By: Kingsley Bolton
Editor, World Englishes
The term ‘digital humanities’ can be used to refer to a wide range of academic activities at the levels of research and publications, as well many other activities, including online university courses for the general public. Within academia, the term ‘digital humanities’ typically refers to the application of computational techniques to work in such subject areas as fine arts, cultural studies, history, linguistics, and literature. In wider perspective, however, it also refers to many other fields of study and methodologies, with one commentator recently noting that ‘digital humanities’ as a field has now become ‘large and increasingly indefinable even by those in its midst’, including ‘computational research, digital reading and writing platforms, digital pedagogy, open-access publishing, augmented texts, and literary databases […] media archaeology and theories of networks, gaming, and wares both hard and soft’ (Dinsman 2016).
The origins of the digital humanities can be traced back to various initiatives in ‘humanities computing’ in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it seems clear that the emergence of the field in its modern sense can be dated more from the late 1990s and early 2000s when the Internet, worldwide web, and related technology began to make an increasing impact on both society and academia. By the early the twenty-first century, it was then possible to make the claim that – in most societies worldwide – we were now living in an era of ‘media convergence’, where ‘media will be everywhere and we will use all kinds of media in relation to each other’ (Jenkins 2004). The influence of digital technology has massively influenced both the general society and academia, and its impact in the humanities has been both cerebral and tactile, with a shift from the world of books and print culture (McLuhan’s ‘Gutenberg galaxy’) to the electronic world of digital communication (and the era of a ‘global village’ and instantaneous electronic communication).
In my own university, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), a number of initiatives are underway in this field of activity. NTU Singapore is a leading Asian university, currently ranked 12th internationally in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, as well as being ranked ‘the world’s best young university’ (under 50 years old) by QS for the fifth consecutive year. Traditionally, major research strengths in NTU Singapore have been in Engineering and Science, and the addition of the Colleges of Humanities and Social Sciences date only from mid-2000s. Despite this, research and teaching in the humanities has grown greatly in recent years, as has interest in the field of digital humanities, including projects in anthropology, history, linguistics and literature. More specifically, these include individual projects on ‘Drugs across Asia’ (history/medicine); the ‘Open Multilingual Wordnet’ (linguistics); ‘Singapore literature in English’ (literary studies); and ‘Spatial Ethnography’ (digital arts and cultural identity); for details of these and other projects, see Varela et al. (2018), Matthews and Stanley-Baker (2018). Given NTU’s international standing as a leading engineering university, and the encouragement of interdisciplinary cooperation, it is likely that initiatives in the field of digital humanities will develop exponentially in the next few years.
Despite such advances, digital humanities in the academy, I would suggest, is only part of the picture, and one issue that appears relevant here is the extent to which academic publishing can keep pace with digital scholarship in the universities. The point here, surely, is that whereas digital technology is having a major impact on universities, it appears that most academic publishers are still stuck in the print paradigm to a far greater extent than they may wish to admit. On the surface, much is going digital in the world of academic publishing – the default medium for journals is increasingly in electronic form, not print issues, and some publishers are striving to use digital media to enhance their journal’s impact through social media of various kinds. Nevertheless, the content of most humanities journals remains the same, inasmuch as a literate style of academic discussion, with its premium on clear and concise argumentation, continues to dominate (despite genre variation) across most areas of history, linguistics and literature, etc. Whether this emphasis on carefully-wrought and honed literate discussion, which has an academic history in the English language dating back to at least the eighteenth century, will continue to be prized in the digital age remains to be seen.
Given the speed of technological change today, one might speculate about the extent to which the ‘academic article’ in the humanities might be reshaped by digital innovation – for example, the insertion of short film clips into textual discourse, the increased use of infographics, the sophisticated use of hyperlinks to connect text to multimodal materials. Even by using the somewhat mundane digital tools that we now have at our disposal, one can imagine very different forms of academic ‘text’, about to develop in the near future. And looking to the future, there well may be forms of digital communication about to emerge of which we, at present, have little ken, thus presenting a range of challenges connected to the sheer speed of technological development today. For us to succeed in meeting such challenges, however, perhaps the academic publishers themselves should also be considering ways in which they can work together with university faculty more proactively than in the past.
Much of academic publishing has traditionally relied on researchers to produce academic articles and books, and simply hand these over to publishers to print and promote. In order to produce the best results not only for research but also publishing, attitudes and approaches in both the academy and publishing will probably need to change. It appears very obvious that we are now in the early stages of the digital humanities, and, at this point, it might benefit the field if publishers approach their relationship with academics much more as a partnership, than was often the case previously (particularly with reference to possible business models for academic publications). By this, I simply mean that there will be increased opportunity in the future for the digitization of published academic material (not just in the humanities, but across disciplines) in very interesting and innovative ways, and it may well be advantageous for both parties (academics and publishers) to consider greater cooperation in developing these changes, particularly in exploring new modes of digitally-enhanced academic communication. Hypothetically, one way to move this forward might be for publishers to consider funding specific research projects on digital publishing with journal editors on the frontline of such activities. This would, however, require new thinking and new models of cooperation, as well as financing, on the part of publishing corporations, which would involve them more actively in promoting innovation in this field, and possibly investing much more in research and development in their own field than in the past. The challenge of the digital humanities, then, is not just for academics to deal with, but also for the publishing houses themselves to consider, to adapt to, and to innovate, in order to achieve the best results for all.
Disman, M. (2016). The digital in the humanities: An interview with Ted Underwood. The Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved from https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/digital-humanities-interview-ted-underwood/
Matthews, G., & Stanley-Baker, M. (2018). Digital humanities at NTU. Retrieved from http:// www.soh.ntu.edu.sg/NewsnEvents/Pages/Digital-Humanities-at-NTU.aspx
Varela, M. E., Nanetti, A., & Stanley-Baker, M. (2018), Digital humanities in Singapore. In L. Haipeng, et al. (Eds.), Digital humanities and scholarly research trends in the Asia-Pacific. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
Kingsley Bolton is Professor of English Linguistics in the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is Co-Editor of the Wiley journal, World Englishes.