How I Found the Digital Humanities: A Personal Narrative

How I Found the Digital Humanities: A Personal Narrative January 7, 2012

I sorta found the digital humanities by accident. Or rather, they found me.

But before I launch into that story, I want to remark on the significance of personal narratives in both daily life and disciplinary identities. I learned from my mentor Sandra Dolby, Professor Emerita of Folklore at Indiana University, that personal narratives are told to entertain and educate, but they also serve much deeper functions in social life. Telling a personal narrative is an invitation to intimacy: the teller offers up information about her worldview, politics, and social positioning.

The stories we tell that become part of our personal repertoires, rehearsed and formulaic, help define us to ourselves and to others. In the shifting world of digital humanities, where definitions and goals of the movement are still in flux, this is something important to keep in mind.

Back to my story. I was in the early stages of figuring out how exactly to implement the project I’d chosen for my dissertation: analyzing gender and the body in classical European fairy tales. I knew I wanted to bring in feminist theory, gender studies, and theories of the body, which folklorists have largely neglected to utilize. I was certain that bringing these interdisciplinary theories into dialogue with folkloristic theories would be very productive, and would help illuminate the meanings of fairy tales, which have been so persistent and pervasive in Western culture for the last few centuries. I also knew that I wanted an empirical dimension to my project–but how?

My first idea would’ve been terribly grueling. Once I’d selected my 233 texts to analyze, I decided to count the mentions of bodies and bodies parts by hand. Oldschool. Pencil and paper. “One nose. Two ears.” Etc. That would’ve taken foreeeever.

Luckily, my friend and colleague Scott Weingart had a better idea. Why not just make a database? That way, the computer can count the body instances, and also run simple statistics, and by the way there’s this cool thing called digital humanities that is all about this kind of research and will have more resources!

We collaborated on how to set up a database (actually, we ended up using a spreadsheet for simplicity’s sake), and then I hand-coded the bloody thing, which took a frustratingly long time, but saved a lot of time in terms of computation and analysis. On the plus side, spending that much time with my data helped me to really get a feel for it; I knew we’d be getting all kinds of cool numbers out of it when I finished coding, but it was quite helpful to subjectively experience the preponderance of certain kinds of body parts in my data (lots of people in French fairy tales fall to their knees begging for mercy, for instance).

But as soon as we started pulling out data… wow. It was really fascinating to see how many of the bodies described in fairy tales are young rather than old; how many more times beauty is mentioned with women rather than with men, and so on. The collaborative aspect of the project was also very cool, and it taught me a lot about how disciplinary experts can work together to contribute to knowledge that enhances both their fields.

In addition to the papers I delivered solo at folklore conferences, Scott and I gave papers at Digital Humanities 2011 and the 2011 meeting of the American Folklore Society. Both were well-received, to say the least–our Digital Humanities paper won the Paul Fortier Prize!

Without rehashing all of my dissertation work, I can summarize my encounter with the digital humanities as extremely productive (plus DH folks are some of my favorite people to follow on Twitter!). The overall thrust of my narrative seems to be: I wanted to do something, wasn’t quite sure how, and the digital humanities provided me with both a solution and inspiration to do more work along these lines (this is, incidentally, one of the barest narrative structures known to folklorists: lack and lack liquidated in the words of Vladimir Propp and Alan Dundes). I don’t know yet what my next project will be–perhaps an online ethnography? a crowd-sourced interpretation of fairy tales? an online archive of traditional dance cultures?–but I do know that I’m in the digital humanities for good.

I’ll close this post with a question: what do other digital humanities scholars’ personal narratives look like? How did the rest of you discover, invent, or stumble upon the field? Maybe this is just my ethnographic training speaking up, but I’d really love to collect and assemble our scholarly personal narratives. I think it’d provide a fascinating glimpse of the field’s contours, and if archived in public webspace, it could also help insiders find potential collaborators and outsiders to better understand what we do (and possibly join in).

Update: yes, I’ve seen Pannapacker’s Come To DH Moment piece. I’d love to see a more coherent narrative explaining someone’s “come to DH moment” though perhaps a different venue is needed to collect these narratives?

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