Assessing the State of the Field: The Wonderful World of DH

The 2021 Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research is officially underway! I write this as we conclude the first of three weeks of enlightening and thought-provoking lectures, seminars, and workshops. During our welcome session, Martin Puchner offered the School’s participants and faculty an overview of this year’s theme: The State of the Field. A beautiful thing about the Mellon School is that we participants come from across myriad fields of study—theater history, dance studies, communication, and literary studies, just to name a few—and therefore bring these different methodologies to bear as we dive into theater and performance research throughout the coming weeks. Thus it might appear difficult to discern common threads across the states of these fields. However, what Martin suggested (and what we are already seeing play out) is that the questions we are exploring under this umbrella—including digital humanities (DH), (post)critique, activism, and public humanities—are being raised across the humanistic fields.

My first two days of seminars and lectures were devoted to digital humanities, a methodology that has sparked much debate in my own field of literary studies. What I have discovered across my wonderful sessions with Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Derek Miller is that DH can be (and already has been) a useful tool for researchers of theater and performance. The mass digitization of rare books and manuscripts is a type of DH intervention and has, as Elizabeth put it on the first day of her seminar, “radically changed the material conditions of our work.” Rather than travel hundreds of miles to a physical archive or spend hours working with my institution’s microfilm reader, I can access thousands of primary documents via online databases on my laptop. This digitization work has lead to “data” being made of things it traditionally has not, such as qualitative descriptors, character names, and other markers of literature. Some central questions of DH and of her seminar, Elizabeth told us students on the first day, is how does something “get to be data” and at what point does data become interpretive?

Of course, as Derek often reminded us in his sessions, data requires an interpreter. And in his discussion, Derek asked each of us to consider how data operates in our projects, as well as how scale factors into our work. This simple, hypothetical intellectual exercise demonstrated to me that (a) data can indeed help us to pick up on trends for which we might not otherwise account as well as that (b) DH can make scale more conceivable.

I am still very much a DH novice, but I am beginning to see how its methods can be useful to the sharing of knowledge and supporting arguments in scholarly projects. I do know I am thrilled to be at the Mellon School and look forward to the next two weeks learning from and with my brilliant instructors and interlocutors!

See also: Kaden Ivy