The Computational Literary Studies Debate: Thoughts from the Fall 2019 Class, Writing in Digital Humanities

Taking the Human out of Humanities: An Analysis of Digital Humanities and Its Role in Contemporary Academia


Digital humanities is a relatively new field dedicated to the application of computational techniques to the humanities. Relative is a key term here, because the field has been developing since the 1980s but remains in obscurity outside of niche academic groups. Whether due to widespread controversy surrounding the mechanics of the field, the debate on whether digital humanities is worthwhile at all, or simply resistance to changing the traditional way of textual analysis, the field is only now taking significant root. Indeed, some of these concerns may be noteworthy. It is certainly irresponsible to throw away the “human” in “humanities.” Digital humanities is an important field, but we should not entirely disregard human creativity in favor of computers.

The existence of Computational Literary Studies (CLS) as a significant subtopic of digital humanities emphasizes this point. CLS makes up a large portion of the actual mechanics of  digital humanities– scholars use computers to extract quantitative data from texts and generate arguments about the humanities. But because it is computers that do the analysis, the risk of technology taking over a field grounded in human involvement presents itself. No computer can replace the inherent ability of people to comprehend and interpret, nor should we allow it to. The humanities are ultimately about understanding the human condition, and technology should only be a complement– not a replacement– to it.

1. Literature Review

In The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies, Nan Z. Da calls light to the flaws present in the field of CLS. In Da’s words, CLS is “the project of running computer programs on large… corpora of literary texts to yield quantitative results…  and used to make arguments about literature or literary history” (601). Though to the reader this may sound like a good thing, Da argues the opposite. She criticizes such methods like the use of term frequencies in CLS and references plenty of statistical data, although admitting that she lacks the background in statistics one would assume to be a prerequisite for writing such an argument. Despite Da’s questionable authority, she makes a fair point that touches on CLS’ conceptual flaws– the existence of which she proclaimed at the start of the article:  “All the things that appear in CLS—network analysis, digital mapping, linear and nonlinear regressions, topic modeling, topology, entropy—are just fancier ways of talking about word frequency changes,” which are far too easy to manipulate to the researchers perspective. Overall, the paper is highly critical of CLS, with Da even going so far as to state that the field is undeserving of the funding it receives (Da, 603), implying that CLS lacks the importance of other academic fields.

Da is clearly of the opinion that literary studies is not ready for CLS– not now, and maybe not ever. This is evident when she turns to Andrew Piper’s manifesto There Will Be Numbers. Says Piper, “What is needed, for sure, is more research– more research into why exactly, why right now, the computational study of culture is necessary” (par. 2). But in a world where technology is fully integrated into society, the question is not “Should we involve computers in the humanities?” but rather, “How can we put them to best use?” For example, Da is perhaps correct in her assessment that term frequencies are misused so as to be meaningless; However, this only means digital humanists must take a more thoughtful and innovative approach to the incorporation of computers with text analysis. 

Digital humanities is also a social undertaking. It harbors networks of people who have been working together, sharing research, arguing, competing, and collaborating for many years.

Of course, not all scholars hold such a determinedly negative view of digital humanities or CLS. For example, Matthew Kirschenbaum argues that for all the complexities of digital humanities, it is a field of great significance that is not going anywhere. He states that the question of how to define digital humanities has been asked and answered enough times that the genre now has a “robust professional apparatus” (Kirschenbaum, 55)  rooted in academia, particularly English. The article portrays digital humanities in a positive light, stating that it “is also a social undertaking. It harbors networks of people who have been working together, sharing research, arguing, competing, and collaborating for many years” (Kirschenbaum, 56). Yet Da complains that though “supporters of CLS argue that it does not matter that it takes a long time to do something we already know, as the innovation is in a computer being able to do basic reading tasks at all” (638) it does matter because it is a misrepresentation of what exactly is happening. She insists that the field is not valid because it is ultimately people that interpret a computer’s findings about texts– a senseless complaint when one remembers that the humanities are predicated on people’s ability to interpret and analyze.

Kirschenbaum’s point is more valid, not only because he gives a rational argument for the pro side but also because of his declaration that the collaborative and active nature of the field is of the utmost importance. Essentially, digital humanities has beneficial implications for society given framework it provides for large groups of people to work together, effectively boosting the “human” aspect of the humanities. 

2. Discussion

In order for digital humanities to be a positive force in academia, it is necessary to take into account all viewpoints. This will ensure the best direction for the field moving forward. For instance, Kirschenbaum’s arguments, with their focus on the good digital humanities can do on a large, human scale, can be used as a constant reminder of what the field is at its best. As he points out, “Individual scholars routinely now self-identify as digital humanists, or ‘Dhers.’ There is an unusually strong sense of community and common purpose…” (Kirschenbaum, 58). That community and common purpose are so prevalent in digital humanities bodes well for the future, as it is a decidedly favorable foundation for a developing field.

States Kirschenbaum about the ongoing expansion of the field, “Digital humanities, which began as a term of consensus among a relatively small group of researchers, is now backed on a growing number of campuses by a level of funding, infrastructure, and administrative commitments that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago” (60). While this is in theory a good thing– funding, infrastructure, and administrative commitments are usually synonymous with improvement– a field so young and so wrapped up in technology needs safeguards to avoid losing what makes humanities so important in the first place.

CLS has no ability to capture literature’s complexity.

This is why Da’s concerns are not to be done away with. She is overtly negative, but her concerns can be turned into safeguards to ensure that digital humanities remains a complement instead of a replacement of traditional humanities and that its scholars do legitimate work. Her criticism of the overuse and misinterpretation of word frequencies once again comes to mind.

She condemns those scholars who perpetrate this misuse, saying “word frequency differences show up in all kinds of texts and situations that do not match what you want them to represent” (Da, 613). It’s not that digital humanities is inherently bad; digital humanists just need to ensure that they conform to the same standards of analysis expected by any investigative work.

Besides, “CLS has no ability to capture literature’s complexity” (Da, 634). It is imperative that no matter the level of technology integration into the humanities, human scholars must be at least equally involved in the work. It is an issue of balancing the efficiency of computers with the incomparable understanding people possess.

3. Conclusions

Essentially, the debate about digital humanities seems to revolve around two schools of thought; One, CLS– and digital humanities by extent– is a waste of resources, an insult to traditional literary studies, and should not be used. Two, digital humanities is a natural progression of the humanities and should be praised for its ability to unite scholars around the pursuit of knowledge and development. Da is a proponent of the former, and Kirschenbaum of the latter. Both make valid points to some degree, but a middle ground is needed. While the mechanics of the field certainly have some problems to be worked out, the inherent value of digital humanities as presented by Kirschenbaum is tough to dispute. And because the contemporary world is so wrapped up in technology, it is unreasonable to expect the humanities to remain completely separate from it. While we should be wary of technology to a certain extent, the fact remains that it has always been used to complement and enhance the human condition, and the humanities should be no exception.

Works Cited

Da, Nan Z. “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies,” Critical Inquiry. Volume 45, Issue 3, University of Chicago Press, March 2019, pp. 601-639

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin, no. 150, 2010, pp. 55–61., DOI:10.1632/ade.150.55.

Piper, Andrew, "There Will Be Numbers," Journal of Cultural Analytics. May 23, 2016. DOI: 10.31235/


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