Three typical conflicts between DH and ‘Normal Humanities’

In this post, I wanted to name the three most important sources of conflict between DH and non-DH people, according to me. There would probably be many more things one could mention, but I wanted to discuss those three to show one thing: The first one is (almost) completely avoidable and the second and third ones nicely show the contradictory nature of thoughts which cause conflicts between Digital and ‘Normal’ Humanists.

Disclaimer: Since they are written up by someone in the DH, it could sound to you like I’m saying it’s the NH’s (Normal Humanist’s) fault but that’s not at all what I’m trying to say. (Remember I feel like I’m half-NH myself anyway. And see the Epigrammetry discussion of the D and the H.) I’m just starting from the arguments I get thrown at me (thus from the Normal Humanists’ perspective) and respond why I think they’re not universally valid (DH perspective). However, it would work just the same if you turned these whole discussions around. So what I’m really trying to say is that both sides sometimes create mental conflicts by overthinking which really aren’t there or needn’t be and the supposed ‘conflicts’ really are just misunderstandings.

The misunderstanding: Conflicts from not getting eachother’s issues in collaborative projects

This is a source of conflict which should be minimalized in cases where the DH person actually comes from the field the collaboration partner comes from (as it should be, in my opinion). However, I know that this often isn’t enough especially as DH people tend to move further and further away from their discipline of origin the longer they work in the DH. Also, people just tend to be so wrapped up in their own problems that they can become blind to what the other person wants. However, I think this is the most avoidable source of conflict between DH and non-DH people.


The ‘DH is not research’ opinion: Normal Humanists not accepting that DH is a scientific contribution and DH people are researchers too

Nobody wants to be seen as a service minion who is at somebody else’s command or be told that their research is not an actual contribution. Sometimes this still happens in Academia because that’s how it works. But these situations can happen an awful lot to DH people and are very degrading for the DH people when they do. It also shows a lack of respect on the part of some collaboration partners (who probably won’t get another collaboration in the future because so many people want to do DH projects / get digital people in on their projects that digital people are more and more free to choose the most interesting and sympathetic collaboration partners). I’m not saying every NH person is like this, I’m just stating that there are, in fact, people who think like this and that this is a very hurtful struggle DH people have to go through regularly.

It shows a lack of understanding for the nature of DH work and an unwillingness to acknowledge that a digital project couldn’t be done without them. While this is phrased like “A Normal Humanist reproaches me that what I, as a DH person do, is not ‘research’ and I feel excluded” you could also phrase it the following way as “DH have it easier (even though or because what they do is not classical Humanities research)”, which is the next point – this time coming more from a NH point of view.


The ‘DH have it easier’ argument: ‘Normal’ Humanists feeling that DH people and their work get valued higher than NH nowadays

I want to share some personal stories here (not naming names and without details, of course). I have endured quite a few more or less ad personam attacks against myself and my work from people who clearly didn’t understand (and didn’t even try to understand) what I was doing, didn’t care but still attacked me just because what I do counts as DH.

Also, when DH people get criticized for not having enough theory and get to hear how easy life must be when you can always point to prgragmatic reasons and nice practical results. Well, let me tell you from my personal research that I feel I have to do much more theory around my practical work than many ‘Normal Humanists’ do because I know all my methods will get criticized a lot. If my theory isn’t as close to perfect as possible, I know I’m likely to get torn apart when presenting in front of non-DH people. And I, for one, don’t want to choose the easy way and never leave the DH community. I also feel like half of me is a ‘Normal Humanist’ and I want to do work which pleases both DH and non-DH communities. But yeah, maybe some people get by with less theory. I’m just saying, it’s not like we are free from all judgement and peer-review in the DH.

Non-DH people are disappointed that their work can sometimes seem to count less nowadays. And it is true. I also have often felt that a project was hyped just because it was digital even though it obviously wasn’t very ‘deep’.

But what non-DH people also don’t see: While you are busy writing up your dissertation, I had to learn multiple new technologies before I could even start. Even though I’d already worked in the DH at least 1,5 years before even starting my PhD and had already done a certificate where I learned all the basics. Still, a good part of the first year was spent (“lost”?) learning new technologies and familiarizing myself with the discourse around them.

This in addition to the getting a grip on the non-digital part of my topic as well. At this point, some non-digital colleagues had already written well over 100 pages of their PhD. Also, as my understanding of the tech parts grew, most of my early work became completely obsolete. This probably happens to anybody during the PhD regardless of digital or not, but still.

It’s not like we always “just have it easier” in the DH. Few of us came knowing all those technologies when we first joined the DH community. Many of us are not ‘naturally gifted’ at tech. We worked hard to learn these technologies. We were just like any other Normal Humanist before our “conversion” (which involved lots of labour in many cases). All this studying to learn digital skills aside from work, early in the morning before work, in the evenings after work or on the weekends. I’ve done it all. And believe me, I am far from done yet.

There are so many more things I have to learn. If I want good long-term job chances, I need to get quite good at one programming language. I think I have more programming skills than many people in the DH now. But I am afraid that it won’t be enough anymore in a few years, now that there is formal education in DH available. Being good at at least one programming language will be an essential part of the game in a few years, at least that’s my prognosis. And I wasn’t one of the lucky students who now are fed all of these things during their study programme. I learnt most of it at home by myself. And I can’t just stop learning now that I know the most important stuff. These are aspects that ‘Normal Humanists’ don’t see when they claim us DH people have it easier.



I guess what I’m trying to say with this post is that neither “the DH have it easier” nor “only Normal Humanities is real research” are universally valid points. DH people have their own challenges and DH research should be acknowledged as important reserach contributions, not only to their own field but also for the NH fields they add to.

On the other hand, I also want to acknowledge that NH people probably have a point when they say that they feel “DH have it easier” or “our research is worthless nowadays when it’s not digital”. It seems to have gotten more difficult to push a research project through when there are no digital aspects. But, my dear NH friends, also be aware that – at least from what I’ve heard – we’ve already reached the point where granting institutions don’t want you to ‘label’ all your research as DH only so you get a grant.

If you don’t have any digital skills, be bold in your non-digital research and if it’s really good, you will get paid for it. On the other hand, if you apply for a digital project, the digital should be really good.  I think that this problematic point where you can only get funded with a digital project or a project which pretends to be digital are over now anyway.

Mabye this is going to be enough to soften the aggression which can sometimes be present between DH and NH though I’m often not sure how I am supposed to have provoked this just by existing. (I recently gave a (digital) talk in front of NH people which ended in a “DH versus NH” bloodbath, which I found really disturbing to be frank.)

Well, I would love to hear about your experiences with these issues. Also let me know if I missed something.


the Ninja

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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