Hacking the Humanities

Elias Muhanna, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Brown University, describes an assignment based on Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History.”

After reading the assignment and reëvaluating the choices I’d made in my life, I slowly wrote the letter A in my grade book next to Henry’s name. My own programming skills were somewhat rudimentary and, without his cheerful explanations of the code, I would have been lost. There were two things, though, of which I was certain. First, a machine guided by an undergraduate had taught me something new about the expository style of an ancient Roman natural historian. Second, I had to hire Henry.

Muhanna describes the character of digital humanities as “artisanal inquisitiveness”:

In the past decade, digital scholarship has gone from being a quirky corner of the humanities to a mainstream phenomenon, restructuring funding landscapes and pushing tenure committees to develop new protocols for accrediting digital projects. As the stakes have grown, so has an expectation about the role that the “digital turn” might play in revivifying the humanities, effecting a synthesis with the sciences, and other weighty causes. For many of its champions, the tinkering character of the digital humanities represents a kind of artisanal inquisitiveness, a hands-on, tool-building, map-making ethos that chafes against more abstract modes of humanistic inquiry.

Read more: Elias Muhanna, “Hacking the Humanities,” The New Yorker 7 July 2015.

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