A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Ridolfo and Hart-Davidson's Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities

Review of Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities edited by Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson 2015, University of Chicago Press.

Rick Wysocki, University of Louisville

(Published November 22, 2016) 

In their now well-known text Digital_Humanities, Anne Burdick et al. write that “The social, political, and ecological challenges of the 21st century demand significantly more than textual analysis or recitations of inherited content” (25). If true, this claim seemingly places scholars of rhetoric in the awkward position of negotiating their largely language- and text-based historical and disciplinary identities with a changing landscape of intellectual exigency. It is for this reason that Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities comes not a moment too soon. As its editors Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson write in the collection’s introduction, rhetorical scholarly production has yet to engage deeply with the provocations of the digital humanities (DH) despite sharing many of its values (2-3), and the essays collected in this text respond to this dearth, charting disciplinary, methodological, and epistemological connections that are or should be made between rhetoric and DH.

The editors present two arguments for attending to and fostering these crossovers. Considering “the digital humanities” as itself a tactical term invested with institutional value, they argue that framing the digital and computational work rhetoricians have done and are doing—e.g., research in computers and writing—as DH scholarship can help the discipline become more competitive in applying for grants and awards, thus granting “the ability to serve as future reviewers and help determine the kinds of projects that are funded.” On the other hand, they claim that a “tactical participation” in DH conversations might make doctoral students more competitive as they step onto a (to be charitable) less than ideal market for their labor (5). While a certain cynicism permeates their discussion of rhetoric’s relationship to DH, the disciplinary considerations they highlight are incredibly significant and best discussed openly rather than concealed or implied. Moreover, a strength of this book is that the wide representation of DH-inspired rhetorical work, offered by thirty-six scholars in total, allows the topic(s) to be addressed from numerous angles; any reader interested in what DH means for rhetoric (and vice versa) is sure to find something of value in these essays. While this review cannot do justice to the abundance of these scholars’ insights, I will attempt to tease out some of the most relevant or informative strands that they offer.

The authors included in the first section of the book, titled “Interdisciplinary Connections,” examine the ways that that rhetoric and DH can be mutually informative and question the disciplinary silos from which scholars tend to produce knowledge. Alex Reid, on the one hand, and Daniel Anderson and Jentery Sayers on the other assume stances heavily informed by critical and social theory to discern the ways that DH can both challenge and be informed by more familiar epistemologies and practices of rhetoric. Both James J. Brown Jr.’s chapter as well as that of Shannon Carter, Jennifer Jones, and Sunchai Hamcumpai address the problems of disciplinary boundary policing, the former arguing that a software studies-based methodology can foster a “blurred boundary between production and consumption” that has traditionally divided rhetoric and literature and the latter asserting that the cultivation of interdisciplinary connections is, itself, a primary benefit of creating alliances with DH (30; 34). Offering a specific example of this how these alliances might be fostered, Nathan Johnson articulates the potential for factor mapping to make arguments across fields, thereby transcending disciplinary boundaries (101). Diverging slightly from disciplinary concerns, Douglas Eyman and Cheryl Ball reflect on digital publication, arguing that “it is important to carefully consider the intellectual, social, and technological support structures that need to be used in the construction and dissemination of scholarly multimedia work” (66). Finally, Jennifer Sano-Franchini synthesizes methods from DH and cultural rhetorics to demonstrate an important and useful heuristic capable of analyzing the representation of bodies in digital space (58).

The second section, “Research Methods and Methodology,” takes a more practice-oriented approach. The chapters by Roderick P. Hart and by David Hoffman and Don Waisanen describe how textual analysis software, such as DICTION, can inform rhetoricians’ understandings of language; at the same time, both pieces emphasize the need for the human interpretation and contextualization of data. Casey Boyle returns to questions of disciplinarity from a methodological perspective, articulating how a digitized “rhetorical edition,” rather than a “literary edition,” might accentuate “not what a text is but what a text does” (138). Nelya Koteyko investigates the public understanding of science and explains how DH methods “point to instances that warrant further attention in relation to the use of [scientific] metaphors online” (193), showing a specific example of DH methods informing a more robust understanding of a research interest. The essays by Brian McNely and Christa Teston and by Krista Kennedy and Seth Long deliver broader explanations of DH methods and methodologies, offering invaluable information regarding how a potential reader might begin to engage DH in their own work.

“Future Trajectories”—the third section of the collection—takes a more macro-level view of what the integration of rhetoric and DH might mean going forward. A major theme addressed in these pages is how DH methods might change rhetoricians’ conceptions of and practices within archives: Tarez Samra Graban, Alexis Ramsey-Tobienne and Whitney Myers theorize how digitized archives might “support multiple functions beyond searching and cataloging, toward managing knowledge” (241, emphasis in original); Jenny Rice and Jeff Rice frame the ephemeral “pop-up archive” as a phenomenon made available by digital technologies; and Liza Potts stresses the need for User-Centered Design approaches to developing archive interfaces. Douglas Walls elaborates both the need to build alliances between rhetoric and DH curricula and the difficulties in doing so, while Karl Stolley and Brian Ballentine each address the perennial question of whether rhetoricians should learn to code and what doing so might afford. Interrogating the temporality of DH by softly critiquing those who would demand it to be a “predictive humanities,” Elizabeth Losh calls for “more engaged research in which . . . the present becomes the focus of attention” (291), and David Gruber shows the possibilities of digital tools to inform new understandings of materiality. Moving the reader outside of both the academy and traditional understandings of scholarship, Kevin Brooks, Chris Lindgren, and Matthew Warner discuss strategies with which rhetoricians informed by DH can help to “build smarter local computing cultures that empower students and widen their future possibilities through humanists’ critical lenses and computational thinking” (226).

All of these essays are well-crafted, argumentatively artful, and worth engaging. From this reviewers’ perspective, however, Jennifer Glaser and Laura Micciche’s essay, included in the third section, is the stand-out piece of the collection. In it, the authors address the resistance to DH and to nonliterary theory generally, the ways that DH might open areas of labor for graduate students beyond the traditional tenure-track model that, for many, is increasingly untenable, and the need to integrate DH with projects in the public humanities that can engage communities outside of the academy (199-200; 204; 207). Most incisive is their discomfiting argument that

many of us communicate . . . narrow ideas about the appropriate audience for academic work to graduate students by suggesting that they write for an audience of specialists and submit work to academic journals, publications, and conferences exclusively, rarely suggesting more widely read and distributed outlets for intellectual work. In effect, we train students in our own image for jobs that are becoming increasingly rare. (201)

Whatever one’s response to this claim, Glaser and Micciche present a powerful and provocative vision about how the futures of rhetoric and DH might reform our understanding of scholarly work and is, therefore, worth wrestling with; with the current state of higher education, it is very unlikely that either the problems or the proposed solutions discussed by Glaser and Micciche will leave us any time soon.

Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities delivers a prolix and robust framework for thinking about our discipline’s relationship to DH work. I did, however, have two minor qualms with the text. The first is that it at times feels too inclusive: that twenty-four essays (including the introduction) are packed into three hundred pages often left me disappointed when I turned the page of an engaging piece only to find its citations. On a few occasions I was left with a lingering feeling of incompleteness, but this may only be symptomatic of the (perhaps necessarily) unfinished business of articulating rhetoric’s relationship to the digital humanities. The second difficulty I had was that, for all of the book’s fantastic explanations of what can be gained by embracing DH, there was very little about what might be lost. Even as a scholar who is relatively optimistic about embracing DH, I found myself wondering what it might look like to include even one or two dissenting essays. Doing so, rather than weakening the arguments presented in favor of bringing rhetoric and DH together, might have actually rendered them more persuasive by revealing their disciplinary and epistemological stakes. Still, Ridolfo and Hart-Davidson should be praised for putting together this text; the diversity of perspectives it includes is no small achievement. If only because it starts a much-needed (though unfinished) conversation within our discipline, Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities is well-worth the price of admission.