Why Faulkner and the Digital Humanities Need Each Other: A Short Introduction

Four Definitions of "Digital Humanities"

On July 9, I delivered “Why Faulkner and the Digital Humanities Need Each Other: A Short Introduction” to the 2012 Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference: Fifty Years After Faulkner. The conference is composed of an international array of new and seasoned scholars who come to read and listen to papers. The audience also consists of secondary-school teachers, college and grad students, as well as many with no academic affiliation at all. They attend because they have interest in (and love of) the work of William Faulkner. All kinds of people show up: Scientists, lawyers, economists, retirees, artists, librarians, and ad execs. Past years have seen at least one beautician and a Waffle House waitress (actually, she was a college student from Ukraine working in Florida for the summer). Some in the audience live in Oxford, MS, where the conference is held, and a few (many have died in recent years) knew Faulkner and his family. Thus, speakers are advised to keep academic jargon and pretension to a minimum and enjoy the sizable audience (50-100 people) that usually is very friendly as long as words such as Yoknapatawpha, Beauchamp, and Lafayette are pronounced correctly (or gentle correction will ensue). Given these circumstances, it seemed appropriate to introduce the panel I organized, “Virtualizing Native Soil: Faulkner and the Digital Humanities in the 21st Century,” with a brief and basic explanation of what it means to say “digital humanities.” Aside from this panel, all the papers were traditional in their scope and presentation.

A Prezi illustrates my talk. The presentation sweeps to the next circle every time CLICK appears in the text below.


As many of you have heard, the latest rage in academia is the digital humanities. In fact, the digital humanities is not a passing fad. It is here to stay.

What are, or is, the “digital humanities?”

The precise definition of “digital humanities” is still taking shape, and there are many definitions. Here’s a few I’ve culled from about three hundred different definitions offered this year by people with some connection to the digital humanities:1  CLICK [italicized definitions are paraphrased in the talk]

“A diverse and still emerging field that includes the practice of humanities research in and through information technology. It also includes the development of digital educational / research / teaching / archival / publishing resources for the specific use and study of the humanities and interconnected disciplines. The digital humanities is also concerned with an exploration of how humanities may evolve through their engagement with technology.
—Ernesto Priego

Ernesto Priego says the digital humanities is emerging; it uses information technology for research, education, archival preservation, and publishing. It is an exploration and an evolution of the humanities through and with its engagement with technology. CLICK

An interdisciplinary field with porous borders that is generally concerned with the impact of digital technology on traditional academic practices of teaching, research, and service.
—Matthew K. Gold

Matthew Gold claims the digital humanities is interdisciplinary. It is what happens when technology intersects with the traditional practices of teaching, research, and service. CLICK

It’s beyond interdisciplinary–it’s a new ecosystem that includes scholars, librarians, archivists, computer scientists, graphic designers, administrators, students, teachers, granting agencies (public and private), and anyone else interested in promoting humanistic ways of experiencing digital media (or digital ways of experiencing the humanities).
—Edward Whitley

It’s beyond interdisciplinary, argues Edward Whitley, because it extends beyond individual academic departments to all areas related to academia: from librarians to computer scientists to deans to granting agencies. CLICK

And finally, according to Roger Whitson, the digital humanities is “Making stuff, and using it to collaborate and connect with the public.” CLICK

I analyzed these four definitions using Wordle. CLICK [See image, above.]

Wordle, if you don’t already know, is a very simple text analysis tool that highlights words in a text according to frequency of appearance. It’s helpful for revealing keywords in a text, but also for revealing what’s not being explicitly stated, but implied (Try putting some Faulkner text into a Wordle and you’ll get some interesting results). Aside from digital and humanities, the words that pop out as being most used in these definitions are experiencing, teaching, research, interdisciplinary, includes, and technology. CLICK

What strikes me about this combination is that aside from “technology” all these words come from the realm of the traditional humanities. “All” we’re adding is technology: But technology changes things in a potentially dramatic way—whether it’s a positive or negative way depends on how the technology is used, of course. Nevertheless, technology can potentially change how we experience or process knowledge; it can change the way we teach and research; it can change the way we publish and disseminate knowledge. Technology forces us to be interdisciplinary: For example, some research projects may require historians, literary scholars, graphic artists, and computer programmers.

Technology also redefines for the humanities what it means to say “include”: For example, we can use technology to make contact with people and sources of information, such as in archives and databases, in multiple locations, simultaneously, any time of day or night. CLICK

Neil Fraistat suggests that instead of asking “What is the digital humanities,”2 we might ask, “What do you want from the digital humanities?” Or, to rephrase that, what does Faulkner Studies want from the digital humanities? CLICK

I think this is why I like the last of those four definitions, which can be rephrased as “We want to make stuff and use it to collaborate with others to connect with the public.” CLICK

Steve Railton’s several projects at the University of Virginia involving Faulkner are wonderful examples of that definition and what we as Faulkner scholars might want from the digital humanities. These projects include online sound recordings of Faulkner speaking, as well as mapping, timelines, and visualizing data. John Padgett’s William Faulkner on the Web is also an incredible resource for Faulkner scholars. Much of this material and its implications for Faulkner Studies will be discussed by the panelists today. CLICK

The integration of computer technologies with traditional humanities research, publishing, and teaching can “can help us imagine academic practices in new ways” (Sayers).3 This panel will give you at least a glimpse of what the digital humanities has and will offer to Faulkner scholarship. I hope it will inspire you to start your own project or contribute to a current one.

1All definitions taken from “How Do You Define DH?” A Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities, CenterNet, 2012.
2Neil Fraistat, “The Question(s) of Digital Humanities,” MITH, University of Maryland, 7 Feb 2011.
3Technology, Scholarship, and the Humanities: A Conversation with Jentery Sayers,” Simpson Center for the Humanities, 21 May 2012.

Author: Elizabeth F. Cornell

Elizabeth F. Cornell is the director of communications for Fordham IT, at Fordham University. Formerly, she was a post-doctoral fellow in the English Department at Fordham.

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