A few months back, I gave a lunchtime talk called “Digital Humanities: Singular or Plural?” My title was in part a weak joke driven primarily by brain exhaustion. As I sat at the computer putting together my remarks, which were intended to introduce the field, I’d initially decided to title them “What Is Digital Humanities?” But then I thought “What Is the Digital Humanities?” sounded better, and then I stared at the screen for a minute trying to decide if it should be “What Are the Digital Humanities?” And in my pre-coffee, underslept haze, I honestly couldn’t tell which one was correct.
At first this was just a grammatical mixup, but at some point it occurred to me that it was actually a useful metaphor for something that’s been going on in the field of late. Digital humanities has gained prominence in the last couple of years, in part because of the visibility given the field by the use of social media, particularly Twitter, at the Modern Language Association convention and other large scholarly meetings. But that prominence and visibility have also produced a fair bit of tension within the field—every “What is Digital Humanities?” panel aimed at explaining the field to other scholars winds up uncovering more differences of opinion among its practitioners. Sometimes those differences develop into tense debates about the borders of the field, and about who’s in and who’s out.
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Kathleen Fitzpatrick is a professor of media studies at Pomona College