Alex Reid: On the Necessitiy of Digital Humanities

Cultural Intelligence, Culture, Knowledge, P2P / Panarchy, Politics

on the necessity of digital humanities centers | Digital Research for Humanities |

on the necessity of digital humanities centers

In The Chronicle, Williman Pannapacker writes about the importance of receiving digital humanities training.

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?