In Defense of the (Digital) Humanities

This post was written by Emma Belnap, a Humanities Center student fellow.


A couple of weeks ago, one of my professors asked us to read Sophie Raux’s article “Virtual Explorations of an 18th-Century Art Market Space: Gersaint, Watteau, and the Pont Notre-Dame”. I was captivated by this piece, most especially Raux’s methodology—she and her team, recognizing the limits of traditional art history research tools in investigating the problems they were trying to solve, turned to the sciences to find solutions. This interdisciplinary approach is becoming more and more common for finding answers to the questions posed within the humanistic field, a practice which falls under the umbrella of digital humanities.

But what does that phrase “digital humanities” even mean? In a blog post made for The British Academy website in February 2019, David M. Berry wrote:

“Digital humanities incorporate key insights from languages and literature, history, music, media and communications, computer science and information studies and combine these different approaches into new frameworks… Indeed, as early adopters of technology, digital humanists were prescient in seeing that computation would have an increasing centrality to research in the humanities.”[1]

While Berry’s definition is broad and inclusive, it feels like it is missing a crucial part of the mission of digital humanities: the public-facing element of it. One of the major issues facing the academic world is how insular its work can be, but digital humanities research is helping the field become more accessible. In the first chapter of the book Debates in the Digital Humanities, Matthew Kirschenbaum expands on this objective: “Whatever else it might be, then, the digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed”.[2]

That public visibility is one of the main objectives of the Book of Mormon Art Catalog, a project where I serve as a research assistant. A database of artworks depicting events from the Book of Mormon, we hope to engage members of the church, giving them a space to explore diverse representations of the stories they’ve read and heard hundreds of times.

To this effect, we have several resources we use to engage the public with the work we are doing. In a series done for the recently released Issue 2 of Wayfare, several members of the research team wrote about various artistic interpretations of the story of the Jaredites (That We May Have Light – by Jenny Champoux – Wayfare ( We also post artworks on the catalog’s social media pages every week with a discussion about their connection to that week’s Come, Follow Me lesson. Recently, we held an art competition which we used to elicit nontraditional representations of Book of Mormon scenes, be that their subject matter, medium, or the incorporation of elements from cultures around the world. Next year, we will be releasing a weekly series of interviews where we discuss the Come, Follow Me curriculum for the week in conjunction with an artwork from the catalog. In these ways and so many others, we are hoping to not only involve the public with the work we are doing, but also show them more of what art historians do, thus helping them employ the same processes when they view art.

(Image: Against These Things, Rebecca Sorge Jensen)

This objective seems increasingly important, especially when it has been broadly declared that the humanities are in a time of crisis—just google “are the humanities dead” and a slew of articles pop up declaring that yes, the humanities are indeed on their way out. Many of these articles attribute this to the rise of STEM and, perhaps more importantly, the lucrative job markets found in such fields. Sherami Jara, Assistant Dean for the BYU College of Humanities, responded to this assertion when interviewed for an article run by The Daily Universe in May. Jara is quoted as saying, “Ten years ago, people said it was bad to major in humanities. The narrative has changed… More people understand its value now.”[3]

While this quote was in reference to humanities majors marketing themselves while seeking jobs in other fields, I believe it is applicable to this discussion as well. I have heard so many amazing defenses of the humanities from my professors and peers during my time in my undergraduate program. Within our fields, we recognize and defend the value that humanistic studies have in society, but that is no longer enough; we must help those outside our discipline understand our research’s value if we want our fields to survive. The digital humanities are an essential part of this dialogue as we seek to show others what it is we do and why it matters. I do not know where humanities studies are headed, but I predict that, wherever we are going, public-facing digital humanities will lead the way.


Works Cited:

[1] David M. Berry, “What are the digital humanities?,” The British Academy, February 13, 2019,

[2] Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012),

[3] Emma Everett Johnson, “The humanities are shrinking, but not dying,” Daily Universe (Provo, UT), May 4, 2023.

Image Credits: Rebecca Sorge Jensen

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