What does it mean to do the humanities?

Feb 9th, 2011 | By | Category: Digital Humanities

I’m a digital humanities scholar, but I have a bit of a quandary. I think I know what “the digital” is (mostly) but I’m having a harder and harder time finding a definition for the humanities that I’m comfortable with. This discomfort sometimes manifests itself in unfortunate and anti-social ways, as when a colleague mentions doing something “in a humanistic way,” and I blurt out, “yeah, but what the (expletive) does that mean?”

This is not a way to make, or keep, friends among a group of humanities scholars.

So, to try to relieve my frustration and anxiety, I’d like to bring this question up openly and honestly, and try to discuss it. Techstyle seemed like a good place to do this. For you, what does it mean to do the humanities? I’d love to hear your answers in the comments. To get us started, let me throw a few possible answers to this question out there and explain why I don’t find them completely satisfying.

The humanities are defined by a canon

Certainly this is a traditional, stable definition, one embraced by many humanities departments (implicitly, in their course offerings and hiring decisions, if not explicitly). The humanities are the traditions that read and critique “literature.” The problem with this, of course, is that most of the methods for defining such a canon seem, to me at least, difficult to justify, even using our own body of theory. The canon as defined implicitly, by the offerings of English dept. survey courses, seems to be fading further and further into the past, and its composition seems more and more arbitrary in the face of the flood of information faced by our students every day. The canonical approach seems to exclude humanities scholars like me, who study new and evolving texts like Wikipedia, and often seems to ignore analysis of much of the culture of the 20th century. Alex Reid does a good job of arguing against this sort of canonical definition of the humanities in his discussion of what he calls the “strong definition of the digital humanities.” Furthermore, as tools like Google Books ngrams show, the literary canon is unlikely to be a stable preserve for any one set of disciplines’ study much longer.

The humanities are concerned with the reading of texts

Perhaps instead of using a canon to define the humanities, we might instead use a methodology: the critical reading. The humanities are the traditions that read texts, and everything can be a text! The problem here, for me, is that reading, as a method, seems ill defined at best. More practically, in my study of Wikipedia, I quickly discovered practical limitations to the technique of “reading” when dealing with large and constantly moving texts! In practical terms, Wikipedia cannot be read, and yet texts like Wikipedia are likely to make up an increasingly important part of our cultural landscape going forward. If the humanities is tied to methods that struggle to make sense of these texts, where does that leave us? I have, of course, found methods that I find mostly effective for studying Wikipedia, but I’ve had to borrow these from the social sciences. This sometimes makes me feel like a second-rate anthropologist (and I know I’m not the only digital humanist with this anxiety).

The humanities are the disciplines concerned with values

On the other hand, maybe the humanities aren’t defined by a canon or a method, but instead a larger area of concern. Maybe the humanities are the disciplines concerned with social values and cultural meaning. As one friend quipped about the president’s call for STEM focused charter schools, “will they learn about freedom and justice in math class?” This is an attractive definition of the humanities, and one I often use myself. I often pitch my class to my students as an opportunity to learn the skills that will make them citizens, rather than simply workers. Jim Noles makes the same case in a recent post to the Huffington Post in which he asks, as I have, “what are the humanities?

Yet, as much as I like this definition, I don’t always sleep comfortably with it. It seems to imply that, without the organized study of the humanities, cultures would lapse into collections of mechanistic drones, unable to consider questions of truth or beauty. This simply isn’t true. I’ve seen the inside of technical cultures, geek enclaves and hacker freeholds and they are full of wonder and poetry. Algorithms for decrypting DVDs transformed into epic poems. Romantic jokes about the Fibonacci sequence. Furthermore, again, ask any anthropologist and cultural value is what they do. What’s our niche?

So, that’s my little provocation. I hope it opens up a dialog, since I don’t want to dismiss the humanities (my career is bound up with them, after all), but rather to find a definition for them I can rest a little easier with. Can anyone help me?

16 Comments to “What does it mean to do the humanities?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Martha Nussbaum says we need the humanities to be true democratic citizens. http://humanities.miami.edu/programs/lectures/martha-nussbaum.
    I think the geeks are humanists at heart…they are far from the business/science-expert culture that gets rewarded, encouraged in all sectors today.

  2. Anonymous says:


    Are you asking what we contribute or what makes us indispensable? These might be two separate questions.

    Further, I’d agree with Nussbaum’s argument with the caveat that democracy (defined by me as resting upon modern ideas of public space and civic participation that seems to be less valued perhaps that we like) needs to undergo some kind of rethinking. Democracy requires a shared space and a shared reality that forms the basis for deliberation and voting. If we can’t base democracy upon shared spaces of debate and discussion like coffee houses and barber shops or a shared canon of writing, then what can we base it on?

  3. Robin Wharton Anonymous says:

    I have heard it said the humanities teach us to ask questions such as “Should we do X?” where other, particularly scientific disciplines are more concerned with “Can we do X?” Given that I think things like ethics and “should” questions must ideally be considered and posed along with questions focused on the “can” or “how” of a problem, I’m uncomfortable with segregating them according to discipline. It also seems this description of the humanities depends upon the same sort of presumption as the “values” description, that people who don’t “do” humanities aren’t interested in things like ethics, which is of course, simply not true. In one of the comments to Stephen Ramsay’s post “On Building,” Andrew Sorensen argues mathematics as a discipline has been successful because it has seen “[a] diversification of its activity across so many different domains.” If the humanities is kind of like mathematics, something that everyone needs to know to some extent or another in any number of disciplines, then how can it be that the humanities, unlike mathematics, seems to be on the decline? Is it somehow due to this problem of defining exactly what the humanities is? Or maybe there is a crisis in mathematics as well, and I just don’t know about it because I’m not a mathematician?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Sorry for the Robert Putnam, btw. ;)

  5. Kathryn Crowther Anonymous says:

    I’m tempted to agree with Tori — the last definition doesn’t preclude the possibility that humanist values can be applied to other fields. Of course, this does risk completely collapsing the humanities as a discipline (if it just becomes a set of values applicable to any field) but mightn’t that actually be the ultimate goal/success of the humanities?

  6. Anonymous says:

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  7. Anonymous says:

    This is all good stuff, but to be honest, I’m not sure it moves us past the problem I tried to outline above. Yes we need art and literature and conversations about ethics. Yes we need shared public spaces, like coffeehouses, but that proves the need for Baristas, not English professors (to be fair, many humanities graduates do work as Baristas). To borrow a critique once leveled at science studies, you’ve been telling me the value of birds. I want to know what my social contribution should be as an ornithologist.

  8. Anonymous says:

    While I find many of these comments to be relevant to what I do within the humanities, I feel like the definition in Andy’s post is too literary. I define the humanities as studies of the human not as an organism with physical traits and social behaviors but as a conceptual category, something constructed through individual and collective self-reflection. As a result, the construct “human” is indeed values-laden, as Andy suggests, so I am not disagreeing entirely. I would not, however, limit the objects of study to “texts” (unless in fine cultural studies form we define everything as text), nor would I say that any particular canons or even the notion of canonicity is central the humanities’ pursuits. I think “culture” might be the epiphenomenon of the type of self-reflection I mean, so certainly the study of texts (cultural artifacts) falls within this definition, but so do certain aspects anthropological and sociological study that rely on certain types of observations of performances and other interactions not usually classified as “text.” I think many of the social sciences straddle “humanities” and whatever constitutes the humanities’ other (usually “the sciences”). The distinction becomes a question of both methodological and philosophical assumptions related to scholarly responses to subjectivities, both the scholars’ and the subjects’. Ultimately, any scholarship that could help to answer the question “What does humanity think of itself?” qualifies. I do not think that the humanities necessarily have liberatory implications, nor do I think that one has to be a humanist to be a scholar in the humanities. In fact, some of the finest work done in the humanities in recent decades has proceded from ideas I would characterize as anti-humanist, ideas that call into question whether the “thinking” in self-reflection might be purely determined by forces beyond that ever-slippery thing we call consciousness.
    A difficult issue–we’ll be tackling it throughout the semester in our postdoctoral Empirical Humanities seminar at Georgia Tech.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Non Scholarly response. Obviously it seems, the humanities as an intellectual pursuit involve discussions of what we , humans , think and feel. Doesn’t that cover literature, film, theater, etc. . .

  10. Anonymous says:

    Two thoughts to add:

    – Jenkins writes “The ideal of the informed citizen is breaking down because there is simply too much for any individual to know.” It becomes about teaching collaboration skills, more than canons, if I’m reading Jenkins correctly.

    -What say the social scientists and hard sciences folks on this subject? More importantly, what say the business folks? (I can speak for the business folks, I worked with….humanities training was crucial in what they did and how they managed but I worked for mostly writers, mostly men, all in their 50s & 60s). My closest friend is a psychologist, sworn to stats and quantitative analysis. She always talks about her humanities training as what formed her way of thinking about the work she does now…and how it always forces her to challenge her own conclusions.

  11. Anonymous says:

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  12. Anonymous says:

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  13. Anonymous says:

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  14. Anonymous says:

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  15. Anonymous says:

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  16. Anonymous says:

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