After much email pleading from the MLA, I completed a survey on the role of digital media in my work. Obviously, digital media are very significant in the way I work.
i also rely a fair amount on Google and other searches for doing informal research. In other words, I work on a networked computer. Don't you?
That said, some of these questions were a little tricky for me to answer. As I mentioned in my last post, I would like to see MLA (and other professional organizations) put more emphasis on digital curation. I would like to see them advocate for open access, educate institutions about digital scholarship, and support faculty in these areas in terms of professional development and so on. I also think that universities, principally through their libraries, can provide similar kinds of support such as serving as a digital repository for faculty research, providing professional development, and facilitating access. So I am in support of all of these initiatives.
At the same time, my inclination is to do many of these things independently. In part that's because I've been blogging and publishing online for more than a decade. I was the editor of an online literary journal that was published in 1996. I have figured these things out with a great deal of support from online communities but not from professional organizations or my college or university. My experience with university IT is that it is mired in bureaucracy. I understand that my institution has to be very concerned with things like security and intellectual property and that it wants to take a conservative approach to these matters. I also recognize how paperwork and committees just proliferate like weeds. So, for example, this summer I started a project with some graduate students where we are doing Skype interviews with academics about their work with a focus on their use of "middle state publishing." That material will be up online later this semester, but it won't be at a buffalo.edu URL because it's just easier to upload those videos to YouTube and create our own domain and website. The main concern with that is long-term curation. What is the long-term viability of a YouTube video? Who knows. The website only lasts as long as I am willing to pay for it. As such, I can see the argument for libraries serving as digital repositories, and I strongly support that move. I just find it difficult to imagine working that way on an active project. In other words, the library becomes the place where information goes when no one wants to pay continued attention to it anymore. It's not a data graveyard. But it might be the place we put data so it isn't forgotten so that we can comfortably forget about it.
I don't think anyone really likes that idea. From my perspective to make a university's data services usable for me it would have to combine the ease of current cloud, back-up services (Dropbox, SpiderOak, Google Drive) with the flexibility of web services (I use HostGator) that allow the creation of websites, blogs, wikis, etc with a few clicks. In other words, offer a comparable version of the data publishing and curation services I already use and offer it for free. Even then, I would have to think about whether or not I prefer my data independence. As such, I'm not saying that this is what universities should do; my needs are perhaps unique. But since the MLA was soliciting opinions, I thought I'd let you know too.
It would appear that one of the standing definitions of digital humanities is that it is the study of traditional humanities objects using digital technologies. As I have previously pointed out (as have many others) this divides the "digital humanities" from many humanists who also do work with and about digital technologies. And, as I have also said before, I have no issue with defining areas or fields in this way. However, I have noticed, especially on a local level, that there are some practical problems with this view, which had led me to wonder if I am thinking about this in the wrong way.
First I should say that I have been part of the steering committee for UB's digital humanities initiative for three years (since I arrived here). I have been very active with DH here and received some small grants. This might appear a little strange since, obviously, I am not a digital humanist, at least not by the conventional definition. Then again, a number of the folks on the committee were not DHers and I would say the majority of projects we funded were not DH projects, again, at least by this defnition. We funded many interesting projects, big and small. Some I would categorize as digital production/digital arts projects. Some were digital education. Others were little more than helping faculty projects get a web presence, such as helping start up an online creative writing undergrad journal (if my memory serves me). There were some true DH projects, such as Neil Coffee's Tessarae Project, which is "a freely available tool for detecting allusions in Latin poetry." Neil has received money from the NEH ODH for this project, so hopefully it will take off. So, what I've noticed is that despite the fact that UB is a fairly large university, we don't have a critical mass of digital humanities faculty. We do have an English Education program with a number of faculty interested in multimodal composing. We have a Media Study department that combines art, design, programming, and research and a Visual Studies department with a number of artists and researchers interested in digital media. There are also faculty in archeology, architecture, and other places that have interests in digital technologies that resonate with a broader conception of digital work in the humanities. I've never worked on a campus with a vibrant DH center, but I would imagine it would try to bring these kinds of folks into conversation with one another. Ultimately, it seems to me that DH's viability will rest on its capacity to address the challenges of digital literacy, democracy, and culture, that the projects of conventional DH will need to connect to those larger questions in the way that we (at least historically) have claimed that traditional humanities spoke to the concerns of literacy, democracy, and culture.
This brings me back the way that I have viewed the field of DH, which basically is as people doing something that I don't do. Without erasing differences, I am now thinking it might be more important to think about connections than differences. As has been addressed in digital humanities, the digitiziation of traditional humanities objects is not a neutral process. That is, while it is certainly salient whether one is studying a digital version of 14th century English tax records or early 19th century American novels, the fact that one is actually studying a 21st century digital record is also significant. There are some interesting ontological questions here. For instance, let's say that you have a digital record of the full text of every novel published in the US from 1800-1830. This record never existed before now. Presumably, no human has ever (or will ever) read that entire record. What is the status of knowledge produced from the study of that document, from the analysis of an assemblage that only exists in the 21st century? Does it tell us something about the 1800s? Obviously I'm not the first one to ask such questions, but it's important to note that these are not questions about 19th century American literature. They are questions about digital information. We could ask the same question about studying Twitter (and we do).
I suppose we could think of these as methodological questions, and we do tend to think of the digital humanities as a method or methods. But I view this as more than an engineering/design/programming question (though it is obviously that as well). These are philosophical questions. Without being overly animistic, these are new beings, new objects. And the question of how to address these objects is being asked across the humanities (and beyond), so that would seem to me to be a way of building some kind of community. Again, my interest is more philosophical than practical. I mean it could be practical. I could, for example, collect close to 100,000 pages of student writing each year from UB's composition program. One could very quickly have an immense data set that would presumably be relevant to my field. But what would the ontological status of the data set be? What network of what objects would need to be constructed in order to compose knowledge from this data set that would connect to students or instructors or curriculum/policy makers? What would it mean to write for and with such a data set? I don't really have any questions to ask that data set, but I do have questions about what it means to write for and with it. Because even though I haven't collected those pages, they do exist, just as the Twitter stream and the blogosphere exist. Even though I don't have access to that data, I am aware that I am writing into a giant flood of information, even if I am unsure how I am connected to it. I know that I have to build connections, maintain networks, and so on, and that these tasks are different now than they were a decade ago. So these are questions of method, of rhetoric, but they must involve philosophical concerns as well.
There's so much ongoing conversation about this MOOC business that I couldn't possibly point to even a fraction of it, but it's all over the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, and many academic blogs. The bottom line defense of the MOOC seems to be the following:
While I suppose both of these remarks are valid, they aren't all that convincing. All they tell us is that we don't know what a MOOC is or should be and that we need to change in some fashion. I don't really have a solution for how things should be but I do believe that current conversations (at least the ones I've seen) are missing the crucial link that exists between faculty scholarly practices and pedagogy/curriculum. As we know, in our model of higher education (borrowed from the Germans in the 19th century), curriculum extends from faculty research. Students come to learn what faculty glean from their research. Students acquire some level of expertise (depending on the degrees they attain) in those fields. Later on we decided that secondary education wasn't sufficient, so we started implementing general education courses. But it has always been a matter of modelling what it means to be educated with faculty as the standard. As higher ed became more about professionalization, we added more schools (and faculty) in those professions. The basic model remains the same.
Changing the paradigm of higher education means changing this paradigm. What I don't see happening any time soon is a shift away from the research focus. If anything the demands for research have only increased during my time in the profession, and this is true across the campus. Faculty will continue to be asked to devote a large segment of their time to research (I would think anywhere from 30-50% depending on the college or university, community colleges excepted). And they will continue to expect (and be expected) to teach in their speciality as a significant part of their teaching load. The MOOC doesn't change this. In fact, the MOOC (at least the "bad" MOOC) intensifies this trend by focusing on lectures given by academic stars at top universities.
However good MOOC practices do not focus on lecture videos, automated tests, and long pages of nested discussions. Instead they hold out the promise of engaged communities of learners. From what I can see it is a significantly different way of inhabiting the world (or at least the "classroom"). The question is how do we get there? I must confess that over the years my enthusiasm for online classes has declined. At first, I think it was a novel experience for students to be engaging with one another (and me) in this way. Now students have so many social media experiences (and obligations) that the class is just one of many. My sense is that many students want to log in intermittently, discover what they need to do, do it, and get out. In this way the "bad" MOOC gives them just what they want. And you can learn something that way, just like you can learn something from watching the History Channel. There's no doubt that truly motivated students can have great experiences in a MOOC. The problem is that most students aren't that motivated, especially when it comes to general education courses.
As far as that goes it might also be difficult to motivate faculty to inhabit this online environment. After all, for the most part, it isn't their world. As such, the MOOC activity does break with the research focus of the university because the unacknowledged part of that focus is that it is not just the knowledge that gets shared but the practice of knowing. For example, in English, as scholars we read; we go to conferences where we present and discuss in small groups with others in our field; and we write, usually on our own. We replciate this experience for students with a lot of independant reading, lectures paired with seminar discussion, and essay assignments. True, there are giant lectures (at least at some universities) but we know those are not good pedagogy so we don't want to be working on replicating them. That said, it isn't so easy to replicate the lecture/discussion model either. And ultimately I think that would be an error as well as it misunderstands the mediating role of technology as an actor.
Instead, I think that a massive open online pedagogy requires a massive open online scholarly practice. Let's say, hypothetically that as a humanities professor I spend a 40-hour week in the following way:
That means that 2/3 - 3/4 of your work is done in a solitary fashion. And that's the way most faculty like it. So what would humanities research look like if it were a networked practice integrated with the always-on, real time interactivity of social media? What would it look like if the 1000s of faculty and advanced grad students in my field were interacting all the time and that interaction was the basis for our research (rather than reading for months and then writing an article)?
I'm not sure, but whatever it is would be the basis for what a MOOC should be like. Perhaps we can start to see a hint of what such a thing might be in the digital humanities community, which is clearly very involved in social media. But even there much of the "real" research remains traditional. Not only would we have a long way to go to move in this direction, but right now I'm not even sure "we" want to move. It's one thing to say that "we" all know the university needs to change, but what is it that we are actually willing to change about our own work? Perhaps even more importantly, in what ways will students be willing to change?
In The Chronicle, Williman Pannapacker writes about the importance of receiving digital humanities training, which he summarizes in a tweet: no dh, no interview. At the end of this piece he backs away from this provocation, writing "even though I've been excited about the digital humanities since my first visit to the summer institute, I want to urge job candidates: Don't become a DH'er out of fear that you won't get a position if you don't." And I would certainly agree with that, though it always comes back to this matter of defintion. Even in the narrowest of defintions of DH, the field is beginning to spin out a range of sub-specializations. Pannapacker compares the current interest in DH to the focus on "theory" in the nineties, but mostly as a cautionary tale. Indeed DH has had an ambivalent (at best) relationship with theory, which makes sense in a way as two competing methods, which might become complementary (and may be complementary in some scholars' work) but are largely seen as incongruous at this point. Of course the primary difference between DH and other humanities methods is the infrastructure required to support the endeavor. As Pannapacker points out:
[Y[ou need a more comprehensive plan: strategic hires across departments and divisions, support for faculty development, and revisions of tenure-and-promotion guidelines. Such planning needs to extend to the staff as well. One goal of DH is to foster greater collaboration among technologists, librarians, and fund raisers—the wide range of alternative academics. They need to be as much a part of the plan as faculty are. If an institution is unwilling to take those kinds of steps, then hiring one or two DH'ers, while arguably a step in the right direction, isn't going to produce much change.
I think that's a fair assessment. I also think that's a tremendous investment to be made into something that wishes to identify itself as a narrow specialization. For example, here is a list of the various "centers" supported by UB's College of Arts and Sciences. When I look at this list, I don't think any of these other centers would call for this kind of comprehensive plan. But I don't think DH sees itself as equivalent to the other centers on a list like this. When Pannapacker describes DH as pointing toward a strategic restructuring of a university, then I find this incompatible with the parallel description of DH as a narrow specialization.
How much restructuring of the university will be required to allow a scholar to conduct GIS-based research of late 19th-century American novels? And of course DH is more than this, but in its conventional definition, isn't it more of the same? A historian's distant reading of a large corpus of public documents. An archeologist's data visualization of a recent dig. What I mean is that DH in this way is a series of specific research projects requiring particular technological applications that really only share in common the fact that they are "digital." One of the ways that DH and theory are different is that the hiring of theory specialists never really took off. Perhaps some big name folks are hired that way, but the number of assistant professor theory scholars is very low. Instead, every scholar took up some part of theory--a Marxist, a feminist, a postcolonialist, etc--in relation to an object of study. DH, or more accurately a specific flavor of DH (e.g. big data), then becomes another methodological option in this list. And this is where I think we are. In English, for example, I don't think there are many places who say "I want to hire a DHer, and I don't care what objects she studies." Instead, I think they say, "I want to hire a medievalist and I strongly prefer that person does DH work."
This would work out fine, except for two problems. First, DHers require significant more infrastructure then other scholars. Second, If they were going to teach their specialization, they would require students to have a foundational education that is not commonly provided in the humanities. So this would require a larger instituional commitment. This cylces us back once again to the question of how much support is a university willing to provide for these undertakings.
From my perspective, the necessity of the digital humanities is only indirectly related to the specific work undertaken in DH, or perhaps it is emergent in some way from the collective work of DH. Specifically, the humanities, in the long run (say next decade), will need to serve a role for digital literacy that is analogous to the role it served for print literacy in the 20th century. There are political, ethical, rhetorical, aesthetic questions surrounding digital culture; there are questions about thel inks between the digital and our non-digital past; there are questions about the digital and our non-digital present and future. These are NOT questions that 99% of existing traditional humanities faculty will ever explore in a sustained intellectual way. As such, universities require something like a center to provide focused support for faculty who will investigate these concerns, as institutionally their future will depend on a vibrant humanities. That may seem overly critical of those 99% of faculty. However, I would point out that they have been trained in a very specific way, they are expected by the institution to produce a particular kind of scholarship for which they have been trained, and they have virtually no incentive to change. No university is going to say "if you want tenure or a promotion or even a raise then you have to do digital work." Nor should they.
In short, the role of the digital humanities center, and the sole reason I can think that a university would want to invest heavily in one, is that it is going to provide leadership and innovation in meeting unavoidable digital challenges from academic publishing to MOOCs to the expanding capacities for research that digital technologies provide.
So I would echo Pannapacker's advice. Yes, only pursue DH if you are interested in the field. But I would add that anyone entering a humanities PhD program this fall should think hard about what they imagine the humanities will look like in 10 years and perhaps they should wonder that if they aren't interested in these digital questions then what other kinds of humanities will be left?
I've just finished a week discussing Bogost's How to do things with videogames, so I've got that book and its methodology of examining a media microecology in mind. I also just was reading over this report from JISC and the British LIbrary (via Cathy Davidson's blog).
Here are the report's highlights (and I quote):
Without wishing to make the situation seem overly dire, it's possible to read this report and be concerned that we are getting the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, traditional doctoral curriculum and research practices dissuade students from adopting new digital/network-enhanced methods. On the other hand, the digital distribution of research has the potential to be confusing and constraining for students. Simultaneously they are flooded with secondary research from a variety of sources while also facing increasing access problems to key pieces of research. Clearly our desire should be to flip that script so that our students are better prepared (and encouraged) to use digital-network methods to conduct their research, collaborate with colleagues, and share with their communities. At the same time, we want to make support students working with priamry materials and getting access to the research they require.
As I was thinking through this, it struck me that Bogost's media microecology approach might be a productive heuristic for this challenge. How to do things with videogames does not attempt to provide an exhaustive list of potential activities or even to map out the whole territory from up high. Instead, he selects 20 fairly specific themes, some focusing on the formal qualities of the games (e.g. their treatment of space and textures), others having more to do with cultural roles games play (e.g. promotion, electioneering), and still others that are more personal/subjective (e.g. creating empathy or relaxation). However Bogost doesn't even note those categories. Instead we get something that is closer to a Latourian litany of things to do with videogames.
The tradition in doctoral education would at least appear to be the opposite of this. That is, even though individual students (and faculty) specialize, the specializations link up in a predictable and comprehensive way and one's specialization is built upon some level of comprehesive knowledge. A microecological approach, at least as I see it, suggests that elements might combine in unexpected ways, and that while the totality, seen from a great distance, might look the same (i.e. from the outside an English department still looks like an English department), from the inside (of any discipline), the relations might look very different. Of course the important thing here is to link this up with the challenges identified in the JISC report.
So here's an example using one of the "things to do" that Bogost selects: texture. In videogames, texture is a technical term refering to the surfaces of image objects. However Bogost also extends the term to the procedures applied to different surfaces (e.g. an icy video game texture would have a slippery procedure attached to it) and to feedback mechanisms (e.g. the vibration of a controller). How might we do things with humanities related to texture?
First, this is an excellent opportunity to address the concern regarding primary materials. One salient issue with digitlzation is that many of the physical properties of primary materials are lost. While it is certainly useful to be able to search the digital text of an old manuscript, the texture of that object is lost. This is a concern that extends beyond the humanities as we think about broadening the sensory experience of digital spaces. While these might be understood as primarily technical problems (i.e. not humanities problems), humanists might have something to add in understanding the cultural, subjective, and ethical dimensions of textures.
Second, we would probably say that we already study the textures of objects in the humanities. In that study we recognize that textures (and our reception of those textures) are not unmediated. Bogost takes up the examples of different painting textures employed by different artists. Most viewers of a Jackson Pollock painting would see the textures, but their recption of that texture will be varied. However we might also ask how we can build interfaces for feedback into our research.
Third, thinking in my own field, texture might be a productive rhetorical concept as we move beyond the stricly symbolic realm into thinking about the embodied, material, networked nature of communication.
That's just a brief example and the particulars don't matter so much at this point. The point is that the humanities are reconceived as a litany of activities that might link up in unexpected ways. We continue to study the objects that are important to us. In fact, in some ways primary materials might become more significant, but the focus turns to what we do rather than what we represent.
My graduate seminar completed its reading of Debates in the Digital Humanities with the final section on the future of DH. I've written about each of the other sections, so I figured I would write on this one as well and perhaps say something summative about the collection. That said, I feel as though I've already written a fair amount about the future of DH, so I'm not sure what new things I have to say. I suppose I will find out.
Stephen Ramsay has posted his remarks from a recent talk on the book. I think this passage captures the heart of his comments:
Because behind every utterance [in the book]—including, for the record, mine—lies the possibility of a terrible, soul-crushing anxiety about peoples’ place in the world.
Digital humanities is the hottest thing in the humanities. Who can deny it? We read about it in the Chronicle and the New York Times. It is “the story” of recent MLA and AHA conventions. Publishers are falling over themselves trying to create new imprints and series in the Digital Humanities. And there are jobs! Not many, of course, but many more, I would guess, than are available in any other single sub-discipline of venerable giants like English studies or History.
So it is meet and good that we talk about this hot thing. But the question is this: Are you hot?
I see his point. All the talk of who is in and who is out, the "big tent," the "cool kids table," DH as the future of the humanities, etc. etc. creates a significant context for Debates. It can't really be avoided. In addition, there is a more general anxiety in the humanities with shrinking job prospects, traditional publishing crises, and so on... to say nothing of an even broader uncertainty related to higher education itself! DH finds itself, unfairly I think, linked to these issues in a way other sub-disciplines are not. Looked at differently though, we could say that DH's increased visibility has just brought into the same old tired battles we have seen for decades. The only difference is that it isn't 1985 or 1995 or even 2005 anymore.
In my view, we are coming to the end of period of higher education, particularly for humanities, that is only tangentially related to the digital humanities. At some point in the 60s and 70s, the humanities abandoned its traditional role: teaching great books, connect students to a national identity, offering appreciation of a universal human experience, etc. We can't go back there, even if we wanted, but back then, there was a different kind of support for universities and the humanities. But we all changed. The humanities changed. The nation changed. Our workforce and economy changed. Our citizenry changed. And our technology changed with the emergence of the post-industrial, information economy. Collectively we have failed to find a productive, sustainable role for higher education, especially the humanities. For the most part, the humanities have failed to change at all, with curricula that look the same as they did 50 years ago, with a few new courses added here or there. Obviously we have had "theory," which has greatly changed our scholarship, but it has had minimal impact on undergraduate education. However, that failure is just part of a larger systemic failure.
DH fits into this as it appears, finally, as a form of traditional humanities scholarship that addresses this demand for change. But I don't think that DH wants to be this. It doesn't want to be "hot" in this way, even though of course it wishes to be valued. Ironically its role as the "future" probably interferes with it being valued by more traditional faculty, who then become anxious themselves. Certainly there are folks, like HASTAC, who are interested in this question of the humanities digital future, which is quite distinct from the digital humanities future. I am interested in that digital future as well, as that question fits in with my work examining the rhetoric of digital media. But I am only DH in the broadest of any possible definitions, and not one I would employ myself.
If I had to guess, I think that humanites computing/DH will continue to develop into a strong area of methdological specialization as an area of research. It will continue to be focused at R-1 institutions with an infrastructure to support it. It will not have a significant impact on undergraduate education, though there will be courses at those institutions. I imagine DH will shift as it comes into greater contact with various theories but will remain an object of critique, as all things are. It will not "save the humanities," because ultimately DH is not interested in doing different work than the humanities has done before; it just wants to do that work differently. I don't think that's a critique. Why should DH be expected to save or transform the humanities? On the other hand, I do believe that the humanities will be transformed by these larger conditions. So, as Ramsay points out, anxiety is understandable. Ultimately DH's future will be tied to the general future of the humanities. And though I don't think DH should be expected to play a special role in shaping that future, clearly DHers have as much at stake in that future as anyone.
Overall, Debates does a good job of capturing this period where DH came exploding into the humanities scene. The forward-looking quality of the conversations is itself an interesting and unsusual quality. We don't typically hear humanists thinking about the future. Maybe that's a sign in itself.
In what has become my regular report on my seminar's slow march through Debates in the Digital Humanities, this week we discussed the "teaching" section (in which my own contribution appears, though I won't be discussing it here). On a personal note, it's been gratifying to see this blog quoted several times in the book, and I was even happier that this time around there weren't even any misspellings! (sigh).
In this section, Luke Waltzer takes up Stephen Brier's claim that teaching and learning are "the ugly stepchildren of the university." As Walzter writes,
Even though many digital humanities think and speak of themselves and their work as rising in opposition to the traditional structures of the academy, much current work in the digital humanities also values research and scholarship far more than teaching, learning, and curriculum development. In this sense, the digital humanities are hard to distinguish significantly from other academic disciplines." (338, my emphasis)
Part of this may have to do with funding structures. Waltzer observes that the NEH specifically does not fund projects that deal solely with pedagogical theory or that are intended to improve writing, speaking, or thinking skills "apart from a focus on specific humanities content." This would be one of those lines, by the way, that suggest to folks in my field that the NEH is not interested in them. As if to say that research that focuses on the teaching of writing could not be "specific humanities content" unto itself! I mean, why would the NEH want to fund a project whose specific research goal was to develop ways of teaching digital literacy? That wouldn't be the work of the humanities, right? Perhaps the NEH doesn't intend that message. Perhaps they think that's the work of the department of education. Maybe that makes bureaucratic sense. And there are other agencies out there that will fund that work. Which is to say that I don't mean this as a "complain about the NEH" post. Instead, as Waltzer suggests, I think it is indicative of the way that the humanities situates itself in relation to teaching.
I don't want to go further with that digression. Instead, I want to go back to this idea of ugly stepchildren. As it turns out, my parents divorced. Not uncommon. And my mom remarried. (My father remarried several times, though I never lived with those women.) So I suppose I am a step-child. To be honest, I've never thought of myself as a step-child. Maybe some people take on that identity for themselves, I don't know. But I think, like me, teaching and learning do not imagine themselves as step-children, as some obligation that comes along with something that you actually want. However, they may look upon the university as an ugly step-parent.
As a rhetorician, I happen to be in a field that is deeply interested in teaching (and researching pedagogy). Clearly we have schools of education as well, though in my experience, ed schools are primarily focused on K12 pedagogy, not on postsecondary teaching. The basic reason for this is that the sole qualification for a professor is demonstrated expertise in an area of disciplinary content. Without that expertise, one is not really warranted to say anything of a discipline, including about its teaching practices. So even though I will tell you here that lecturing is a fairly bogus pedagogical mode... in any discipline... no one outside my discipline will pay attention to that (and everyone inside my discipline already knows that). Now the common response to that is "Well teaching writing is different because its about skills and my field is about content." At which point one either tries to stop from laughing or screaming that the person is an ignorant fool. After all, how can a person be so apparently smart as to become a professor and yet so apparently stupid as to fall into such a facile distinction? How should we respond? By describing exhaustively the 25 centuries of rhetorical philosophy (to say nothing of the ever-expanding body of contemporary research) that make up the content of my field and constitute content that one might teach in a writing class? Or by listing the dozens of skills that are integral to any disciplinary undertaking? What skills are necessary to conduct a lab experiment? analyze statistical data? critique a text? and so on and so forth.
Digital humanists are perhaps more aware of this trap than others. Is coding a skill or content knowledge? Yes. If we add digital humanities to the curriculum are we "just" adding skills? If you are an 18th century Brit Lit person who does coding and DH work, do you want to teach a course on how to code or in your literary period? I'm not sure what the answer is there. I'm sure you could combine both, but if the idea was to prepare students to do DH coding across literary periods (and maybe even beyond literary studies) then spending much time on the literature would likely be an ineffective choice.
Or, as I said in our seminar, imagine our composition program redesigned. 2500 students and 80 instructors sharing a common digital space, organizing along lines of affinity, meeting F2F to propel the larger community forward, sharing content and points of view, etc. etc. How uncertain would you feel as an instructor in that context? What is your role? What is your relation to your students? Where/when does your work begin and end? But this is the world we live in now. What is your obligation to Facebook or Twitter? What is my obligation to this blog or the email lists I'm on? Conversely what are my opportunities? Where are my chances to learn and grow? To discover inspiration? To answer the questions that digital technologies present to us, it is not possible to continue to think of teaching and learning as things that just magically happen, as rituals that we can just continue to perform. We have to approach these matters with some scholarly focus. And not just some of us, but every discipline and specialization, because we must take up teaching as a disciplinary matter.
Of course I don't actually think that's going to happen. As we discussed in our seminar, I think that if you went up to most humanists and said that they could snap their fingers and become transformed into the ideal digital/21st century version of themselves that they would decline. Instead, they would prefer to go down with the ship, though I'm sure most think that won't happen, that they believe they will be able to continue with the status quo into the indefinite future. As I've said many times on this blog, it's a gamble that individuals are free to make. I think, however, that it is an odd gamble for the humanities to make on a whole. When the humanities, taken as whole, might choose between seeking to adapt to the changing conditions in which it seeks to thrive or remaining true to its 20th-century notion of itself and risk extinction, why would it choose the latter? I realize, of course, that "the humanities" is perhaps not an entity that is capability of making such decisions.
Too bad for the humanities.
In Debates in the Digital Humanities, Michael Witmore discusses the idea of "ancestral text" (which is a republication of this blog post). Witmore is essentially meditating on the impact of speculative realism for big data digital humanities projects. He writes
Our quantitative work with texts adds an unexpected twist to these debates: as objects of massive and variable address, we grasp things about texts in precisely the ways usually reserved for non-linguistic entities. When taken as objects of quantitative description, texts possess qualities that–at some point in the future–could be said to have existed in the present, regardless of our knowledge of them. There is thus a temporal asymmetry surrounding quantitative statements about texts: if one accepts the initial choices about what gets counted, such statements can be “true” now even if they can only be produced and recognized later.
Witmore acknowledges that scholars make choices about what to count in these big data projects "offers a caricature of the corpus and the modes of access this corpus allows. A caricature is essentially a narrowing of address: it allows us to make contact with an object in some of the ways Graham Harman has described in his work on vicarious causation." That's an important acknowledgement, and yet one might say similar things about scientific practices. All measurements and analysis are limited in this regard, and thus the claims made as a result must be similarly limited.
Thus perhaps we are left with pondering what Meillassoux's claim that "what is mathematically conceivable is absolutely possible" means for digital humanities. At some point, would one want to claim that digital humanities scholarship produces knowledge that is ontologically different from that offered by conventional criticism, in that, like the ancestral scientific knowledge Meillassoux describes, it describes conditions outside correlation? I'm not sure what the answer is to that question. Neither is Witmore. However, I think it might turn the complaint about the lack of theory in digital humanities on its head.
At the same time, such questions need to be investigated carefully. It is all to clear that the various populist detractors of the digital humanities offer warnings that DH will offer itself as a quasi-science and start making scientific truth claims based on data. I don't think that's likely to happen. However, it is still a misunderstanding of the problem, at least as I see it. Here, again from a Latourian perspective, the problem comes from how we understand the sciences. Instead, briefly, if we think of scientists as constructing knowledge through use of methods, tools, etc., then we can see the digital humanities in the same way. It's not that dh is true but rather that it is constructed in a different way from conventional humanities. It begins with a recognition that texts are real objects in the world and seeks to describe them on those terms. Speculative realism does offer a way to think through that process of description in philosophical terms.
Whether or not Meillassoux's particularly mathematical approach to ontology will gel with digital humanities particularly mathematical approach to studying objects, I'm not sure. But I'll be interested to see where it goes.
Part three of Debates in the Digital Humanities is titled "Critiquing the Digital Humanities." I will admit to an immediate negative reaction to the word "critique," as I think is evidenced on this blog. It's just rhetorically played out for me, and I am rarely surprised by where critique takes me (spoiler alert: it takes you back to where it started). Still, I don't want to hold that against the contributors to this section of the book. I enjoyed Mark Sample's take on the limits of what DH can offer for contemporary literature (i.e. that which falls under copyright restrictions). While Mark is clearly invested in DH, I appreciated his argument that "we may be surrounded by the digital in our reading, writing, teaching, and scholarship, but we must not be circumscribed by it." Even more provocatively Liz Losh asks "what incentives to hacktivists have to join the ranks of the digital humanities and take part in their frequently arcane and soporific journals and conferences?" Losh points, as I have in the past, to game studies, media studies, and digital rhetoric scholars who feel ambivalent at best about the DH nomenclature.
The other contributions to this section each point in their own way to questions of access, representation, and participation in terms of race, gender, disability, and so on. I don't want to get into the specifics of their arguments (i.e. I'm not going to critique the critiques). I am sympathetic to those long term humanities computing scholars whose small, historically overlooked, area of specialization has exploded through its reinvention as DH. Of course this has more to do with the technological changes of the last decade (and perhaps something to do with the "crisis" in the humanities) than anything else. The result of this, which I find unique in the humanities, is the presumed expectation of DH's obligation to an audience/user-community beyond specialists. Is anyone asking why medieval studies is so white as Tara McPherson does of DH (btw, I don't know if medieval studies is particularly white in relation to other fields... or even if DH is for that matter). Does anyone ask modernists about accessibility or the usability of their scholarship for an audience beyond themselves? In rhetoric and composition there is some conversation about connecting our scholarly work to instructors in FYC classrooms, and maybe to students, but nothing on the scale of DH. That's not to say that we can't ask those questions, but I do think it suggests that DH is playing a different role in the humanities than other fields.
Actually, allow me to make a bolder claim. I think the issue lies with our conceptualization of DH if not the notion of specialization in the humanities. There's an odd double move here that generalizes what DH is (in these cases around code and tool building) and then critiques DH for those generalizations. Even if we keep a narrow definition of DHers as tool builders, I don't think there's much commonality as a field. I suppose all DH tool builders share a common interest in code. However, there are a lot of non-humanities folks who also have an interest in code. Why would we assume that the modernist tool builder and the Asian studies tool builder would share more interests with one another, in terms of coding or tool building, than they would with someone in a business school or social sciences or working for an edTech company or mobile gaming start-up? So I suppose my point is that while all humanities coders/tool builders will share some common interests, I don't know that it's a powerful enough methodological bond to form a disciplinary center.
And it was the theme of centrality that was most prevalent in my grad class discussion of these readings. As we might expect, the critique-al position is "always already" suspicious of the center; it is designed to speak for and from the margins, demanding recognition from the center, but never really wanting to occupy that space. On the other hand, several of the readings spoke for the need for greater centrality: designing for universal access and appealing to a wider range of users. Losh's discussion of academic hacktivism and Bogost's "turtleneck hairshirt" blog post (reprinted in the book) also articulate a reorientation of humanists. One is left wondering whether centrality and cultural relevance is something that the humanities really desires. Overall I would say that it isn't. Instead I think humanists wish to pursue their individual, specialized interests and speak to others who share those interests. Would they like to have more resources? Would they like to be valued for their work? Of course, but not at the cost of shifting their work. I think this is as probably true for DH as it is for any humanities field, though since DH is more dependent on grant money, it is probably under more pressure to respond to a wider audience.
Clearly I am of the mind that the humanists ought to reorient itself; not necessarily (and certainly not exclusively) toward the digital but the digital does offer us an opportunity to recognize that our legacy orientation is not an essential one. Speaking to the digital might also give us a chance to have more currency in the academy. I am not suggesting anything as radical as the decision to eject speech from English departments a century ago, but the decision then to focus on print literacy did lead to the central role of literary studies. No doubt, any move toward centrality will only foster more critique. However, perhaps one can measure one's success by the critique one fosters, and as a bonus for our field, one can also happily keep the unhappy critiquers in business.