Notes   /   26 July 2019

From "Digital Humanities" to "Digital Studies":

Strategic Interdisciplinarity


It seems like when we talk about the pedagogy of digital humanities, or whenever we situate the work we recognize as DH, we talk about it via its adjacency to or overlap with other disciplines. I noticed that at the DH at Small Liberal Arts Colleges DH panel, the programs many of the speakers affiliate with were called several things besides "digital humanities". This is OK!

So What is "Digital Humanities"?

I'm not going to try and define it. If you're interested, there's a book or two.

Fortunately, the Department of Education has already defined it with a CIP code (Classification of Instructional Program):

A program that focuses on the use of new technologies, advanced computing, and public engagement to investigate and analyze questions in the humanities. Includes instruction in anthropology, art, data mining and machine learning, design, digital archives, geospatial technologies, history, human-computer interface design, literature, markup languages, social media technologies, and software development.

This is 30.5202, which is part of the "Digital Humanities and Textual Studies" section, which comes right after "Philosophy, Politics and Economics" and right before "Thanatology."

So What is "Digital Studies"?

Like any definition, it depends on the audience. To my colleagues and students, I say it's an interdisciplinary exploration of digital creativity, digital culture, and digital methodologies.

To other parents at soccer practice or cub scouts, it's "like an English class but with computer stuff."

Digital studies is still not as widely-used as digital humanities, and it's definition is not nearly as discursive.

Part of the problem is definitely grammatical. Whereas the noun, humanities, is clearly modifed by the adjective digital, it's not as clear whether digital studies is the study of digital things or studying things digitally, and either way, the "thing" of study is unspecified.

Which is another way of saying that "digital studies" is a term that gets deployed institutionally to leverage interdisciplinary affinities and to create flexible programs.

At my institution, The University of Mary Washington, a small, Public Liberal Arts college in Fredericksburg, Virginia, we have a minor in Digital Studies that includes courses from 10 different disciplines in order to compose a viable course of study for our students. And while that interdisciplinarity was initially strategic, I now view it as a clear strength of our program. It's something that draws in and supports a more diverse group of students.

That said, calling a program "interdisciplinary" still doesn't quite explain what it is or why someone would do it, so I was interested in seeing how our specific assortment of disciplines compared with other programs that call themselves "digital studies".

I found a dozen or so programs in North America called simply "Digital Studies". Excluding the two majors in Digital Studies, and the program at the University of Tulsa which seems to be phasing out, I compared lists of courses for 10 so-called "Minors in Digital Studies" to see which disciplines they included besides "digital studies" as such.

Specifically, I wanted to see how many of these were digital humanities in disguise.

The first thing I learned from looking at these websites is that digital studies means "people looking at computers together."

Look at the Kumu Map

  • walk through the different programs
  • obviously it's rough because different schools use incommensurate names for things. A better analysis would maybe look at assignments, common texts, learning outcomes, etc. to see which courses actually belong in the same pile as each other.

Look at the Syllabus Map

Talk about modules


I threw up a jokey slide earlier with people looking at computers together, but maybe this isn't such a bad explanation for what we do in Digital Studies.

Looking together means sharing and comparing judgments about what we're seeing or creating together, and when those judgments are paying attention to issues of power, access, justice, ability, identity then we're doing the right kind of work.