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9.2 Digital Literary Studies: An Overview

In recent years, digital technologies—and in particular the Internet—have transformed nearly every aspect of our lives. Think of all the things we do every day that were impossible a decade ago. We keep in constant touch with friends through Facebook, we manage our bank accounts anywhere with our mobile phones, and we stream movies at will through Netflix. The same is true of literary studies. The rise of the digital age has transformed teaching and research. In today’s networked world, information is easy to come by: facts are cheap. For instance, digital archives such as Google Books ( contain far more books than any human being could read in a lifetime. This proliferation of data is sometimes called information overloadThe idea that so much information is now available to human beings that we cannot process it effectively.. The term “information overload” conveys worry that human beings cannot possibly process the sheer volume of information now available to them. Many literary scholars wonder, can we still read closely in this new world of 24-hour news feeds, constant status updates, and near-infinite electronic libraries?

Scholars in the field of digital humanitiesA broad, loosely organized movement of scholars in traditional humanities fields who use digital technologies to enhance their research, teaching, and/or publishing. (—or, more specifically, digital literary studies—engage actively with these new technologies.“What Is Digital Humanities?,” Digital Humanities Questions & Answers, Association for Computers and the Humanities, Digital humanists see opportunities for technology to help us understand the literature of the past, and they believe that scholars of subjects such as history and literature can help our culture better understand how we should engage with technology. This scholarly engagement can take many forms. Some digital literary critics use computational methods to analyze texts (or large groups of texts) in new ways. Others use geospatialA term that can describe a range of data and/or methodologies related to place. Geospatial research can include maps, census data, topographic data, and other layers that help describe a physical place and the people (or plants, animals, etc.) who live there. technology to map literary or historical events. Still others “read” technology itself, seeking to understand the way that electronic texts work and to explain how new media are reshaping readers’ relationships to knowledge.

Digital humanities scholars also value public or open-access scholarshipResearch and publication practices that are open to all interested readers, rather than being restricted to the subscribers of particular journals or databases. Public scholarship is often distributed online, through a scholar’s personal website, or through an open-access journal or archive.. Public scholarship is made widely (and freely) available to interested readers rather than being restricted to the subscribers of particular journals or databases. In his article “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” Matthew Kirschenbaum says, “The digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed.”Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 1–7. When students work on public digital humanities projects, their work often improves because they know it will be seen by students and professors outside of their classes. When you write in public, the pressure increases, but so do the potential rewards from doing good work.

Your Process

  1. Have you used digital resources when doing research for a literary paper? Have you ever written about a particular technology? Jot down two or three examples from previous classes.

Because digital humanities is such a new and evolving field, this chapter unfolds differently than the previous chapters. Instead of focusing on one type of student assignment that develops through the entire chapter, this chapter highlights several kinds of digital assignments that literature professors might require. Each section will describe the methodologies that underlie each kind of assignment and link to real student projects that make use of those methodologies. First, however, the chapter helps you think about writing for the web, which can be markedly different from writing a long-form term paper.