The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Ted Underwood

By Melissa DinsmanAugust 10, 2016

The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Ted Underwood
Click here for the complete series of “The Digital in the Humanities.”

FOR AT LEAST THE PAST DECADE, the term “digital humanities” (DH) has captured the imagination and the ire of scholars across American universities. Supporters of the field, which melds computer science with hermeneutics, champion it as the much-needed means to shake up and expand methods of traditional literary interpretation; for most outspoken critics, it is a new fad that symbolizes the neoliberal bean-counting destroying American higher education. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies a vast and varied body of work that utilizes and critically examines digital tools in the pursuit of humanistic study. This field is large and increasingly indefinable even by those in its midst. In fact, “digital humanities” seems astoundingly inappropriate for an area of study that includes, on one hand, computational research, digital reading and writing platforms, digital pedagogy, open-access publishing, augmented texts, and literary databases, and on the other, media archaeology and theories of networks, gaming, and wares both hard and soft. As Franco Moretti said to me in the first of these interviews: “‘Digital humanities’ means nothing.”

For Ted Underwood, professor and LAS Centennial Scholar of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it isn’t that the digital “means nothing,” but more that it means too much. As a reader of Underwood’s work, his disavowal of the term “digital humanities” to describe his research interests was surprising. Underwood’s name, perhaps more than anyone’s in this series, seems synonymous with the current state of DH due to his well-known and exciting text-mining of large corpora. But throughout this interview, Underwood continuously focuses his comments around the phrase “distant reading” to describe the field of which he considers himself to be a part. In so doing, he, like many of the interviewees before him, including Pamela Fletcher and Sharon Leon, carves up DH into various fields to reflect more broadly a federation of interest in the digital’s intersection with the humanities — what in the end we might call the digital in the humanities. Underwood’s reflections on the current state of digital work certainly speak to this series’s aims to explore the surprising lines of overlap, as well as outright disagreement, in DH and beyond.

Perhaps I should have expected the unexpected when speaking with Underwood. Much of his career has been about making surprising connections and upending literature’s desire to compartmentalize and label. Such rebelliousness must eventually turn on itself in order to remain in a state of rebellion. Thus Underwood’s rejection of “digital humanities” can be understood as a natural progression of an extensive body of literary insurrection that includes his most recent book, Why Literary Periods Mattered (2013), in which he argues that by scaling up our literary corpora we begin to see literary periods as artificial and constructed moments of contrast. This interest in scale is also the focus of Underwood’s forthcoming issue of Modern Language Quarterly, co-edited with James F. English. Focusing less on the impact of the digital in the humanities, this series instead explores the interdisciplinary conversations that emerge around the digital. Even his blog, The Stone and the Shell, celebrates the blurring of artificial boundaries by bringing together poetry and math. And while it may seem that Underwood’s focus on “distant reading” only adds to the definitional line-drawing that he has fought against by scaling up, I choose to scale up my own reading and see this gesture, and his conversation with me on a whole, as part of a larger body of work that has claimed literary history as a weapon against anachronistic academic labels.


MELISSA DINSMAN: How did you first come to enter what I am broadly going to call the “digital” field?

TED UNDERWOOD: I’m going to take “digital” super literally as involving digits and say that I began experimenting with numbers around 1995. I played around with word frequencies in an article that traces the history of ideas about work. But our digital libraries weren’t large enough in 1995 to do what I wanted. So John Unsworth, who was dean of the Library School here, encouraged me to return to the project many years later (in 2009), after the advent of Google Books, and I discovered that we could trace stories that had been impossible to trace in the 1990s. In the meantime, machine learning had made quantitative methods more flexible and more suited to humanistic subjects, so things have moved really rapidly in the last seven years. So the major moment for me was moving from word frequencies in digital libraries, which is what I had imagined I was going to do in 1995, to actually grasping everything that had changed in the meantime, especially where computer science and machine learning are concerned. These advances meant we could do more interesting things that were in a way more suited to the humanities.

So how would you describe the role of the digital in your current humanities work? Do you think this qualifies as “digital humanities”? Do you care?

This is a great question for me because I explicitly don’t find the term “digital humanities” useful. I understand why people use it. It gives us a way of unifying projects from game studies to archaeology through the simple fact that people use computers. In 2009 that made sense because a lot of changes were happening at once and we hadn’t sorted them out. “DH” had a real value for me as an encounter group — I met a lot of great people and learned a lot. But as these projects mature, it makes less sense to group them together. It’s clear now that they have different goals and different methods. I suspect that scholars of new media and digital archaeologists would get along better if they stopped imagining themselves as competing versions of a single thing called DH. They’re not really competing. They’re different things. So the name I use for my own work is “distant reading,” which names the new perspective literary historians get by considering thousands of volumes at a time. And while Franco Moretti coined this phrase, in reality the project already existed under other names, like book history or sociology of literature. Technology doesn’t have to be central to it. The questions we’re posing are familiar questions about literary history. But digital libraries and machine learning have given us new leverage on those questions because, for instance, we can trace blurry family resemblances among texts instead of defining fixed categories. It was hard to trace loose family resemblances among thousands of volumes by hand.

In speaking about distant reading in this way, you are, in a way, talking about subfields (or perhaps even carving up DH into a federation of distinct fields). I am wondering if there are any digital or media subfields in particular that you think yield the most benefit to the humanities and why?

I learned from linguists and sociologists as well as computer scientists and statisticians. The main thing I would want to stress is that quantitative fields are not grab bags of tools. Statistics is an epistemology. Machine learning is really, honest to God, a theory of learning. These fields can be philosophical interlocutors for the humanities, helping us to think about interpretation on a scale where variation and uncertainty are central problems. That’s a theoretical challenge of a deep and interesting kind. But you only see the challenge if you take those fields seriously. If you start by assuming that statistics is merely instrumental or alien to humanists, you never even glimpse the questions that I think are most interesting. Finally, library science should be mentioned. The big change in the last 15 years is not that computers are faster; it’s that our digital libraries have gotten better. HathiTrust Digital Library aggregates a lot of academic and public collections, and the resulting warehouse is a bit like the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In a good sense, of course! From a researcher’s point of view, nothing is more beautiful than slowly zooming out to see a maze of 14 million crates that no one fully understands. I work closely with HathiTrust Research Center; they keep me from getting lost in there. Metadata turns out to be a harder topic than nonlibrarians realize.

People often speak of digital work (and more frequently the digital humanities) as a means of making the humanities relevant in the 21st-century university. Do you think this statement is a fair assessment of digital work and its purpose? Do you think it is fair to the humanities?

No. The underlying assumption there is that you would only do something new if the old thing had failed. It’s a weirdly agonistic model. Of course close reading is still relevant. And nothing could be more relevant than human history. Distant reading is not a replacement for anything outmoded. It’s just an opportunity to do something additional that might enrich our understanding of the past.

You are one of the first people of this series to really mention distant and close reading. Can you speak a little more about the relationship between these two modes of reading?

I don’t think it’s challenging to combine close and distant reading. You don’t need a special method. The Stanford Literary Lab pamphlets often use close readings to help readers understand a long trend; the pamphlet by Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac, for instance, includes readings of passages from Dickens where the large frame makes descriptive details leap out. There are a growing number of scholars who do this brilliantly: Sarah Allison, Ryan Cordell, Hoyt Long, Andrew Piper, Tanya Clement, Richard Jean So, just to mention a few. The only challenge is that if you try to do close and distant in the same essay it may take a lot of pages — you’re going to be generalizing about hundreds of books, plus describing case studies. Keeping all that crisp and pointed is hard, so I don’t think it’s wise to insist that people always do both at once. But it’s not like there is any incompatibility between the approaches. The bizarre thing about the concern that distant reading is displacing close reading is that we’re talking about maybe one percent of the people in literary studies. So where is the fear coming from? There’s a slippery-slope theory behind it, I suppose, but I don’t think traditional critical practices are as fragile as that theory would imply.

Speaking of fear, another concern surrounding DH has to do with the field’s alignment with the emergence of the neoliberal university. This was perhaps most famously put forth by media scholar Richard Grusin in a C21 post titled “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities.” In this post, he draws connections between the emergence of DH and the increased “neoliberalization and corporatization of higher education.” Do you think such a comparison has merit? Is there something about the digital humanities’s desire to produce that creates an alignment with neoliberal thinking?

I said that digital humanities doesn’t name a specific set of methods. It’s a vague interest in technology. So actually I think it’s perfectly fair to associate it with all the things that annoy us about technology right now. It’s true that DH can be aligned with managerial thinking — administrators like it. It can also be hypnotized by shiny pictures and prone to moralistic groupthink on social media. Everything that annoys us about our own time can be found in DH. But what does that tell us? It tells us that it’s not a very coherent concept really. People want to pretend that DH is a coherent research program so they can write stirring manifestoes and trenchant critiques of it. But interest in technology is not really a research program or an idea with clear political significance. It’s a trend, like being a hipster or a geek, that belongs in the style section. So I would prefer to get people talking about specific research programs, like game studies or distant reading. If Grusin had inquired about the political significance of studying thousands of books rather than a canonical 200, I could say something more meaningful. That seems to me to be a specific idea with political implications, which I would describe as democratic and materialist.

So one part of this neoliberal critique has to do with the funding of DH. As you know, putting together a solid digital humanities research group requires a fair amount of funding. How is this funding typically achieved? Are universities willing to pay for DH projects despite massive cutbacks elsewhere, or is funding most likely to be found from external sources?

I noticed that Moretti’s response to this question was along the lines of “actually, it doesn’t require that much funding.” And I find myself agreeing with that. I don’t know about DH, because it’s so broad. But there is nothing inherently expensive about distant reading. If you want to build glossy websites, then maybe you do need to hire a staff of programmers. But that’s not what I do. I’m just writing articles about literary history — very low-gloss. Usually I can do the programming, or grad students can do it. Articles, professors, courses, and grad students are regular parts of the university. We are not an added expense. Could we use more funding? Sure. Fellowship support for faculty and students is always welcome, and it’s particularly helpful in distant reading because the reality is that most faculty and students in the humanities don’t already know how to do this stuff. What we need is training. So I’ve gotten some internal and external fellowships and I’m grateful that they gave me time to try new things. But it’s not like we had to buy a particle accelerator. At UIUC I don’t even have a room with a whiteboard, to be honest. It’s low budget.

In the past there has been a line drawn in the digital humanities between those who code and those who don’t. Do you think full engagement with the digital humanities requires programming skills, and if so, should programming become a requirement for humanities students?

One of the reasons I don’t identify with the digital humanities is I don’t think it’s possible to generalize meaningfully about the training required for that phrase. Imaginary arguments on this topic just reflect the reality that people are doing half a dozen different things. I do know that coding is useful for distant reading. Some scholars have delegated the coding, and good work can be done that way. Even writing can be delegated in a pinch. We could do this by dictation, and it could be done well. But if you were building a curriculum from scratch to teach people how to do distant reading, then of course you would teach them how to write and also how to code, and statistics, and literary history.

We also hear quite a bit about the significant underrepresentation of women and minorities across digital fields, including the digital humanities. Is there a remedy to this? Has your own work tried to challenge this lack?

I think the source of the problem here is that none of us have formal training. So people with a hobbyist background have an edge and that hobbyist background is not equally distributed. I think you solve that by building equitable institutions. We don’t have a digital humanities program or center at Illinois, and I’m not trying to build one. What we do have is a school of Library and Information Science (LIS). That’s where most distant reading actually gets done on our campus. As disciplines go, LIS is pretty serious about inclusiveness. The majority of students are women. Inequities still exist within LIS, but it’s a very different model from computer science, and I see it as a good model to build on: a place where programming and statistics, along with social inquiry, are already being taught to a diverse student population.

Despite its reliance on online platforms, much of the talk around the digital in the humanities today also concerns physical location — namely, does the future of digital work lie in individual departments or libraries? Do you have an opinion on the best physical place for digital scholarship, and what does this say about its future role in the university?

This is an important question. Libraries are important, but not sufficient. Neither are DH centers. Centers and workshops were stopgaps. What I think we need now are curricula. A workshop is not long enough to teach the stuff people need to learn. The curricula could be located in different places. At some schools all aspects of digital humanities are grouped together as a separate program, and that can work, although it's not the path that appeals most to me. I very much like the Stanford model of a lab associated with a humanities department, but that can only work if humanities departments are able to create a curricular pipeline that provides the training students need. Bluntly, if English majors aren’t learning to code, then this sort of work will migrate to locations where students are better prepared to do it. I don’t think that would necessarily be something to mourn. It’s possible that disciplines like sociology or communications will turn out to be good homes for distant reading. As I’ve hinted, my own energies are equally divided now between English and information science. I’m interested in a particular set of questions about the literary past, but those questions don’t have to line up with the curriculum of a single department.

For the next two questions, I’m going to ask you to think about public engagement and knowledge of digital work in the academy. To start with, how do you think the general public understands the term “digital humanities” or, more broadly, the digital work being done in the humanities (if at all)?

I don’t think the term “digital humanities” is something the public needs to care about. And actually I’m not sure distant reading is something they need to care about either. It’s academic inside baseball. The term people do hear about — and worry about — is big data. Unfortunately it’s a big phrase that confuses academics as much as it worries the public. New modes of data collection are, I think, what people worry about. What do Facebook or Skype, for instance, know about us? The sheer scale of gigabytes and terabytes is actually a separate issue. And somewhere buried underneath those topics is the part of this that I find most interesting: newly flexible strategies of representation and generalization drawn from machine learning. In public discussion, these issues are blended into a single ominous cloud — there’s a lot of hype, a lot of finger-wagging, and so far very little substantive understanding. We might change that. But it’s not indifference that we are struggling against in this case; it’s actually fear, I think. And this isn’t specific to the humanities, but I think it’s where the public is engaging this.

My second question on this theme has to do with public intellectualism, which many scholars and journalists alike have described as being in decline (for example, Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times essay). What role, if any, do you think digital work plays? Could the digital humanities (or the digital in the humanities) be a much-needed bridge between the academy and the public, or is this perhaps expecting too much of a discipline?

I don’t care about public intellectuals. Ideas are what matter to me, not charismatic individuals. Do you know the name of this decade’s most famous paleontologists? Their names don’t matter. It matters whether we’re creating genuinely new pictures of the human past and beautiful theories and exciting debates. If we do all those things, then the humanities will have public significance whether or not anyone knows our names. And I’m cautiously optimistic that we are doing those things. I think I even believe that we are doing a better job of it now than we were 25 years ago. But I don’t know. History’s verdict takes time and certainly I would be wary of the notion that building websites in itself will guarantee public significance. Websites come and go.

As Franco Moretti pointed out to me — and he was right — all my questions focus on the future of the digital in the humanities. Perhaps it’s a sign of my own optimism, or perhaps it reflects a certain anticipatory tone that is used in media and DH circles. My last question, however, is going to ask that you look backward and speak to what you think the digital in the humanities has accomplished so far.

I’m not going to try to speak about the digital generally, because it’s too broad of a frame. But I will say that distant reading has utterly transformed my view of literary history. Ten years ago I thought we basically understood literary history because we could apply generational labels, like romanticism or modernism. But as we slice libraries in new ways we keep stumbling over long, century-spanning trends that have little relationship to the stories of movements and periods we used to tell. We can see genres differentiating from each other gradually. We can see assumptions about gender gradually shifting. We’ve learned that the literary standards defining a prestigious style change very slowly. It doesn’t happen in a generation; it takes centuries. Distant readers are just getting started and we have an enormous amount left to learn. But it is clear now that these methods can turn up important patterns that we couldn’t see before, and that’s what I’m loving about this.


Melissa Dinsman is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II (2015).

LARB Contributor

Melissa Dinsman is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II (2015). Dinsman’s research focuses on the intersection of modernist literature and media aesthetics, and her first book brings together her interest in late-modernist radio broadcasting, archival recovery, information networks, and the Frankfurt School. Dinsman is currently working on a new book project, America’s Blitz, which looks at the ways in which British and U.S. writers, directors, and broadcasters translated British wartime experiences for American audiences during World War II, and how these translations often resulted in a melodramatic genre-framing of Britain’s struggle. Her work can be found in journals such as Contemporary Women’s Writing, The Space Between, and Literature Interpretation Theory.


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