Literature Review

Digital Humanities Definitions

A precise definition of the Digital Humanities (DH) is difficult to establish. For example, within the literature, the term ‘Digital Humanities’ is used both to describe an approach to work within the Humanities and as an academic field of its own. One of the most commonly cited definitions is proposed by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who understands the Digital Humanities as a “set of methods and approaches that use digital tools” (e.g. visualization software, text analysis applications) to investigate, teach, and learn about “the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities” (qtd. in Fitzpatrick, 2012).

One of the aims of this research project was to investigate and report on the various definitions and understandings of the Digital Humanities at McMaster University. Therefore, in addition to the definition proposed by Fitzpatrick and other scholars, this project will explore the definitions put forth by McMaster faculty, instructors, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows, in order to understand the various perceptions and interpretations of the term itself.


Uses of the Digital Humanities

Just as there are many different understandings and definitions of the digital Humanities, there are also many different ways in which the Digital Humanities can be used and engaged with within teaching, learning, and research. An important aim of this project was to determine and investigate the various ways in which the Digital Humanities are understood and used within teaching and learning by faculty members and instructors at McMaster University. In the published literature, various aims and outcomes of the Digital Humanities have been documented, such as increased accessibility, organizing and analyzing large data sets, and increased collaboration. The Digital Humanities have been used in pedagogical contexts to benefit researchers, teachers, instructors, and students who work within this field. The following paragraphs outline some of the most widely reported uses and benefits of the Digital Humanities, as described within the published literature.

In particular, approaches common to the Digital Humanities have often been cited as means to enhancing and promoting collaboration, whether between students and faculty (Alexander & Frost-Davis, 2010; Harris 2011; Parry, 2014; Gold, 2012; Liu, 2009), in collaborative group work between students and between faculty members (Spiro, 2011; Parry, 2014; Mahony, 2012; Fyfe, 2011), or in cross-university, community, and network partnerships (Harris, 2011; Davidson, 2012; Zorich, 2008; Siemens, 2012; Kirschenbaum, 2010; Meeks, 2013). Furthermore, the Digital Humanities are often recognized as a field that lends itself well to encouraging interdisciplinary learning and collaboration between different fields and specialities (Brier, 2012; Rockwell, 2012; Davidson, 2012; Zorich, 2008).

Additionally, it has been proposed that the Digital Humanities can promote open-access and the sharing of resources and knowledge (Walzer, 2012; Brier, 2012; Hunter et al. 2012; Davidson, 2012). Digital approaches have therefore been seen to increase opportunities for students to engage in “public” and “open” online writing and project creation (Sample, 2012; Parry, 2014).

Scholars have also noted that using DH tools increases the development of useful skills and competencies for learning and analyzing information. These benefits are seen as particularly important in an increasingly digital world. Previous literature has referred to the ability of the Digital Humanities to help students and faculty develop digital and visual literacies, as well as transferrable digital skills such as particular kinds of data analysis that can be applied to various fields of study and employment (Parry, 2014; Spiro, 2011). Additionally, the Digital Humanities have been positioned as a means of helping learners to develop enhanced critical thinking and analytic capabilities. Since these tools can be used to efficiently analyze and represent large data sets, they can often allow a learner to delve deeper into the nuances of their research questions or to develop new and different lines of inquiry.

The Digital Humanities can also be used to allow for what many Digital Humanist scholars refer to as play, exploration, and self-directed discovery. The Digital Humanities can provide novel opportunities for students to create, experiment, and design their knowledge (Sample, 2012; Ramsay, 2010); can establish contexts in which students can engage in experiential learning endeavours (Spiro, 2011); and can encourage students to take greater responsibility for, and initiative in, their learning through the promotion of self-directed learning, student-centred learning, and inquiry (Brier, 2012; Harris, 2011).

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