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Holding Court: James E. Dobson

Photograph of James E. Dobson
Photograph of James E. Dobson

In this week's edition, we speak with James E. Dobson, Senior Lecturer, Department of English and Creative Writing and Director, Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. In his most recent book 'Critical Digital Humanities: The Search for a Methodology (University of Illinois Press, 2019' he explores the opportunities and complications faced by humanists in this new era.

What is your book about?

Critical Digital Humanities interrogates the use of computation methods for studying culture from the bottom up—from object selection to the history of popular algorithms.

Where did you get your idea(s) for this book?

I simultaneously worked in literary studies and in computational science for many years—my first career was in the tech industry—and treated these interests as separate. The increasing number of humanists making use of computational methods (via what many call the “digital humanities”) pushed me to write a critical account of what I perceived to be the problems with these early methods and the prospects for a more scientific and a more humanist way of using computation to study culture. The issues raised by the computational turn in literary studies are fundamental to literary studies itself and in many ways it provokes a similar set of questions to other turning points within the history of my major field. I wanted to understand this. I wrote this book for both my colleagues and for my students. We used in the 19F term in my ENGL 64.05 “Cultural Analytics” course.

What does research look like for you? What element of research could you not live without?

I think of myself as an intellectual historian. I read widely and love bibliographic work, especially tracing lines of influence and missed connections. In every project I tend to think about larger frames that enable me to think about the history, forms of power, ideology, and cultural forces informing my objects and figures of interest. With this book, I wanted to have practical objects that could motivate the theoretical accounts that I wanted to produce. I reconstructed workflows from other researchers and produced my own using Python and a sharable, executable document called a Jupyter notebook. These notebooks combine code, data, visualizations, and most importantly, space for critical reflection on what is taking place within the code.

What do you think the library of the future will look like?

In many ways I hope it resembles the library of yesterday and today. In my teaching and research I make use of several campus libraries. I love working in Rauner and exploring archival material—especially the discovery that can take place in a box of material. I also greatly appreciate Dartmouth’s digital library and depend upon access to scholarly journals and cataloged access to open access resources. I hope that in the future we’ll continue to have a great collection of books and archived materials along with new digital archives and databases as well as methods to preserve and share our research workflows and their products.

What advice would you give to an aspiring scholar or writer?

Read widely but make sure to have a regular return to those objects that excite you and provide inspiration in terms of their form, argument, and ambitions. Any aspiring writer might turn to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” for motivation.

And finally, what do you read for fun? 

As I teach and write on many different topics almost anything can quickly turn from fun to work (which isn’t to say that work can’t be fun). This past spring I wanted to build a small boat and picked up John Gardner’s Building Classic Small Craft: Complete Plans and Instructions for 47 Boats. Gardner includes a surprising amount of narrative in this large collection of plans and essays on small boat building. As I read, I quickly noticed a shared antimodern sensibility between the late-nineteenth century sources that informed Gardner and his own moment and it takes some restraint not to write an essay about the nostalgic return of oar-powered boats in the 1970s and most certainly my own desires in my present moment.

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