Cultural Criticism & Doing DH: What’s a humanist to do?

During the Boston Area Days of DH keynote address framed as a debate between Matthew Jockers and Julia Flanders at Northeastern University on March 18, Jockers made mention of a project that his team had developed for which they had applied for a Google grant (one of the Digital Humanities Research Awards that Liu mentions?) and been rejected. No stranger to varying degrees of rejection in an academic context myself, I was at first sympathetic to the situation in which Jockers and his team had found themselves. It was wonderful to see how easily and casually he accepted it, an inspiration for someone who is still building up a thick skin and working on a capacity to accept productive failure.. Upon hearing a description of the project, however, my reactions were manifold, conflicting, and contradictory.

At first glance the project seems simple, useful, and straightforward enough an endeavor. Without claiming in any way a complete understanding of the project, I will summarize that Jockers spoke of an analytical method (perhaps an algorithm?) that his team had constructed that could, with plus or minus twenty percent accuracy, determine the gender of authors in the Google Books corpus. On a superficial level the project seems innocuous enough, and I can see wonderful potential value in it. I suppose some part of me longs to be an optimist and/or pragmatist. What areas of inquiry could such identification make possible? The optimist in me wants to believe that this would be possible to further the project of opening the archive in some way, of reclaiming (if not renaming) women’s voices that have been lost to time.

A few moments of reflection, however, quickly led me to regard this tool with a more pessimistic eye that left me with questions about dealing with this troublesome thing called the archive vaguely reminiscent of those at the heart of works like Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts.” Hartman asks “Is it possible to construct a story from ‘the locus of impossible speech’ or to resurrect lives from the ruins? […] Or is narration its own gift and its own end, that is, all that is realizable when overcoming the past and redeeming the dead are not?” and in relation to Jockers’ team’s gender identification tool I cannot help but ask a similar question. What good does it actually do to divide the Google Books corpus along the line of gender? Moreover, what damage could it potentially do?

What makes me uneasy is not so much the tool itself as it is my perception of a lack of sensitivity to issues of gender inherent in its creation and the potential for misuse and unforeseen repercussions in its execution. I cannot begin to know what intentions and theory were involved in the creative process, but I could not help but raise my eyebrows. It seems to me inherent in such a project are a number of questions that do not pertain to the accuracy or utility of such an analysis. Rather, I am intrigued by the ethics of the thing. Just because we possess the capacity to build an analytical apparatus capable of identifying, with plus or minus twenty percent accuracy, which certainly seemed to be a margin of error at the talk that provoked laughter, the gender of authors in the Google Books corpus, should we make such a tool? And to what end? The digital humanist in me accepts and understands that it was likely issues of utility, the margin of error, and other more technical factors that I can only begin to comprehend that led to Jockers’ team’s rejection, but the more traditional humanist in me, the feminist and gender scholar in me, wants to hope that it was at least partially motivated by issues of application and theory.

I come to the digital humanities from a background of gender and sexuality studies. My freshman year of my undergraduate career I was recruited to my university’s women’s studies program, and while my interests have expanded beyond the scope of women’s issues, I am passionately motivated by issues of and inquiry into the slippery, tenuous nature of gender, its performance, and its impact upon society. I have become as passionately devoted to the digital humanities over the past six months as I have been over the past six years to gender studies, for I believe that it offers avenues for meaning making and analysis that have not been previously available. The possibilities provided by new ways of looking at old questions and new approaches for the generation of new questions and theories are manifold and have the potential to be transformative.

Yet marrying my background in gender and sexuality in literary studies to my newly found investment in a technological approach has proven exceedingly difficult. Over the course of the semester I have been struggling to find ways to resolve the tension that I have been feeling. I have spent many sleepless nights fruitlessly attempting to determine how I could adopt the “More Hack, Less Yack” imperative that Adeline Koh so eloquently critiques. I have blogged and Tweeted to little avail in an attempt to better understand where I can begin. “What can I make?” has been the question reverberating through the chambers of my mind, and I have been nothing short of disheartened by the resounding silence I’ve offered in response.

I had almost accepted my troubles as a single and solitary issue rooted in some lack within myself, but now I am reconsidering that stance. Are my difficulties rooted in and linked to this bigger question of the role of critical theory in DH and the perceived disconnect between theory and DH practice? Am I reflective of this troubling moment in DH? In what ways can I join and what do I have to offer the #TransformDH movement? It seems imperative for me now not only to begin, not only join the DH community as a whole, but to help make clear to myself and others the ways in which cultural criticism and the technical turn in the humanities that DH represents are not disparate, and this must be done even if it’s for no other reason than the fact that I am tired of feeling frustrated, as if I’m being pulled in two different directions and must choose one or the other.

In his conclusion to “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” Alan Liu writes that “issues have a necessary cultural dimension, whether as cause or effect; and all, therefore, need the public service of humanist and, increasingly, digital humanist participants.” From this quote, the aforementioned anecdote from the Boston Area Days of DH keynote, and my experience over the semester as project manager of the initial stages of Around DH in 80 Days emerges a question much more important to our field than the recurrent “what is DH?” or “what should DHers make/do?” What we must begin asking ourselves, what must begin allowing to guide our work, for I would argue that conducting ourselves in such a way that we answer this question would make answers to the former two self-evident, is “what does it mean to participate?

Let us engage in projects and develop tools, analyses, and technologies not because we can but because we must. Then let us embrace and celebrate the community that emerges from this new discourse. Conscientious construction, I argue, is a concept that we need to take steps to embrace as much as the potential value of productive failure. Perhaps this is the route towards a wider acceptance of DH tools and techniques by those outside of the community. And if not that, then maybe it’s at least a way to help one less new DHer feel less lost.

((Author’s Note: The current version of this blog post has been edited from the original version with the very positive and helpful feedback of Adeline Koh of It is still a dynamic work in progress, though it is merely the presentation, not the ideas, that have been edited. Thank you for your constructive criticism, Adeline!))


I am a first year MA student in English at Northeastern University and a member of Ryan Cordell's Digital Humanities class.

Tagged with:
Posted in Uncategorized
7 comments on “Cultural Criticism & Doing DH: What’s a humanist to do?
  1. Thanks for a great post, Hope. I would have loved to have been in the room to hear the talk myself – you’ve certainly piqued my interest. I want to make sure that you know that you’re not alone in struggling to find ways to bring work in gender and women’s studies together with digital humanities – both in terms of making and theory. There is a strong group of scholars who are working to wrestle with these issues and I hope you’ll feel comfortable joining our conversations.

    In response to your question – ‘what can I make?’ – I encourage you to think about the audience you want to speak to and to think about what the material demands. This is one of the conversations we had at THATCamp Feminisms this past weekend – knowing who you want to talk to, why, about what and then engaging with a set of tools that will allow you to reach that goal, while also reflecting on the ways that the tools constrain/change what you can say.

    The tools of DH can be seductive, there’s a lot of pressure to learn everything, and that can lead to a tools-first approach. Instead, think about what you want to do and what tools can get you there. I’m interested right now in rapid and small interventions, so lightweight tools are best. I keep my TEI and large-scale archive training in my pocket for a later project.

    Good luck with your work and thanks for the post!

    • Hope says:

      Thank you for your feedback, Jacque. I definitely will take to heart your anecdote from THATCamp Feminisms. Determining an audience seems essential for any work, but DH especially since I believe it has perhaps a wider audience than traditional scholarship. I’m cautiously optimistic about its potential as a more democratic, open, transparent form of scholarship in which the curious outside of academia might take an interest. I know that the projects we’ve been looking at while working on our class project this semester, Around DH in 80 Days, has brought to light a number of great projects around the globe that both contribute to heavy scholarship and would be interesting to the academically uninitiated. What makes the projects we’ve identified as notable and outstanding is seemingly, in my opinion, an ability to bridge gaps, and I feel like that comes from a clear sense and a broad definition of audience.

      That still leaves the difficult question of what I want to do, but I think worrying about tools as suboordinate to that guiding mission/principle/project/goal is definitely useful, especially for a beginning DH scholar. And, ultimately, I think it’s important to choose to do something. That, I would argue, is at least partly what it means to participate – to choose to do something instead of let fear or inexperience or anything else stand in the way. I’m deeply invested in trying to find a way to marry academics and activism, not always easy for someone whose primary focus tends to be Fitzgerald and Modernism, though I would argue that it’s by no means impossible. Thank you for the encouragement!

  2. “what does it mean to participate?” I love this. I keep swearing I’m going to write a gender analysis of the “tool” fetish in DH, but alas I’m too busy doing digital history. IMHO we need to make the questions what does it mean to participate as central as what can I make to DH or we will merely replicate the issues we have in other endeavors in digital work. Indeed as you have already found, and as we learn in gender studies, the questions we ask reveal our assumptions. The notion of Jockers project is that there is SOMETHING that would allow a computer to figure out “male” or “female” writers (what was supposed to happen to trans/intersex I wonder?” I do recall playing with an online tool that was meant to “label” ones writing male or female. I was “male.” WTF that means I’ve no idea. Keep asking the questions about the questions in DH and everywhere else! Would someone expect to get a grant to determine the “ethnicity” of an author? If so why? What is to be gained? I could see age, education level etc as these might have pedagogical implications, but identity factors? No.

    • Hope says:

      At least you’re busy “doing digital,” no? That’s fantastic to hear, though I would love to read (or think about/collaborate upon) a gender analysis of the “tool” fetish – in DH and elsewhere. I would agree, though, that this question of meaningful participation seems central for me, and less entropic than the question of “what can I make?” That might be my Third Wave Feminism class I took as an undergrad working through me, but I feel less paralyzed when I frame the question that way.

      I will point out that my understanding of Jockers’ tool was not entirely accurate. Matthew was kind enough to reply to my post (and I highly recommend a look at it!) to help clarify the tool for me, but I don’t think it changes my belief that we need to make meaningful tools, if we’re going to make them, guided by theory. Perhaps it’s that idea of questioning that’s central to my gender studies roots, but I find that asking questions about ethics and effects never hurts. And even though he’s not the first to make the observation that there is a link between gender and style, I think there’s a number of questions to ask about running these types of analyses and what purpose they serve, though I cannot pretend to be any expert on the topic. I’m always skeptical about how useful it is to know anything identifying about an author. Though perhaps I’m just tired of feeling the necessity to have several authors’ biographical information bouncing around in my head at any time. And I’m not entirely sure the “death of the author” in connection with a text is entirely useful, either.

      It seems there’s always many things to think about and many ways of looking at a situation, especially in terms of gender, both inside of DH and out!

  3. Hi Hope,

    Thanks for some thoughtful commentary. I figured I’d chime in about a few things that are not quite accurate and then offer a few thoughts of a slightly more nuanced nature: meaning more nuanced than what was covered in the Q&A. First, the grant we submitted to Google (some years ago) had nothing to do with gender identification. Rather, the grant was about metadata enhancement and using various text mining techniques to auto-generate metadata and thus allow, for example, identification of which books in the corpus were likely to be fiction and which non-fiction. Author gender is certainly the sort of thing that could have been explored, but as far as I recall, that was not part of the grant we wrote.

    When I mentioned gender in the Q&A after the talk, it was as an example of a type of metadata, and I mentioned it in relation to my work with a corpus of 3,500 19th-century novels. For my book, I conducted some gender classification experiments and observed ~80 accuracy in classifying 19th-century novels by author gender. I write about these experiments in some detail in the chapters titled “Style,” “Theme,” and “Influence.” I think you’ll find some of the nuances addressed there. Until the book comes out (next month), you might want to have a look at this presentation: .

    No matter how we feel about gender distinctions (or “identity factors” as Michelle says), one of the things revealed in my analysis of the 19th-century novel is that gender does have a relationship to both the stylistic and thematic choices made by writers. Whether those stylistic and thematic entailments are a byproduct of culture or chromosomes is a question about which we can only speculate. What appears undeniable is that the entailments exist. And, I should mention here that I’m by no means the first to observe this. In fact my experiments only reconfirmed the work of many other researchers, mostly linguists, who have observed similar classification accuracies–in the 80-85% range (the work of Shlomo Argamon comes immediately to mind, see

    • The link I pasted into my last comment referencing a presentation did not come through. Here is the link again.

    • Hope says:

      Hi Matthew,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my post. I appreciate your thoughtful clarifications and insights. I didn’t want to claim a full understanding by any stretch of the imagination, so some further explication from the source is much appreciated. I’m still struggling a bit with understanding data and metadata as I’m fairly new to DH, and I’m definitely interested in learning more about the type of identification you describe. I fully support any enhancement of metadata as it will make study more effective. I’m still sorry that the grant didn’t come through and inspired by the way you seemingly handled it. It’s an example I hope to learn from.

      I look forward to reading more in your forthcoming book, and now I’m even more interested in further exploring and understanding gender distinctions and style. It definitely seems like an area I’d be interested in knowing more about. I’m interested in 20th Century novels, especially Modernist texts, and I wonder if your findings (and those of others) about style and gender would hold through across time. Definitely something I hope that I can look into moving forward. I will definitely give Shlomo Argamon’s work a look and appreciate the recommendation as well as the link to your presentation.

      As this post is definitely still a work in progress I will edit it to reflect more accurately your project/proposal and to underscore my misunderstanding thereof. That miscommunication is still productive, I think, especially since it doesn’t seem to change (in my mind) the questions of participation and production motivated by theory theory that arose as I reflected. I would like to thank you for giving me a great deal of food for thought, both at the talk and afterwards. I hope I didn’t offend you with my misinterpretation of what I heard. Thank you for helping me to refine my post and better understand your work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>