Digital Humanities is About Breaking Stuff

Jesse Stommel

Many have argued that the digital humanities is about building stuff and sharing stuff — that the digital humanities reframes the work we do in the humanities as less consumptive and more curatorial, less solitary and more collaborative. I maintain, though, that the humanities have always been intensely interactive, an engaged dance between the text on a page and the ideas in our brains. The humanities have also always been intensely social, a vibrant ecosystem of shared, reworked, and retold stories. The margins of books as a vast network of playgrounds.

The digital brings different playgrounds and new kinds of interaction, and we must incessantly ask questions of it, disturbing the edge upon which we find ourselves so precariously perched. And what the digital asks of us is that every assumption we have be turned on its head. The digital humanities asks us to pervert our reading practices — to read backwards, as well as forwards, to stubbornly not read, and to rethink how we approach learning in the digital age.

In fact, the course itself is one of the central texts we must consider, a collection of stories about reading and writing that can be actively hacked and remixed. Sean Michael Morris writes in “Courses, Composition, Hybridity,” “A course today is an act of composition,” an active present participle and not a static container. This is more and more true of courses that live even partially online, demanding we thoughtfully examine the digital as a frame, while recognizing that the digital does not supersede and can never unseat the work we do in the world. In “The New Learning is Ancient,” Kathi Inman Berens writes, “It doesn’t matter to me if my classroom is a little rectangle in a building or a little rectangle above my keyboard. Doors are rectangles; rectangles are portals. We walk through.” This is where learning happens, at the breaking point of its various containers. The semester is arbitrary. The course is breached. Canons must yield.

This is true just as well of the literary texts we analyze (and ask students to analyze) with digital tools. In the syllabus for a recent undergraduate seminar in the digital humanities, I pose the following questions:

How is literature and our reading of it being changed by computers? What influence does the container for a text have on its content? To what degree does immersion in a text depend upon the physicality of its interface? How are evolving technologies (like the iPad) helping to enliven (or disengage us from) the materiality of literary texts?

Literature, film, and other media are changing, and the way we interact with them is also changing. As we imagine a digital approach to the humanities, we must look back even as we look forward, considering what media has become while we simultaneously examine the hows and whys of its becoming. We once watched film only in a darkened theater without the distraction of other external physical stimuli. Now, increasingly, we watch film on hand-held digital devices, many with touch screens that allow more and more interaction with the content. Our apparatuses for media-consumption juxtapose digital media, literature, and film: Now, we watch Ridley Scott’s Alien in a window alongside Twitter and Facebook.  Film no longer exists as a medium distinct from these other media.

The same is true of new modes of reading. Digital texts invite (or allow) us to do other things with our eyes, brains, and bodies while we experience them. As I write this, I have 9 windows open on my computer, each vying for my attention. Some of these windows have several frames in further competition. Advertisements. E-mail. Documents. Widgets. Social-networking tools. Chat interfaces. Each layer has an effect on how I engage the digital text. In spite of all these layers, I don’t think we experience a decreased attention; rather, the digital text demands a different sort of attention. Even as my direct engagement is challenged, my brain is offered more fuel for making connections and associative leaps. A proactive approach to online and digital pedagogy asks us to put these associative leaps to work. So, Twitter and Facebook may be a distraction, but that distraction can be harnessed for good pedagogy.

Social media can also function as a potential site of resistance, a leveled playing field, a harbinger for another kind of engagement. The keenest analysis in the digital humanities is born of distraction and revels in tangents. The holy grail of this work is not the thesis but the fissure.

Breaking Stuff as an Act of Literary Criticism
The digital humanities is about breaking stuff. Especially at the undergraduate level, this is the work of the digital humanities that most needs doing. In “Notes Towards a Deformed Humanities,” Mark Sample proposes “what is broken and twisted is also beautiful, and a bearer of knowledge. The Deformed Humanities is an origami crane — a piece of paper contorted into an object of startling insight and beauty.” And, by the end of a class, if it’s successful, this is what becomes of the syllabus, the texts, the assignments, and us. Sample continues, “every fact is a fad and print is a prison. Instructors are insurgents and introductions are invasions.” In this way, all of my courses work to violently dismantle fact and print, instructors and introductions, and I revel together (and part and parcel) with students in both discovery and uncertainty.

In my undergraduate digital humanities course, the first assignment has students break something as an act of literary criticism. Specifically, I ask them to take the words from a poem by Emily Dickinson, “There’s a certain slant of light,” and rearrange them into something else. They use any or all of the words that appear in the poem as many or as few times as they want. What they build takes any shape: text, image, video, a poem, a pile, sense-making or otherwise.

Dickinson’s poem is itself about troubling interpretation, about skewed perspective, and about frustrating the supposed neat-and-tidy signifying powers of language: “We can find no scar, / But internal difference / Where the meanings are.”

In his response to the assignment, Timothy Merritt used the iPad app Simple Mind to create a mind map of his encounter with the poem.



Having no clear beginning nor end, Tim’s work asks the reader to consider the linearity of poetry, responding directly to Dickinson’s call to read the poem (all poems) at “a certain slant.” In her work, Rachel Blume plays with the metaphorical density of Dickinson’s words, re-arranging them into a single haiku:

Winter Oppresses
Shadows the landscape like death
Tis heavenly when it goes

Rachel constructed her poem by meditating carefully on the weight of each of Dickinson’s syllables — both the ones she included in her haiku and the ones she left out. Finally, Lans Nelson Pacifico used TypeDrawing for the iPad to literally paint with words, turning Emily Dickinson’s poem into the raw material for her own work, “A Certain Slant of Light, Typographically Speaking.”



Even more compelling than the striking and solemn work itself are Lans’s documents and videos describing the various layers of her process. She shows the progression of her work from annotations through rough notes, several sketches, coloring, and the final step in which she signed her name to the work in gold across the sky. The clarity of the layering of Dickinson’s words in Lans’s re-creation illustrates her understanding of the density of Dickinson’s language. What we see in her account are the ways our work within the digital humanities becomes an archeological dig, a nibbling at the stratum of the digital to deconstruct what is tacit and to discover what is voraciously humane.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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