Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.08.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.08.44

Julie Thompson Klein, Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2015.  Pp. 201.  ISBN 9780472052547.  $30.00.  

Reviewed by Anne Mahoney, Tufts University (

Preview and Text

Classicists can take digital humanities (DH) for granted. We are all familiar with projects like the TLG, Perseus, the Bibliotheca Neo-Latina, and even BMCR itself. Arguably the first DH project of all was in classics, Fr. Robert Busa's 1949 concordance to Thomas Aquinas (p. 38). For us, classical DH projects are as much part of the landscape as JSTOR,, and so on are for colleagues in other fields. Even if we do not work on digital projects ourselves, we use tools from DH. But the place of DH in classics deserves discussion: first of all, is DH work "in" classics at all? Is it possible to be both a classicist and a DH scholar, or must one choose one or the other? Is DH work disciplinary, inter-disciplinary, or para-disciplinary?

These are the questions raised by Klein's book. She herself is in an English department, but she makes an effort to cover the relationship of DH to many humanities fields, in particular including both classics and archaeology. She is concerned with the definition of DH and how it positions itself relative to other fields, how it labels its own boundaries. She sketches the history of DH, and discusses how it fits into colleges and universities (mainly in the US): this includes not only where DH scholars are situated on campus, but how DH work counts for tenure and other assessments and evaluations of faculty.

Although several guides and textbooks on DH have appeared in the last dozen years,1 this book is different because it's more theoretical: not "what is DH so I can use it?" but "what am I doing when I do DH?"—or when I do classics with DH tools. It's a book to argue with rather than one to study. The biggest question is whether DH actually is an interdisciplinary field in the same way as, say, medieval studies (which is one of Klein's regular examples of an established interdisciplinary field, for example p. 75, 94, 118). Klein's goal is to test this idea through examination of the "boundary work" of DH, that is, "the claims, activities, and structures by which individuals and groups work directly and through institutions to create, maintain, break down, and reformulate [boundaries] between knowledge units" (p. 5).

The first chapter, "Interdisciplining," explains different ways of crossing or transcending disciplinary boundaries. An activity or field may be multidisciplinary, juxtaposing "inputs" from several disciplines, or truly interdisciplinary, integrating rather than just combining (p. 15). It may be narrowly or broadly interdisciplinary, depending on how disparate the underlying disciplines are in their methods, questions, and epistemology (p. 16). Interdisciplinary work may be methodological, focused on improving results in one discipline by bringing in methods from elsewhere, or theoretical, aiming to generalize beyond one discipline (p. 17); it may be instrumental, focused on solving a problem, or critical, paying more attention to the structure of knowledge itself (p. 18). Finally, interdisciplinary work may be transdisciplinary, if it gets beyond the world-view of a single discipline (p. 20). Klein suggests that DH as practiced today is transdisciplinary in this sense, and points to work on "critical digital humanities" (p. 19) to show that DH is more than merely instrumental. She acknowledges that "Digital Humanities is widely viewed as methodological in nature" (p. 17) but suggests that the change from thinking of "humanities computing," as we used to call it, to "digital humanities" reflects a movement from methodological to more theoretical focus within the field (p. 17). In other words, for Klein, DH is interdisciplinary in all the best ways.

Chapter two, "Defining," steps back to ask what DH actually is. The term is surprisingly hard to pin down, and practitioners even disagree about whether it is a field or "an array of convergent practices" (p. 47, quoting Jeffrey Schnapp and Todd Presser's Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0). Klein identifies a "first wave of Digital Humanities in the late 1990s and early 2000s" which "emphasized large-scale digitization projects and technological infrastructure," basically quantitative in orientation, and effectively replicating 500 years of print culture in digital form, followed by a second wave which "has been qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive, and generative in nature," expanding beyond text to visual, spatial, and temporal forms like film or music (p. 47). It is in this second wave that DH truly becomes interdisciplinary, she argues.

Chapter three, "Institutionalizing," talks about how DH fits into the university. Digital humanists may be in humanities departments, like classics; in the library; or in a center for DH. There are named chairs, graduate fellowships, and everything in between. Klein gives a broad, clear overview of the affiliations of DH scholars and practitioners and the state of the job market in DH (p. 74-79): currently, there seem to be more jobs for administrators and technical support staff than for researchers and faculty within DH (p. 77-78). Research centers, often funded by grants, "provide interstitial space for boundary crossing and collaboration" (p. 79) and give DH visibility as a type of faculty work rather than part of the school's information-technology service-computing infrastructure (p. 85).

"Professionalizing," the fourth chapter, discusses communities of practice within DH, and scholarly publication and communication. There are several scholarly organizations for DH (p. 96), and there are interest groups or other sub-divisions within disciplinary organizations (for example, the Digital Classics Association holds its annual meeting at the SCS annual meeting). Communities arise around projects (p. 93, using Integrating Digital Papyrology as an example), around teaching (p. 94), and around the creation of standards (p. 95).

Scholarly communication includes publication both of DH projects themselves and of theoretical work about DH. The latter might appear in printed books or journals, but the former necessarily require a digital platform of some sort. The first DH projects were fundamentally similar to print books, but various new types and genres of publication have been created, from annotated and transcribed page images to GIS-based mapping projects (p. 97-98). DH projects may also be libraries or collections. These projects, especially the largest ones, require collaboration, and, as Klein observes, "the concept of authorship is more complex in digital environments because it entails the composite work of compiling and archiving, editing and curating, and making or adapting tools for searching, indexing, annotating, and collaborating" (p. 101).

"Educating" is the fifth chapter. Here Klein looks both at courses on DH and at courses using DH: "digital teaching and learning as interdisciplinary practice" (p. 11). The overview of syllabi and texts for introductory DH courses (p. 111-115) will be useful to anyone preparing to teach such a class. Students who work in or with DH should gain not only some technical skills but also skills of integration, critique, and collaboration (p. 125), all things that will be useful even for the majority who won't go on to careers in DH (p. 128). In fact, some scholars and practitioners suggest that, at its core, DH is "a means of scholarship and pedagogy" (p. 129, quoting Jon Saklofske, Estelle Clements, and Richard Cunningham).

"Collaborating and Rewarding," Klein's final chapter, picks up the idea of communities of practice from chapter 4 and considers how DH is recognized and rewarded in universities. Collaboration is much more common in DH than in the humanities generally. As a result, humanities disciplines have not yet figured out how to assess collaborative work, as scientists have. Klein surveys some of the working arrangements different projects have made, best practices for agreeing ahead of time about ownership and credit, and in general the ethical principles necessary for working together (p. 136-144). While much of this may be obvious, for example the value of intellectual generosity in collaboration, some points are more subtle, such as the discussion of how cross-disciplinary teams develop their own language, which may eventually lead to a new field (p. 141).

Interdisciplinary work and collaborative work also pose problems for the usual systems of evaluating humanities faculty, which expect us to produce single-author books and journal articles. But new standards are evolving. Klein refers to the MLA Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media and the AHA's Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians; both of these documents have been updated since the versions she cites.

A seventh chapter, "Resourcing," by Andy Engel, gives an annotated list of resources, most on line, for keeping up with DH. These include scholarly associations, journals, and blogs. Of particular interest to classicists is Digital Classicist, a collaboration among British, German, and American scholars, with links to project sites and tools.

Klein concludes her last chapter with a look to the future of DH (p. 151). Perhaps, as she suggests, "the promise of Digital Humanities also remains greater than the uneven realities of practice and institutionalization" (p. 153). In classics, the tools of DH have become ubiquitous, and they make even "ordinary" (we might even say, "classic") work in classics easier. While a scholar who uses the tools, methods, or corpora developed by DH to do non-digital work would probably say she's not actually doing DH, and would not call herself a digital humanist (compare p. 56), nonetheless these tools influence the types of questions we think of asking, or how difficult it is to answer them. Is there a basic core of "DH knowledge" that every classicist should have? Each discipline needs to find its own answer to a question like this. Klein points us to what our colleagues in other fields have done, and to ways of thinking about DH both as a field and as a practice. The book is useful not merely as a summary of current thinking in and around DH but as a stimulus to defining Digital Classics.


1.   For example, Susan Schreibman, Raymond Siemens, John Unsworth, edd., A Companion to Digital Humanities, Blackwell, 2004; Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, Edward Vanhoutte, Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader, Ashgate, 2013; Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schapp, Digital_Humanities, MIT Press, 2012. Klein lists and describes these and other books, p. 8.

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