has been digitized, what gets recognized, and how the current debates get framed. That context, that backstory is equally value, and extremely important. As a [recovering] historian, this backstory matters; to understand where we are, we need to know where we’ve been.

I work at a liberal arts college. I graduated from a liberal arts college. I need a button that reads ‘I <3 liberal arts colleges’; they are high touch educational experiences for the lucky students who attend them. In our current age of pronounced market segmentation within higher education, it’s important to realize that the context in which we practice librarianship is important and impacts what’s possible, what we can do, and what we should do. Many liberal arts colleges represent the best of higher education; small, interactive classes, summer research opportunities, diverse student bodies, generous financial aid, and dynamic communities. And given the particular organizational strengths and values that liberal arts colleges possess that Pannpacker points to in the piece, "…DH is not a "disruption"—it is an enhancement of the core methods of an ideal liberal-arts education."

I agree that liberal arts colleges need not create smaller, ‘scaled-down’ versions of a digital humanities centers found at places like UCLA; liberal arts colleges have an opportunity to build on their successful educational experiences of small classes and close collaborations with faculty to produce original research. Keep doing more of that, I say, just in the digital context.

Liberal arts colleges struggle to find ways to sustainably support these digital initiatives, but I am confident that we will forge new paths leveraging collaborations with faculty, technologists, and librarians While pushing scholarship towards the digital, I also hope that these collaborative teams can consider the history and the context what makes these ventures so exciting, and participate in the conversations that are happening in the digital humanities at research institutions to broaden the field/discipline’s horizons towards the next phase after ‘digital humanities,’ just as practicionters pushed humanities computing into new realms. Who knows what how ‘dh’ as we know it will be identified in five, ten years, but I do think ‘digital liberal arts’ can and will inform the path towards the next horizon.

Either way, in my practice, I will toggle between ‘dh’ and ‘dla’ with equal enthusiasm and care, as the terms of digital scholarship change and evolve into the next big thing.