The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Richard Jean So

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.”

Richard Jean So, assistant professor in modern and contemporary American culture at the University of Chicago, echoes Moretti’s sentiments. He is working with members of his academic cohort to expand what the digital humanities can and should do. So’s work in DH, although brief in number of years, has already had substantial impact and can be found in journals such as boundary 2, Representations, and Critical Inquiry. I first came across So’s computational work on race, language, and power dynamics through a not-to-be-circulated (but yet still was) conference paper. So’s research area is still new ground for DH and as such provides an exciting perspective for this series, which aims to uncover, through conversations with both leading practitioners in the field and vocal critics of the field’s impact on humanistic inquiry, some surprising lines of overlap, as well as outright disagreement. But at its heart, this series is a means to explore the intersection of the digital and the humanities, and this intersection’s impact on research and teaching, American higher education, and the increasingly tenuous connection between the ivory tower of elite institutions and the general public.

To each of these topics Richard Jean So brings a perspective grounded in both his expertise in postcolonial and minority studies and his knowledge of quantitative methods, which he uses to reapproach questions of cultural transnationalism, race and representation, and minority discourse. The result is an exciting challenge to the scholarly perception of US minority literature as well as the presumed purview of DH as being concerned with only dead, white males. Part of this expansion work has involved the exhausting task of building a definitive 20th-century corpus of American novels, which will help pave the way for digital humanists to computationally examine a larger and previously unavailable body of literary work. Throughout our conversation, So’s passion for digital tools and methods is evident; yet, this is always tempered by a critical postcolonial training that manifests itself in his first monograph, Transpacific Community, forthcoming from Columbia University Press. Taken together, So’s varied methodological approaches — computational, cultural, political, archival, at times in tension with one another — reveal some refreshing perspectives on the digital in the humanities and its future within the academy.


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

RICHARD JEAN SO: My original academic interests and training were in postcolonial studies and race and ethnicity. I went to Columbia for graduate school to work with people like Edward Said and Gauri Viswanathan. I was really drawn to their work because they were able to combine theoretical questions and frameworks with close reading along with archival materials and evidence. I found this approach really compelling, and I was drawn to how they were able to map out historically what they described as cultural systems. For example, Said often refers to “Orientalism” as a kind of pattern or system. So my dissertation and first book worked very much in that mode; I thought of it as being in dialogue with postcolonial studies. Through the process of writing my first book, I started recognizing some of the limitations of that approach in terms of the evidence close reading can provide, and what even an archive can provide. They have certain constraints; I was excited by the idea of having much more evidence to strengthen the claims around the systematicity of culture — or culture as a kind of pattern — at a larger scale. So my digital work is really an outgrowth of an original training and disposition that I would describe as Saidian, or postcolonial, but then trying to think about that work with new kinds of evidence and how core claims in those areas could be bolstered.

So when did your computational work begin?

It was 2012, my second year at my job at the University of Chicago, which was a half generation behind people like Ted Underwood and Ben Schmidt. Once I had a good handle on my core training and my first book, I felt that I was in a position to expand my expertise and learn new skills. Not that I had mastered close reading or archival analysis, but I felt that I was in a position to learn how to do new things.

Since your work is heavily computational, is it fair to say that you would describe your research as “digital humanities”? Or do you not care about such labels?

I don’t really use the term “digital” to describe what I do. Not to be a contrarian, I just find it somewhat of a vague term. I would describe the thing that points to the digital in my work as quantitative and computational. I use large amounts of data, primarily numerical, and I use empirical methods to model that material to make sense of it. Does this qualify as “digital humanities” work? I guess, in terms of the digital humanities being a catch-all term for people doing stuff with computers. I guess what I do is one version of that. I would describe myself as aligned with people using computational methods to work to resolve or address or think about humanities questions. I don’t think most of the people in my cohort care how we describe or label the work we do. I think we broadly think of ourselves as English or Literature professors doing historical and critical work. If that gets described as digital is some way, it is not very meaningful to us. So, no, I actually don’t care about the label “digital humanities.”

Do you think that not caring stems from the job title itself? If you were hired in a digital humanities position instead of one in English literature, would you be more likely to care that your work is seen as aligned with the position you were hired to fill?

This is a really relevant question as more people are being hired as digital humanists. I have a kind of cynical interpretation. If you are going to identify with something, you typically feel like you are going to benefit from that labeling in some way. A lot of people in my cohort were already fairly established in literary studies, and so we don’t need that cachet — if there is any cachet attached with that. We would rather let our work speak for itself than thrive on labeling. I do take your point that if you are hired in the DH field and you need to get tenure in it, then probably being identified in this field will have some kind of professional benefit. I don’t feel like I need to benefit from this new development professionally or intellectually, so I don’t care if people think I’m associated with it.

Despite not identifying fully with the field’s label, do you think there are any digital or media subfields in particular that yield the most benefit to the humanities? If so, why?

This is such a contentious question. I’m not going to say there is one single subfield that is most beneficial because that points to a kind of hegemony. I will say though that I find it inspiring that there is simultaneous growth in both applied computational work alongside critical media studies. I think right now there is a kind of firewall between the two fields. People are picking sides and there is a lot of hostility between them. I would say that the antagonism is ultimately good for both fields, intellectually speaking. I think we need both fields. We need people using technology to do new forms of cultural research and we need people critiquing this research and these technologies, but I think you can’t really have one without the other. I find the development of both fields concurrently — and I don’t think this simultaneous growth is an accident — to be good for both sides and whatever this thing we are doing is called.

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?

The assumption of the question is that the humanities are somehow not relevant or increasingly less relevant, and I don’t buy into that formulation. I think people who are excessively enthusiastic about the digital humanities take those as premises — that the humanities are increasingly less relevant and the digital will save it. I absolutely do not endorse this position. I think it’s a naïve one. People who are doing intelligent and thoughtful computational work in the humanities do not believe that the humanities are becoming inherently less relevant and they do not see themselves as saving it, so I would not characterize my work or my cohort’s work as believing that. I want to make sure to dispel that notion. I think this characterization is unfair to thoughtful, applied digital humanities and the humanities in general.

I’d like to turn now to another contentious claim, this one articulated by media scholar Richard Grusin in his C21 post titled “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities.” In this post, Grusin draws connections between the emergence of DH and the increased “neoliberalism and corporatization of higher education.” Do you think such a comparison has merit? Is there something about the digital humanities’ desire to produce that creates an alignment with neoliberal thinking?

So I have a lot to say about this. I think what Grusin says is true. I am sympathetic to it. Most people I know working in applied computational work believe this, so as a critique it is not something with which we would quarrel. To me, though, I am less sympathetic when it comes to the generalness and abstractness of the critique. I am not quite sure what to do with it on its terms. What interests me about the critique is: What do we do next? If the force of the critique is that everyone doing work with computers should stop and we should go back to only doing close reading and historicism, then I am not sympathetic, because the premise then is that the problem of DH is that we have lots of grant funding, we use computers and numbers, and therefore nothing good can come from that. By this logic, nothing good can come from the sciences or social sciences, which is not true. If the critique is that we should be more aware of this, that it is an enlightenment point, then I am very sympathetic. I think all my collaborators are aware of this and take it very seriously. To us though, the question becomes: What do we do with this critique? How do we then do a scientific, applied version of the humanities that is critical of neoliberalism, critical of the corporatization of higher education? I think this is where we are headed. We are using these new methods, which, again, can be implicated in neoliberalism, to critique things like gender and racial inequality. I’m not sure if there is a real antagonism between these positions. Again, everyone I know and have worked with in this field is aware of this critique and generally sympathetic to it, but for us the next step is what can we do with this critique, practically, to produce new knowledge.

So you have already started to anticipate my next question, which deals with the large amounts of funding needed by and granted to digital humanities projects. I think it is fair to say that to put together a solid digital humanities research group, a fair amount of funding is needed. 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 want to be careful with this response because it immediately opens up charges of neoliberalism. The first thing I will say is that there is a lot of enthusiasm and excitement about funding the digital humanities or computational work in the humanities from donors, alumni, universities, federal grant organizations, ACLS, NEH, etc. I immediately want to qualify that though by saying that I’m aware that this situation can be dubbed “neoliberal,” in that the digital humanities is participating in ramping up the scientization of research knowledge. I am actually sympathetic to this critique. I am not uncritical about where the money comes from. But again, to me the question is, do people who critique DH funding suggest then that we give back the money and don’t do anything in this field? I believe that there is a way to draw on all this energy and money to do work that can be critical and socially engaged and that is what we are extremely focused on. It is not a utopian situation. I agree that money is being pulled from departments such as philosophy and classics, and somewhat being redirected to DH-type research. But to say that we can’t take this money and do computational work that is philosophical or critical is a deep fallacy. I want to say one final thing about this. This funding problem is not entirely a poor/rich university divide either. There are actually more DH centers popping up at state schools like Nebraska and Florida. So I think the notion that DH is just the privilege of rich private universities is also a fallacy. There has been more support at the state university level. The one thing I will say though is that it does punish small liberal arts colleges and community colleges, so there is a kind of rich-poor dynamic at work, but it is different than what you think it would be. It is really state schools — granted R1 schools — that are leading the way with funding.

Moving from the question of a poor/rich divide, the digital humanities have also opened up divisions 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?

Whether you code or not depends on your project. If you design your project to be a critique of media and it is critical and interpretive, then you don’t need to know how to code to do that. If you have a project that is computational in nature, then I think learning how to code is a good idea. There are a couple things I want to say about coding as a humanist. The first is that if you want to work with data, or cite data, to me it is untenable to just hire or collaborate with someone in stats or computer science. To me, this actually seems antihumanist because you don’t understand what you are doing. This would be like hiring someone to go to the archive to do your research for you. To do a critical, applied version of DH you should learn how to code, not because coding is a good practical skill, but because it is just solid humanities research practice to understand your materials and how they are made. The other thing is that no one in my cohort is saying that we should replace a foreign language requirement with a coding requirement. That is a fallacy. No one I know has ever said that. Coding is really different than learning a foreign language. Personally my work is comparative. I am a comparativist in Chinese literature; I spent seven years studying Chinese and think that every student should learn a foreign language. Coding is a different type of language acquisition, but I think it can supplement foreign language acquisition. It is a language that a lot of people use in the world and so I feel that the call to resist learning coding a priori is problematic in so far as we should encourage our students to learn as many different kinds of languages, artificial and natural, because it’s empowering. We want to empower students to know how the world works; if 90 percent of the world is run by computers and technology, then learning how to code cannot be a bad thing intellectually.

I want to change direction substantially now to discuss a problem that is pretty pervasive across tech fields, including the digital humanities, namely the significant underrepresentation of women and minorities. I know your own work touches upon this disparity as seen in both those who practice and those who are the subject of digital humanities research. Is there a remedy to this? How has your own work tried to challenge this lack?

I want to say from the jump that the situation is a complete catastrophe. It is untenable, unacceptable, and a total disaster. Everyone I work with on the applied side is extremely aware of this situation and it’s completely unsustainable. So anyone who accuses the DH community of being oblivious or insensitive to this problem is completely wrong. We are in a bad cycle in which the field is dominated by white men and so the work coming out of it tends to be of a certain sort, which then discourages minorities and women from being more interested in the field. People that are already in the field — Ted Underwood, Andrew Piper, Mark Algee-Hewitt, Hoyt Long, and myself included — basically see that it is through collaboration and pedagogy that the field can be diversified. In our Intro to Programming in the Humanities at Chicago, it is actually women and students of color who make up the majority. The question becomes how do we keep these students interested. In terms of pedagogy, the interest levels are very high among minorities and women. So I am very hopeful for the future in this regard. At the same time, in terms of collaboration, there are a lot of women and minorities that are interested in what this work can do, but they don’t want to put all their time into retraining.

In the short term, an approach to addressing this question is that we have to train students of a diverse background and begin collaborations. In fact I have a project that reflects a possible longer-term strategy. We are building a US novel database at Chicago and have partnered with Maryemma Graham at the University of Kansas, who runs the Project on the History of Black Writing. Graham is a distinguished African-American scholar and has been enthusiastically working with us to expand this corpus along racial lines and expanding its possibilities for research. So I am sympathetic to this critique as an incitement to do more collaborations. I am less sympathetic though when the critique is meant to say that everything we do is bullshit and flawed. This is an ungenerous and unfair depiction of the field and can have the impact of actually discouraging women and minorities from learning how to code when they want to. You are actually disempowering students when you say, “Look how racist this field is, don’t bother going into it.” If you want the field to be better, you need to encourage diverse students to enter it.

Can you speak a little bit about how your own computational research interacts with minority literature?

Yes, thanks for bringing this up. To be fair to the critics, DH research has focused too much on white-male writing, like Victorian literature. The problem here is that the data has not been readily available for 20th-century projects. My own work, and the corpus building I have done, is precisely to deal with this problem. But it is only recently that we have gotten this data and explored these possibilities. I actually think computational methods are really well suited for racial and gender critique, specifically meaning that if you want to track inequality and power differentials, working empirically — working at scale — can really flesh out these narratives of subjection and inequality. For example, the slogan “the one percent” is actually a quantitative description, and I think it is in part very powerful because of that. Computational methods can very much be an ally to the project of social critique and the critique of power.

In these final few questions, I’d like to talk about the relationship between the general public and 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 would say that the public probably understands it largely through representations in the media. But this is also unfortunate because DH has become more of a symbol for the changing humanities. The public discourse around DH is reductive because journalists either claim that DH is the savior of the humanities or they say it is the destruction of the humanities. Both are simplistic versions of what is happening in the academy. If you read newspaper articles in the 1980s about deconstruction, you can find similarly naïve or simplistic descriptions. My problem with this is when academics start repeating the terms of the debate from the media. I do think those who are critical of the digital humanities are sometimes not reading the work that people like myself or Andrew Piper or Marissa Gemma actually do. They are actually more responding to representations in the media rather than what is being done on the ground. I think the public understands DH as a symbol for what is happening in the humanities and that it’s dangerous when we academics also engage DH as a symbol for whether or not you are for or against technology and computers.

You seem to be anticipating my follow-up about public intellectualism and the academy. According to many scholars and journalists, we live in an age that has seen a decline in the public intellectual (as Nicholas Kristof opined in The New York Times as recently as last year). 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?

The first thing I want to address is that it is not a priori that public writing or engaging with the public is either a good or a bad thing. Some people will say that public writing is a kind of dilution or pandering; I don’t believe that. I think that translating our scholarship to a broader public audience through newspapers and journalists is a good thing, when done intelligently. Second, I do believe that, especially in literary studies, our communication with the general public has been poor and we have been underrepresented and misrepresented. The baseline is that the relationship between the humanities, or literary studies, and the public has been poor and could be improved. I believe we can take steps to make the relationship better and that this is desirable. In fact, Andrew Piper and I have started a public writing project called “Culture After Computation” where we take work we are doing in the academic field and write more accessible versions. We have successfully pitched articles and published them in places like Slate and The New Republic, and we have something forthcoming in The Atlantic as well. We were really surprised by how interested and open editors have been to a kind of public writing that mixes critical scholarship with ideas supported by quantitative evidence. Some might see this as pandering to the public. I’ve found to the contrary that the public is largely intelligent and speaking to it is not an inherently bad thing. We don’t think that the only point of this work should be to speak to the public, but we do think that some of our academic work can have a broader interest. We are translating difficult, complex ideas around culture and power to a broader audience and speaking to more people, and getting more people involved in the conversation is not a bad thing.

Okay, final question. In my interview with Franco Moretti, he pointed out to me — and rightfully so — that 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.

As a younger person in the field, I don’t like the gesture of looking back. I find it problematic for someone to justify a field by saying to people, “Look how great my field is because of all these accomplishments.” If you are in a field and the accomplishments don’t speak for themselves, then you have more work to do. It is a position of potential weakness or insecurity to constantly say, “Look what we’ve done.” There is certainly a place for that, but in trying to build out the field, this looking back can be problematic when done in a defensive way. If our work and accomplishments are not instantly recognizable outside the field, then we have to do more work. So I would definitely say that I am more future minded. It isn’t obvious yet that DH is here to stay, so rather than meet critiques with a “look what we’ve done” mentality, we need to go back to our books and computers and do better work until we don’t have to answer this question any more.


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).