“Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities,” Edited by Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson

I’ve blogged about “the Digital Humanities” several times before. Back in 2012, I took some offense at the MLA’s “discovery” of “digital scholarship” because they essentially ignored the work of anyone other than literature scholars– in other words, comp/rhet folks who do things with technology need not apply. Cheryl Ball had an editorial comment in Kairos back then I thought was pretty accurate– though it’s also worth noting in the very same issue of Kairos, Ball also praised the MLA conference for its many “digital humanities” presentations.

Almost exactly a year ago, I had a post here called “If you can’t beat ’em and/or embracing my DH overlords and colleagues,” in which I was responding to a critique by Adam Kirsch that Marc Bousquet had written about. Here’s a long quote from myself that I think is all the more relevant now:

I’ve had my issues with the DH movement in the past, especially as it’s been discussed by folks in the MLA– see here and especially here.  I have often thought that a lot of the scholars in digital humanities are really literary period folks trying to make themselves somehow “marketable,” and I’ve seen a lot of DH projects that don’t seem to be a whole lot more complicated than putting stuff up on the web. And I guess I resent and/or am annoyed with the rise of digital humanities in the same way I have to assume the folks who first thought up MOOCs (I’m thinking of the Stephen Downes and George Siemens of the world) way before Coursera and Udacity and EdX came along are annoyed with the rise of MOOCs now. All the stuff that DH-ers talk about as new has been going on in the “computers and writing”/”computers and composition” world for decades and for these folks to come along now and to coin these new terms for old practices– well, it feels like a whole bunch of work of others has been ignored and/or ripped off in this move.

But like I said, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The “computers and writing” world– especially vis a vis its conference and lack of any sort of unifying “organization”– seems to me to be fragmenting and/or drifting into nothingness at the same time that DH is strengthening to the point of eliciting backlash pieces in a middle-brow publication like the New Republic. Plenty of comp/rhet folk have already made the transition, at least in part. Cheryl Ball has been doing DH stuff at MLA lately and had an NEH startup grant on multimedia publication editing; Alex Reid has had a foot in this for a few years now; Collin Brooke taught what was probably a fantastic course this past spring/winter, “Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities;” and Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Ridolfo are editing a book of essays that will come out in the fall (I think) called Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities. There’s an obvious trend here.

And this year, I’m going to HASTAC instead of the C&W conference (though this mostly has to do with the geographic reality that HASTAC is being hosted just up the road from me at Michigan State University) and I’ll be serving as the moderator/host of a roundtable session about what the computers and writing crowd can contribute to the DH movement.

In other words, I went into reading Jim and Bill’s edited collection Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities with a realization/understanding that “Digital Humanities” has more or less become the accepted term of art for everyone outside of computers and writing, and if the C&W crowd wants to have any interdisciplinary connection/relevance to the rest of academia, then we’re going to have to make connections with these DH people. In the nutshell, that’s what I think Jim and Bill’s book is about. (BTW and “full disclosure,” as they say: Jim and Bill are both friends of mine, particularly Bill, who I’ve known from courses taken together, conferences, project collaborations, dinners, golf outings, etc., etc., etc. for about 23 or so years).


The 22 essays are divided up into three parts, “Interdisciplinary Connections,” “Research Methods and Methodology,” and “Future Trajectories.” The contributors here are folks I know from the world of composition and rhetoric/computers and writing, though there are some interesting “not C&W” contributors, particularly in the section about methodology.

The opening essays take on the disciplinary politics of the turf battles between C&W and DH head-on, and in doing so, I think these essays go a long way toward defining what writing studies folks can contribute to the broader digital humanities community. These essays don’t shy away form the kind of “hey, we were here first” frustration so common amongst the C&W crowd, but ultimately, all of these essays are suggesting ways at getting beyond that.

Many of the methodologies discussed and described in section two are familiar territory for most comp/rhet folks who have had some experience in research methodologies– more or less ethnography, rhetorical analysis, and (a bit further removed) the approaches of “distant reading” and large data analysis. Some of these methods seem familiar to me– genre/textual analysis, for example– but they introduce different tools and perspectives. Notably, these are where the collection draws on contributors from outside of composition and rhetoric.

The third and largest section called “Future Trajectories” does indeed speculate on the future, though (as is always the case with print collections like this) a lot of these “futures” seem a lot like the present to me. There are stories here about what that collaboration between C&W folks and DH folks on a campus might actually look like, and also a number of contributions about how archival research, which makes a lot of sense since that work is so important in DH and it is the sort of object of study that rhetoricians have always examined.

There’s a lot in this collection, and right now, I’m not really able to do all the contributions individual justice. Another moment of full disclosure: since most of my sabbatical work has been about MOOCs, I read this collection in fits and starts, mostly during my exercise routine when I walk on the treadmill before doing weights and such– this is two or three times a week. Generally, I read a chapter while walking briskly, and I noted pages of interest with sticky notes. Just about every page has a sticky note on it, which in some ways is about as (un)helpful as highlighting every paragraph. But three general kind of take-aways for now.

First, this is a very readable/teachable collection. As part of our MA program, I regularly teach a class called “Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice.” That’s pretty much what it has been about, though there is an explicit pedagogical purpose to the course that isn’t necessarily in the title, and (obviously) the course is a very quickly moving target. In any event, I’m tentatively scheduled to teach this class again in Winter 2016 and I am pretty sure I’ll be assigning this book.

Second, my only criticism of what’s here is there are a few essays– three or four, as I recall– that seemed to end a little too quickly for my tastes. That is probably more of a factor of the folks at the University of Chicago Press than anything else; I don’t know this for sure, but I would bet there was some discussion about shortening some things for “marketability” purposes. Oh, and there still isn’t much of a web site for the book yet.

Third, I’m sort of curious if this book has been/will be successful at finding its audience. As it says in the blurb on the back, “It [meaning the book] offers critical guidance on how the theories and methodologies of rhetorical studies can enhance all work in digital humanities, and vice versa.” So to what extent has Jim and Bill’s collection been taken up by DH scholars outside of what was once known as computers and writing?

I don’t want to suggest that is the only (or even the main) measure of success with this book. Like I said, I’m planning on it being required reading in my graduate class next winter, and I think anyone in the computers and writing world interested in staying “current” (never mind the whole turf and semantics of the “digital humanities”) ought to read this book. But the message of the book for me is a) writing studies/C&W folks have been doing work in the digital humanities (without calling it that) for a long time, b) we think we have a lot to offer you, and c) we want to be invited to the DH party. Have the literature, history, library science, and other humanities scholars that have been at the heart of the digital humanities taken notice?

That’s part of what I hope to find out next week at HASTAC.

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