Special Feature: Ask A Digital Humanities Medievalist, Featuring Dorothy Kim (Vassar College)

As a born-digital publication, Hortulus Journal is deeply concerned with issues related to digital scholarly publishing specifically, and digital humanities more generally. We are constantly looking for ways to engage our readers not only with our own  journal content, but with the possibilities presented by digital humanities and publishing initiatives.

Throughout the Fall of 2015, Hortulus staff members hosted a #AskaDHMedievalist social media event, posting a series of polls about Digital Humanities and medieval scholarship on Twitter and Facebook. The answers to these polls generated questions ranging from “what comprises digital humanities?” and “what if you have an idea for a digital project but don’t have the technical skills to engage in it?” to “how can you get started in digital humanities?” and “What kinds of resources are available for digital humanities scholarship?” that were then posed to Dorothy Kim of Vassar College, a high-profile digital humanities medievalist. From these questions, Dr. Kim selected ten to consider, and her thoughtful and comprehensive responses to those questions appear below. We hope that they prove to be a resource for scholars interested in but unsure as to how to begin engaging in digital humanities, as well as to begin an ongoing discussion of the role of digital humanities in medieval studies.


  1. What exactly falls under the category of “digital humanities”? Is it more teaching-focused or more research-focused, or can it be both?

This is a question that gets asked a lot and you will hear a bunch of different answers, because in some ways this is a question about the field itself and the current debates in the field about its shape. I would actually start answering this question by looking at this article by Adeline Koh and then possibly the follow-up.

There are different valences of what’s been referred to as DH; there is DH1, which is often imagined as purely code-based and project-driven, and then DH2, which is about the critique of DH1 often in relation to discussions of gender, race, ability, etc. If one wishes to balance these discussions, I would recommend having a look at Digital Humanities balanced by the special issue of differences: The Darkside of the Digital Humanities. In other words, the stakes of the field are still being contested, and the answers will always be multivalent and varied. And I would say, that should be OK because it’s an ecosystem that will shift as different factors unfold.

  1. What do you do if you have an idea for a digital humanities project, but you don’t have the technological skills and aren’t sure how to acquire them?

I would see if you can consult with people who have done similar projects. I would also see if you can participate in things like THATCamp (The Humanities and technology Camp) and/or if you have the wherewithal or funds for DHSI (Digital Humanities Summer Institute) at University of Victoria. But one way you can go about it is to first see what resources there might be locally on campus or in your area. Are there librarians or people in academic technology who are around for some kind of DH support? If not, are there discussions at medieval conferences? Kalamazoo did recently do THATCamp Medieval Congress. Also, check Twitter and ask questions to DH medievalists there, people will often give you suggestions or answer. If you are a graduate student, see what your institution has available for DH work, classes, seminars, workshops, etc. If you are an adjunct, teaching faculty, etc. check with your institution, but also the networks available for different kinds of institutions. For example, I actually didn’t learn any of my DH skills or methods in graduate school. I worked at it when I was in a job and used 1. the NITLE (National Institute For Technology in Liberal Education) and liberal arts college networks available to me; 2. DHSI at University of Victoria; and 3. going to sessions at medieval conferences on the topic. This is a field that is highly interested in networked and often collaborative discussions. You have to network with people both face-to-face and online in order to get feedback and suggestions for your projects. This is how the work gets done and projects get moved along. It’s also a manner in which you might get suggestions on possible funding venues as well.

  1. There is a great deal of concern as to whether or not in future digital publishing will be seen as “real” scholarship and count the same as traditional publishing towards tenure and promotion. Are we seeing this happen yet?

This is a question about what field you are already in, what the frameworks are of your tenure and promotion credit, and how it has been set up. But I would point out here that the MLA already has multiple guidelines for “digital” scholarship including these guidelines and this Statement on Electronic Publication. AHA has just come out with this list of guidelines. I would check with your scholarly associations and also discuss this subject with your Dean. Finally, this set of guidelines and discussions in the Journal of Digital Humanities helps explain a lot in relation to credit, evaluation, and having digital work count. I would hand copies of this out to your Dean, Chair, etc. This current discussion, of course, is about American academic institutions. This is different for Europe, Canada, Australasia. In these locations, digital humanities work is organized and given credit more in the way that our colleagues in the sciences get credit. So, it’s a completely different system. I have always found this difference most interesting because it means that funding for humanities is tied to larger, collaborative projects often connected to central government funding. This makes global collaboration much more difficult for American scholars because our credit system is not aligned with this different ecosystem.

  1. How does a digital humanist ensure his or her work’s longevity in the face of a possibly network, systems, or cloud crash?

This is a question about sustainability and who is sustainably archiving your data. I would have a discussion with your Library and/or whoever is the group working on your project with this question. Philosophically, there is also an ongoing discussion about the fact that our digital work–no matter how much we wish to try to make it bullet proof–is in fact impossible to sustain. So consider the end goal as at least archiving the code and doing what you can to sustain functionality. But also consider the ongoing discussion that digital projects are not actually ever really “finished” (at least the bigger ones) and they will be iterative and ongoing. If we think of it in terms of History of the Book, we are still in “incunabula” stage, and that means a lot of the material is about ephemerality. You may consider that in your project and what that means.

[Editors’ note: This is a timely question, as the topic has been the subject of a recent discussion on the Medtextl listserv concerning the Online Reference Book For Medieval Studies, an invaluable electronic reference archive that was kept by Dr. Kathryn Talarico of the French department at the College of Staten Island. Since Dr. Talarico’s death, a technical glitch has cut the domain name (the-orb.net) from the server at the College of Staten Island, but the files haven’t moved: There is concern as to whether or not the site will be continued, preserved, or updated, although Dr. Laurent Brunn of University of Ottowa has set up a mirror site preserving the ORB as-is for the time being: http://the-orb.arlima.net/]

  1. Is there a lot of skepticism towards medieval digital humanities projects still? What are some of the ways that medievalist DH people counter arguments that technology and medieval scholarship don’t mix?

As someone deep in both ends of DH, I am probably a bit biased in answering this. I had rather thought scholarly medieval communities had moved away from what I think of as #digitalpanic. There are big projects in North America, Europe, and Australasia in relation to medieval digital worlds. However, I recently had a question directed at me at a presentation of the project I work on, the Archive of Early Middle English, asking if medieval digital humanities was going to take jobs away from medievalists. I was surprised by this question because it felt very early #dhpanic to me, so I don’t think I answered it very well at the time. But if you need to discuss ways to counter arguments, I would think first about what area of work you are doing in medieval.

As someone who works on manuscripts, paleography, and History of the Book, digital humanities makes huge sense because it provides interesting tools to work on these questions–as we see with projects like Digipal or things like T-PEN. However, if you are working in history, there are fascinating things and projects in relation to mapping, network analysis as one can see in things like the DM project. If you are interested in art history, OMEKA is a fantastic tool for art historians to curate and create collections. If you are a musicologist, there is http://www.diamm.ac.uk, as well as a huge effort to code music notation (http://music-encoding.org) and you can read about what’s going on with encoding medieval music on this blog. So there are a lot of projects in process now in medieval scholarship, you just have to look at any of the major conferences and look at what DH sessions are happening. There are also a lot of open-source tools to play with (feel free to look at DIRTincluding Palladio, Voyant , Scalar, etc. Realize that some tools do not work as well for medievalists as they do for our colleagues in later periods. So figure out what your research questions are and what might fit your needs.

But yes, you are going to get skepticism because scholarly communities often hold onto traditional methodologies and panic over anything they feel might be “new” particularly if it’s entangled with technology. Often this is done without any researched understanding of what these digital humanities projects are doing and what their stakes are and the media archaeology and technical structures that inform them. However, I think the best defense that I have ever seen was given by David McKnight (Director of Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania) at the Schoenberg Institute for Medieval Studies conference in 2013. He delivered a paper that discussed the controversy and history of the facsimile photograph edition and the early adopters from the manuscript libraries in Britain (particularly the British Library). One thing that you must also explain to people, if you so desire, is there is a difference between digitization and digital humanities. Often, these two categories get collapsed and they are not the same thing. McKnight gave a brilliant talk that revealed how much the same technological pushback happened when libraries began to photograph manuscripts and to make facsimile editions. Yes, you got the same, “it’s not the same as the original.” “We are losing our sense of the rare object.” “It’s a terrible surrogate.” So yes, all this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s the same cycle as one sees when manuscript culture began to include print culture. DH and the research tools and questions they can attempt to answer are another ball of wax. DH is about scale and the possibility of asking and attempting to answer questions about scale in both directions. We are discussing the granularity of strokes and the microscopic analysis of vellum and parchment to the larger questions one could try to answer in relation to large data sets across an entire corpus. Also, realize, the linguists have been doing big data and computational analysis for a long time–often with medieval linguistic data. I would also point out that DH (or so the historiographic discussions go) began with a medieval project about Thomas Aquinas. Our field is in the thick of this work, whether people choose to engage or not. More interesting, I think, is to put pressure on medieval DH in relation to what would be considered questions around DH2 or questions about digital medievalism and the problems of the idea of surrogacy, race, gender, ability, etc.

  1.  What are some “starter” ways those new to the idea can begin incorporating digital humanities initiatives into our pedagogy and research?

I always think that the best “starter” way is to actually think about pedagogy and what you can do in a classroom that will really excite the students. It will also help you think about how to utilize your current resources to fold different kinds of possibility into your work. I think this article by Adeline Koh is a nice guide to explore different ways to explore this in an undergraduate classroom and she has a great list of resources at the end of this article. Begin here and then think about your own research and consider what kinds of questions do I want answered in my own research in which some sort of digital work might help? In addition, at most campuses, there are surprisingly more available resources for pedagogy (academic computing, funds for teaching development, help from the library, etc.) than for immediate research. If you are a junior professor or an adjunct at an institution, the pedagogy angle with digital humanities is also a great way to always get credit because if you are doing digital pedagogy, you are in fact being incredibly innovative in your pedagogy. There are also great collaborative student-faculty digital humanities projects out there that are ongoing and sustainable. Have a look at the Homer Multitext. People forget that digital humanities projects in the classroom can actually model some of the most exciting exercises in things like close reading and translation–editing and coding a text and doing a coded translation is the most intense, hands-on that a student can do–to thinking about large data sets like an entire corpus of primary source materials, etc.

  1.   What are some suggestions or recommendations for a beginner in terms of research and resources in digital humanities?

I will go ahead and number my suggestions:

  1. Go to sessions at conferences, this is the best way to know what projects are happening and what’s going on. If you are interested in specific kinds of projects, people there will be knowledgeable and tell you who is doing something similar. DH is a highly networked ecosystem; much more so than other kinds of medieval scholarship. People should remember that projects (the large ones in particular) take time and resources and often aren’t complete and live to the world for a number of years. So if you want to know what people are currently working on, or thinking of working on,  you should go to conference sessions to get the lay of the land.
  2. Read the medieval DH journals, there are two: Digital Medievalist and Digital Philology.
  3. Be on Twitter, see what projects are out there (we tend to follow each other and tweet projects as they come live).
  4. DIRT for what’s going on the in the visualizing data world.
  5. Go to a THATCamp. Go to any open and free workshops and seminars about DH things. See what your institutions, fields, or locations might have available.
  1. What do you consider to be some of the most exciting medieval DH projects currently available or in development?

I actually feel that answering this question by listing “exciting” medieval Dh projects actually undercuts what can be a more useful question. More interesting is to consider how to evaluate various medieval DH projects and why they will be useful to scholars and students and what to think about in evaluating them. Here’s the thing, the answer to this is going to depend entirely on your area and interest. An art historian is not going to be that interested in what a paleographical project is doing with late secretary hands. Likewise, a musicologist will not usually be that excited about a mapping annotation project because there is usually no music on medieval maps. So you see my point. There is an entire ecosystem of medieval DH projects out there that are doing different things that are helpful and useful for different kinds of students and researchers. If there is one site to go to first, I would suggest MESA (the Medieval Electronic Scholarly Alliance) since it’s the medieval DH-federated node of a larger ecosystem of digital area nodes. All medieval DH projects should be filtering their metadata vis-a-vis MESA standards so we can all make sense to each other and be linkable. I think one thing to understand about medieval DH projects is that these projects are part of a DH ecosystem that has ongoing rubrics and standards. It’s way more interesting to consider how do medieval DH projects fit into these standards–for instance, the 5 star data standard (http://5stardata.info/en/) and what does that say about issues around sustainability, linked open data, etc. If the point of these DH projects and their linking to MESA is to find a way to standardize our data, what exactly does that mean? It means a whole bunch of projects are thinking about a medieval DH future that would allow a researcher or student to take data from a bunch of different projects to do large scale “big data” analysis. Now that part is way more exciting than to think about individual projects. As co-director of a digital archive project with 160+ manuscripts, yes we think about the granular issues of things like “how do we render this odd capital that Orm started below line” but also the larger issues in project planning is thinking about how does our project fit into a larger medieval DH universe. How will our data be helpful to people working on Anglo-Norman french projects or manuscript projects? What will help us eventually create an ecosystem that will allow us to pull from multiple projects to answer a research question. That is actually the most exciting medieval DH phenomenon to consider–not individual projects, but how different projects and their instantiations can be eventually connected or linked to each other in the future. Also, realize individual medieval DH projects are always shifting, changing, refining in relation to other medieval DH projects. For example, you have no idea how ecstatic AEME (Archive of Early Medieval English) was when Stanford finished development on Mirador (their image viewer) before the official end of our grant (it means we don’t have to rely on Zoomify, thank god). Yes, that finished development will help our digitized images soooo much.

  1. What kind of funding is available for DH initiatives? Which organizations tend to support medievalists with DH projects?

It depends on which country you are in. In the US, it also depends on what level you are currently at. If you are a graduate student, I would look to see what kind of smaller funding pots might be available at your institution or from various scholarly organizations. Also, you could consider that CLIR (the Council on Libraries and Information Resources) has consistently had multiple DH+Medieval+Library postdocs for graduate students to apply for to work on DH projects around the country.

  1. What kind of online presence do you recommend for emerging and new to the profession scholars?

This is a complicated and specific sort of question. I have seen a number of facebook conversations amongst medieval colleagues precisely wondering about this for graduate students. So this is my advice for both graduate students, recent PHDs, new junior professors, etc. You do not have to take this advice because actually, that is part of my advice.

Your digital presence and online curation are your own. They are extensions of you and what you choose to do with them are about your particular interests, circumstances, digital and real body, and comfort. One thing to understand is that different medieval scholarly bodies are going to have different kinds of reactions from a digital public. Your digital body is an extension of your physical body in this world. This means all the things our bodies signal–race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, etc.–will be part of your digital body. This also means all the various systems that hierarchize and privilege certain bodies over others will also be in play. With this in mind, every person’s digital presence and online curation are going to do different sorts of things for various scholarly, political, critical, and personal reasons. You should consider and choose how you want this curation and presence to live. But you should also consider the ramifications and push back that might happen on different platforms.

My main advice is to research the limits and affordances of each digital platform. A Blog is not the same as Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, or Youtube, for example. All digital platforms are going to function and work differently and be better at certain things than others. Figure out what the platforms are and why you might want to be on them or not. Then make some decisions in relation to your goals for your work but also your understanding of scholarly community, what the public humanities mean to you, and also what you think is important in relation to education, activism, and the public. These are all specific questions and also larger philosophical, political, and personal questions that you need to consider and answer before deciding to go online. I think once you have thought about these questions and what your commitments are in relation to these, it will be easier (after you have also done a little research about each platform) to curate your online presence so it is a digital extension of yourself.

There are articles being written about academics and the power of each platform, feel free to read. Obviously, I am most interested in Twitter. I have written about this in a number of ways. But there are others who have written really important and interesting work on academics and this platform. For instance, read Bonnie Stewart’s work on academic influence and Twitter. I enjoy Twitter because it flattens the public ecosystem. It allows for dynamic networking and meeting communities you would otherwise not know was there. It also means that as an academic, I can actually talk to the larger public and be interested in issues I find important in the world out there. But this is how I curate my online presence, it’s very much an extension of my priorities in my own work and my life–my personal is political; I believe in an activist academy; I will call out racism, sexism, ableism, etc.; and I believe the humanities should be always thinking about its publics.

And yes, it’s interesting to consider, but having a digital online presence also gets your scholarly work out there, but again, how that’s done is up to you. I will say, I actually don’t tweet or publically write about my more mainstream medieval work that often. I see that as often part of a smaller community. I will however signal boost others but also discuss my more public digital humanities work, my public writing, or my interest in what’s going on in academia especially around gender and race. So again, there are multiple overlapping communities and how you function within that space is something you should research and consider depending on how you wish to be a scholar and a person in the world.

Dorothy Kim

Dorothy Kim

Dorothy Kim, Assistant Professor of English, December 2014

Dorothy Kim is an Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College. She received her Ph.D. from UCLA’s English Department. She was a 2013-2014 Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Frankel Institute of Advanced Judaic Studies where she finished a monograph entitled Jewish/Christian Entanglements: Ancrene Wisse and its Material Worlds which is currently under contract with the University of Toronto press. The book discusses gendered Jewish/Christian entanglement theory in relation to thirteenth-century religious books produced for female readers in Britain. She also has another book, Whiteness and Medieval Studies, under contract with ArcPress. She is working on a book entitled Crusader Rhetoric and the Katherine Group that considers how thirteenth-century English devotional literature for female religious women was fashioned as a form of crusader polemic. She has received Faculty Fellowships from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada for DHSI 2009, 2014, 2015 for training and certification in TEI/XML encoding, ARC/Collex, and Linked Open Data. She has participated in a Mellon-funded Mellon 23 liberal arts college conference on “Digital Archivalism.” She has been part of an Inter-Institutional Mellon Grant on “Archives that Count,” which considered non-traditional digital humanities data. She has also been a member of the TAPAS planning group (http://www.tapasproject.org/). She is the co-project director of the NEH-funded Scholarly Editions and Translations project An Archive of Early Middle English that plans to create a 161 MSS database for medieval English manuscripts from 1100-1348 that includes all items in Early Middle English. She is editing a volume with Jesse Stommel (University of Wisconsin, Madison) on Disrupting the Digital Humanities (forthcoming, punctum books) that discusses the marginal methodologies and critical diversities in the Digital Humanities. She has co-written articles on “#GawkingatRapeCulture” and “TwitterEthics,” and published articles about “TwitterPanic” and “Social Media and Academic Surveillance” at Modelviewculture.com. She has written about #medievaltwitter, #medievalwiki (Feminist Medieval Wikipedia Write-In) and can be followed @dorothyk98. She was named by Diverse: Issues in Higher Ed a 2015 Emerging Scholar under 40.