Approaching Technology as a Humanist

Matthew K. Gold

The Graduate Center launched a master’s degree in digital humanities a year ago. The program now has 30 first- and second-year students. Its director, Associate Professor Matthew K. Gold (English), talked with The Graduate Center about how things are going and about the 2019 edition of a series he co-edits with Lauren F. Klein, Debates in the Digital Humanities (University of Minnesota Press).
The Graduate Center: Do people still ask you what digital humanities means? Does that annoy you? And while we’re on the topic, what does it mean?
Gold: People do ask me that, and no, it doesn’t annoy me.
Digital humanities is a capacious field, and its work encompasses multiple areas of interest. I define it as technological and computational work that explores humanities research questions and pedagogical teaching interests. It’s useful to compare the field to, say, data science, where scholars attempt to answer questions in definitive ways. In DH, just as in humanities classes, students learn to explore ambiguity and think through complex issues that involve technology. It’s about approaching technology from a humanistic viewpoint.
GC: What does the degree program entail?

Gold: The M.A. degree includes areas such as textual analysis, digital pedagogy, and data visualization. And we really center it around student research interests. We ask, ‘What are your research questions? What are the platforms, programming languages, databases, and data sets that can help?’
Students in the program complete a two-semester introduction to the field. In the first semester, we give students a very wide landscape view of the field — mapping, digital visualization, archives, what’s possible in a broad way. Toward the end of that, instead of writing seminar papers, which they still have the option to do, most students write proposals for projects that grow out of their academic interests. In the second semester, the class divides into groups that create prototypes of those projects. Students take on different roles. One person may be a developer, one may be project manager, one does outreach. Along the way, they have to figure out what they need to learn to create the project they envision. They thus learn technological platforms and programming languages not because they are deemed important by the DH program, but rather because they are important to what the students themselves hope to create. That’s the model of learning we hope to foster, where research interests determine technological learning, and not the other way around.
This semester, we have two classes that bring social and political perspectives to bear. I am co-teaching with Kelly Josephs of York College a DH and Caribbean studies class where all kinds of questions come up related to colonialism, technological capacity, even how the weather affects the archive. We are also offering a feminist approaches to textual analysis class taught by Lisa Rhody. We aim to teach “a DH that matters.”

Thirty students are now enrolled in the Graduate Center's M.A. Program in Digital Humanities. 

GC: What do careers look like for DH students?

Gold: There are a range of career outcomes depending on students’ interests and technological abilities. Some students come in with jobs; they want the degree to help them get a promotion. We have a number of CUNY librarians in the program. We have students working in technology companies, digital marketing, students who go work in nonprofits and the arts. With the collaboration of Jenny Furlong and the GC’s Office of Career Planning and Development, we have support in place to help them find the kind of work they want to do.
GC: Do students need digital skills when they come in?

Gold: We welcome all students regardless of technological abilities.
GC: Describe the series you co-edit, Debates in the Digital Humanities.

Gold: The first book came out in 2012. I then co-edited Debates in the Digital Humanities in 2016 with Lauren Klein. At that point it became a series. The 2019 collection is the third volume. There are also special volumes that are part of the series that I don’t edit.
A couple of things make the series unique. One is the peer-to-peer review process we engage in, in advance of publication. Lauren and I are rigorous editors. One thing that defines the series is the quality of the pieces and the fact that they resonate with one another. We’re working with a wonderful and adventurous publisher, the University of Minnesota Press. We’re publishing the books in print and then online three months later in an open access, interactive format on Manifold, a digital book platform, that the GC Digital Scholarship Lab, in collaboration with the University of Minnesota Press, received two Mellon grants to create. You can see all the books online.
GC: How do you answer critics who dismiss DH as quantitative and not intellectual?

Gold: I think those who dismiss DH haven’t really engaged with the scholarship. Digital humanists think very intensely about their work. There are now in the Debates series and other books and journals a huge body of scholarly work. I think sometimes DH gets blamed for more general trends in academia. There are a lot of people who don’t want to deal with computers and they may think that computational work is not really part of what they do. That’s fine. We’re not on a mission to convert everyone. I want people to see what is to me very integral to DH work, which is bringing a critical and self-reflexive eye to technology, to ask not just what can technology do, but what does it leave out? Not only what are its possibilities, but what are its limitations and lapses? 
DH also brings many people to the table who are otherwise shut out of conventional scholarship. DH as a field in a lot of ways disrupts or challenges conventional academic hierarchies.
GC: Is digital humanities singular or plural?

Gold: It’s an open question, and rightly so. Let the debates continue!

Submitted on: OCT 2, 2019

Category: English | Faculty | General GC News