Day of Digital Humanities: Dissertation Edition

Day of Digital Humanities: Dissertation Edition March 27, 2012

I’m still in conference-recovery mode (see my post on this year’s ICFA to see part of why I was so jazzed), so this is a very brief attempt to engage in the #DayofDH conversation.

As you may know–especially if you read my personal narrative about how I found DH–I recently wrote and defended a dissertation from a traditional humanistic discipline that incorporates DH methods. Some of the tensions inherent in this enterprise were discussed at my defense.

So because my dissertation was a part of my daily life for the past, um, over a year, I’d say my daily work has usually had a DH component to it. If nothing else, I reflected on what it means to apply quantitative methods to expressive culture (fairy tales in my case), and what it means to try to combine quantitative and qualitative approaches to the same topic. I also keep up with a lot of DHers on Twitter, which has been important for my sense of the scholarly community because I’ve spent a good chunk of the past year in Estonia, where there’s not a ton of DH stuff happening as far as I can tell (though since I was so immersed in my diss, it’s entirely possible that I missed something or someone).

Other than some DH engagement through my dissertation or the internet (Twitter, blogging, reading other people’s blogs), my days tend to be filled with various things that support me in these endeavors. I love to cook and dance and run, and fortunately I’m able to fit these things in on an almost-daily basis. I revise my CV and look for jobs and counsel my friends who are also my younger folklore colleagues. Since I don’t have a family to look after, I can go on outrageous excursions–watching avant-garde dance or rock climbing or traveling to new places–that keep my mind and body fresh.

Today, however, I’m thinking about how to revise my introduction to my dissertation. During my dissertation defense, some of the more traditional humanists on my committee brought up some interesting points: newer does not equal better, everyone engages with data differently, and empirical data can help us articulate what’s at stake in research. I’ll tackle these ideas one by one.

First, my committee brought up the idea that newer is not always better. Folkloristics is a discipline obsessed with tradition; we tend to use traditionality as the measure of whether we want to study something in the first place. If you can’t prove that something is traditional, even if it’s an emergent tradition or something that is traditional to a tiny group of people, then folklorists would question why we’d want to study it. Somehow related is the fact that a lot of folklorists tend to be luddites; this is very chicken-or-egg in my mind. Is someone drawn to the study of tradition since they want to live a more traditional/old-school lifestyle, or is someone who studies tradition going to be more and more into the idea of incorporating what they study into their lifestyle? I doubt it’s as simplistic as either A or B, but it’s a trend I’ve noticed.

However, I’m one of a growing number of folklorists who think technology is great. I’m eagerly awaiting the day when we can pipe the internet straight into our heads. A lot of us are on Twitter now, and we blog, and discuss DH issues like open access and such. We don’t necessarily think new is always better than old, since our discipline is pretty concerned with the old (or new takes on the old), but I do think we have room for new things in folkloristics. My dissertation, by applying new approaches (DH and feminist/body theories) to old topics (fairy tales) participates in a dialogue on evaluating the role of the new and the old in expressive culture and scholarship thereon.

Second, one of my advisors brought up the idea that everyone engages with data differently. She liked a lot of the nifty-looking charts that I had to visually demonstrate which body parts were described the most in fairy tales, since it helped her understand what my thought process was while handling the data before writing about it. One of my other advisors, though, did not see the charts as adding much value to the reader’s experience. This conversation, we bemusedly noted at the defense, proved that different people handle data in different (and valid) ways. It may sound obvious, but it’s one of the reasons I think there’s a lot of room to do DH in folkloristics, since expressive culture is a vast field and you need to have different perspectives to understand what’s going on with these very complex materials.

Finally, we talked about the use of empirical data to reinforce the importance of the main argument or, in other words, to help us get back to what’s at stake. Yeah, pretty pictures are pretty to look at, and visualizations can help you empirically back up your claims. But when you are dealing with material that bridges the subjective and the objective–as I believe all culture does–then you need to have language for spanning these interpretive realms. So, one thing I think DH can do for a study is help scholars use empirical data to read the material differently, and to connect back to why we’re doing all this in the first place. And believe me, in a field like fairy tale studies where huge amounts of scholarship have already been done on just about every aspect of the topic, having a fresh approach is invaluable. Being able to offer an empirical perspective can help us ask questions about what really interested us in the topic in the first place.

As a folklorist, I am deeply aware that we are enmeshed in cultural forms that repeat and reiterate and vary over time and space. As someone with a lot of postmodern perspectives on things, I tend to view multiplicity as a bonus. Put these aspects of my identity together, and how could I not be in favor of DH and a multiplicity of ways to approach an interesting topic?

That’s all I have for #DayofDH ruminations. Now I need to get back to my dissertation revisions!

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