DH vs. DLA

I am writing this post in reference to an article referenced in DHnow’s editor’s choice section. It refers to Rafael Alvarado’s post entitled “Start Calling it Digital Liberal Arts.” In this article Alvarado responds to William Pannapacker’s February 18th article from The Chronicle entitled “Stop Calling It ‘Digital Humanities.’” In this post I hope to summarize some of Pannapacker’s argument, reference some of the more intriguing responses made to his article on The Chronicle website and by Alvarado, then provide some of my own thoughts on this issue.

Pannapacker’s article relates a popular conundrum surrounding digital humanities and Dhers: ”A persistent criticism of the digital-humanities movement is that it is elitist and exclusive because it requires the resources of a major university (faculty, infrastructure, money), and is thus more suited to campuses with a research focus.”[1] This research focus seems to discourage smaller liberal arts (more teaching-focused) colleges from pursuing the digital humanities. I had never thought of this before, but it seems about right, at least from my experience. I attended a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate degree and it was not until I arrived at Northeastern that I even heard the term. This might have been my own fault for being an oblivious undergraduate student, but even if my school engaged in DH projects, they were certainly not well organized. Pannapacker views this as a problem since liberal arts colleges might be more suited to utilize and experiment with new pedagogical approaches and research projects in the digital humanities than the more research-driven universities.

Pannapacker outlines nine suggestions to help liberal arts colleges to become active participants in the DH community. Most of his suggestions have to do with faculty members interested in DH being proactive about informing other faculty members, working with the administration, building internal DH communities, encouraging faculty-student collaborative projects, and becoming involved in practical guidance to undergraduate students seeking work outside of academia. These suggestions seem pretty straight forward, but there are two in particular that I feel require more attention and analysis. First, Pannapacker recommends liberal arts professors to “seek external partnerships.” One of the key roadblocks to DH in small liberal arts colleges is the lack of sufficient institutional financial support available to them. However, this is surmountable through cross-institutional collaborative work. A project might be more conceivable if it can receive financial support from three small liberal arts colleges whose professors are working on it than if the project is conceived and attempted “in house.”

Pannapacker’s “controversial” suggestion lies in his call to, “stop calling it ‘digital humanities.’ Or worse, ‘DH,’ with a knowing air.”[2] This returns to the issue of perceived exclusivity in digital humanities. But it goes even further than issues of institutional support and acceptance. It concerns the scope of “DH”—to use the term we know for now—and its projects. Digital Humanities have for quite some time stressed DH’s interdisciplinary nature. But, does the name “digital humanities,” necessarily—or if not necessarily, than perhaps de facto—exclude academics who are not involved in humanities disciplines? Pannapacker believes this is the case, and despite the “brand visibility” of the term, he feels in order to more accurately reflect the field, encourage more interdisciplinary support, and enable the participation of liberal arts colleges, the term “Digital Liberal Arts,” or DLA, is a much more appropriate term.  DLA not only covers a much broader array of academic disciplines than DH, but it also provides equal weight to the research and teaching dimensions of DH work.

But does the name really matter? From the nature of many of the article’s comments, it appears it does. The issue involving what to “rename” DH is the topic of most of these replies. Suggestions range from Binary Humanities, Computational Humanities, and Digital Scholarship, to “Computer Guided Inquiry and Creation,” but the sentiment is largely the same: the term “digital humanities” is not representational of the field. But again, I wonder whether the name for the field really matters. Will a simple name change from DH to DLA really open up the field to more participants as Pannapacker suggests? I think the simple answer is no. On the other hand, I do feel that is why Pannapacker provided nine suggestions rather than just the name change. The name change is only one part of the solution. One cannot just change the name without actively adapting the field to encapsulate and epitomize this transition at the levels of pedagogy, research, and institutional involvement.

I think this concern, in particular, is effectively addressed by Rafael Alvarado’s response post. Alvarado supports adopting the term digital liberal arts over digital humanities for three main reasons. First DLA is representative of arts and sciences, as well as disciplines in between, whereas DH appears limited only to humanities-based disciplines.[3]  The second and third reasons are closely tied together. The second refers the DLA’s explicit relation to the classroom, the lab, and the studio. It is not some higher research project removed from the classroom. Unlike how DH can be conceived, DLA is not just a method for scholarly “publication” (in quotes to imply the broadest definition of publication).  Third, DLA is equally concerned with research and pedagogy. This is very similar to the second point, but this aspect is concerned not only with the practical implications of teaching and researching DH, but the theoretical side as well.

I think therein lies the key issue in these posts. Digital humanities is an emerging and expanding field. More universities are recognizing it across the academy. Scholars are increasingly participating and collaborating on digital projects. It is even a catchy and notable “buzzword.” It is both descriptive and marketable. However, for a community that stresses openness, accessibility, and interdisciplinarity, perhaps it is now being limited by its terminology. Now I recognize that changing the name of the Digital Humanities to Digital Liberal Arts will not, and should not be the catchall solution to institutional and disciplinary resistance, yet I do believe that the term “Digital Liberal Arts” encompasses the overall vision and broad themes that DH should focus on addressing. DH needs to find a way to continue to break down traditional disciplinary boundaries. DH must strike a balance between research and pedagogy. Whether or not that means changing the name from DH to DLA is largely irrelevant—although I feel there are certainly advantages to it. Posts like Pannapacker’s and Alvarado’s are precisely the types of debates DH—or DLA, if you will—should be engaged in at the theoretical level. Even if the name DH remains, digital humanities must adopt the practical and theoretical implications and applications of Digital Liberal Arts.

But for the sake of argument, let’s compare the terms. Digital humanities gained popularity because it was marketable and connected the field to long established and respected fields in academia. Coined in 2004 in “A Companion to Digital Humanities,” by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, “digital humanities” represented a direct challenge to the term “humanities computing.” Notice that the change was from computing to digital, while the term “humanities” remained the same. This was because “digital” was seen to more accurately describe the various new methods, not just “computing,” applied to humanities research. This is important because it shows how the field of humanities computing expanded further than term described. It grew to include digital methods and practices that “computing” could not accurately convey. Therefore, as the field evolved, so did the name.

Now, before continuing in this line of argument, what does the term “humanities” signify? Traditionally, the core humanities subjects have been History, Linguistics, Literature, Performing Arts, Philosophy, Religion, and Visual Arts, whereas Liberal Arts refer to a much larger disciplinary pool.[4]  DH projects have increasingly begun to address topics that do not fall in these traditional designations of humanities. The Social Sciences and Sciences have simultaneously been creating digital projects and utilizing digital methods for research and analysis. Reflecting on both the evolution of the term “digital humanities” from “humanities computing” and the exclusivity of a strict definition of humanities subjects, does it not make sense that as the field has evolved to include much more than traditional humanities, the term to describe the field should do so to?

But some will argue that the reason why DH has stuck around is not necessarily because of its concrete definitive power, but instead because it is the most popular and catchy word to describe the field. A popular and catchy term is necessary in theorizing, publicizing, and marketing the work done in a particular field. That is why the term DH is valuable. It is known and it is marketable. It is also simple to say or talk about—in my opinion, this is why the term “Computer Guided Inquiry and Creation” could never catch on. But I feel DLA is just as catchy and marketable as DH. Both utilize the word digital (which has its own debate surrounding it[5]) and both are well-established terms to describe a varied group of academic disciplines. I only see two main differences. DLA is more inclusive of the various disciplines participating in the digital community, but DH is established whereas DLA is not. One of these differences can be easily addressed (the latter), whereas the former is irreconcilable due to static definitions. Accordingly, I agree that the term “digital humanities” must evolve and change to a more applicable and inclusive term. And at this point, I feel Digital Liberal Arts represents the most worthwhile contender to do so.


[1] William Pannapacker. “Stop Calling It ‘Digital Humanities.’” The Chronicle. February 18, 2013. Web. accessed February 24, 2013 <chronicle.com/>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rafael Alvarado. “Start Calling it Digital Liberal Arts.” The Transducer. Rafael Alvarado. Web. accessed February 24, 2013 <http://transducer.ontoligent.com/?p=1013&gt;.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_academic_disciplines#Humanities. Although from Wikipedia, this represents relatively common knowledge. I list this website for the reader to look to, if they so choose.

[5] One aspect of this debate is if we say “digital humanities,” does that necessarily mean we are calling all other humanities “analog,” which I just not true. On a more lighthearted note here is a joke: A DHer says to a friend, “I do digital humanities.” The friend responds, “So you use your fingers and toes?”


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About decampda

I am currently a third-year Ph.D. student in World History at Northeastern. I graduated in 2012 from Davidson College with a B.A. in History. My research focuses on the history of London after the Industrial Revolution with a particular attention on transportation and urbanization.

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