Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Debates in the Digital Humanties (Digital History Week 2)

In this week’s digital history class, we continued to explore the field of digital humanities.  As a class, we looked at an online publication, Debates in the Digital Humanities. To provide better insight into the field of digital humanities, highlighted below are the salient points of the parts of the book I explored.

Part I: Defining the Digital Humanities

Reading Part I felt like a continuation of last week’s class discussion. Part I discussed a variety of concepts all centered around defining the digital humanities. Personally, I liked Kirschenbaum’s comments on digital humanities as he explained that, “At its core, then, digital humanities is more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies.” I also appreciate Michael Kirschenbaum’s description of digital humanities as being a “social undertaking,” a “collaborative” effort of scholarship.
            In addition to Kirschenbaum’s comments, I found myself in strong agreement with Lisa Spiro’s thoughts on digital humanities. Considering the debates in the digital humanities, Spiro suggests that providing a core set of values for the digital humanities will help frame debates and “provide grounds for conversation.” Spiro explains that as most companies have core values to guide and direct their organizations, digital humanities as a discipline would benefit from the direction provided by a core set of values. Specifically, Spiro suggests promoting the core values of openness, collaboration, collegiality and connectedness, diversity, and experimentation within digital humanities. Of the different values suggested, I was most impressed with Spiro’s discussion of openness. Describing her support for openness, Spiro writes, “Rather than cheapening knowledge by making it free, embracing openness recognizes the importance of the humanities to society.” I appreciated Spiro’s concept of openness given that it was strikingly different from they ways in which I have heard openness discussed before.

Part III: Critiquing the Digital Humanities

            Before reading this section, I was not aware of any critiques of digital humanities. Reading Part III, however, I discovered that some scholars believe that digital humanities falls short in dealing with issues of race, gender, disability, and more.  Out of all the critiques of digital humanities, the issue of disability interested me the most. In his essay, George Williams writes that the digital humanities tends to neglect people with disabilities, specifically people who are blind, deaf, hard of hearing, color blind, etc. When I first read the title of the essay, Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities, I was confused - in my mind, how could a blind person engage with the visual technology on a computer? Yet, after reading Williams’ essay, I realized my ignorance.
In the beginning of his essay, Williams’ describes the different ways that individuals with disabilities engage with technology involving computers. After that, Williams suggests that the digital humanities needs to adopt universal design principles (designing products for everyone) instead of accessibility design principles (designing products for disabled individuals). As an example, Williams writes about garage door openers: an item made with a universal design that is “useful to people both with and without disabilities.” I thought this idea was really cool. Applying this concept to digital humanities, Williams explains that embracing universal design principles will not only help digital humanities attain funding (by meeting certain legal requirements), but it will also prove to be more efficient as it eliminates the need to create a separate technology for individuals with disabilities.
            If you are skeptical of the benefits of universal design, let me convince you of its importance! As a graduate student, I have a ton of reading. So, I was thrilled when I discovered that my iPhone could help me with my homework. Under settings - general - accessibility - speech, my iPhone has a “speak screen” setting. I keep this setting turned on. While I imagine this setting is primarily used by people with poor eyesight, I benefit from this setting even though I have 20/20 vision. Every time I get in my car, I open my kindle app, swipe two fingers from the top of the screen to the bottom of the screen, and my phone begins to read my books to me out loud. It is pretty cool. In fact, I even had my phone read Williams’ essay on disability out loud. Given that my iPhone was made with universal design principles, the speech to text setting allows both individuals with reading disabilities and individuals like myself to enjoy it on the same device.  So, just as a variety of people can benefit from this one technology, I believe that a variety of people could benefit from technology in the digital humanities if the field embraces universal design principles.

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