Whose Revolution? Towards a More Equitable Digital Humanities

What follows is the text of a talk I gave at the 2012 MLA as part of the Debates in the Digital Humanities panel, which grew out of the just-published book of the same name (more about that in a forthcoming post). Many thanks to my fellow panelists Liz Losh, Jeff Rice, and Jentery Sayers. Thanks, too, to everyone who contributed to the active twitter backchannel for the panel and to Lee Skallerup for archiving it. Finally, I’m grateful to Jason Rhody for his helpful responses to a draft version of this presentation.


“Whose Revolution? Towards a More Equitable Digital Humanities”

The digital humanities – be it a field, a set of methodologies, a movement, a community, a singular or plural descriptor, a state of mind, or just a convenient label for a set of digital tools and practices that have helped us shift the way we perform research, teaching, and service – have arrived on the academic scene amidst immense amounts of hype. I’m sure you’re sick of hearing that hype, so I won’t rehearse it now except to say that the coverage of DH in the popular academic press sometimes seems to imply that the field has both the power and the responsibility to save the academy. Indeed, to many observers, the most notable thing about DH is the hype that has attended its arrival  — and I believe that one of my fellow panelists, Jeff Rice, will be proposing a more pointed synonym for “hype” during his presentation.

It’s worthwhile to point out that it’s harder than you’d think to find inflated claims of self-importance in the actual scholarly discourse of the field. The digital humanists I know tend to carefully couch their claims within prudently defined frames of analysis. Inflated claims, in fact, can be found most easily in responses to the field by non-specialists, who routinely and actively read the overblown rhetoric of revolution into more carefully grounded arguments. Such attempts to construct a straw-man version of DH get in the way of honest discussions about the ways in which DH might accurately be said to alter existing academic paradigms.

Some of those possibilities were articulated recently in a cluster of articles in Profession on evaluating digital scholarship, edited by Susan Schriebman, Laura Mandell, and Stephen Olsen. The articles describe many of the challenges that DH projects present to traditional practices of academic review, including the difficulty of evaluating collaborative work, the possibility that digital tools might constitute research in and of themselves, the unconventional nature of multimodal criticism, the evolution of open forms of peer-review, and the emergence of the kind of “middle-state” publishing that presents academic discourse in a form that lies somewhere between blog posts and journal articles. Then, too, the much-discussed role of “alt-ac” scholars, or “alternative academics,” is helping to reshape our notions of the institutional roles from which scholarly work emerges. Each of these new forms of activity presents a unique challenge to existing models of professional norms in the academy, many of them in ways that may qualify as revolutionary.

And yet, amid this talk of revolution, it seems worthwhile to consider not just what academic values and practices are being reshaped by DH, but also what values and practices are being preserved by it. To what extent, we might ask, is the digital humanities in fact not upending the norms of the academy, but rather simply translating existing academic values into the digital age without transmogrifying them? In what senses does the digital humanities preserve the social and economic status quo of the academy even as it claims to reshape it?

A group of scholars – from both within and outside of the field – have assembled answers to some of those questions in a volume that I have recently edited for the University of Minnesota Press titled Debates in the Digital Humanities. In that book, contributors critique the digital humanities for a series of faults: not only paying inadequate attention to race, class, gender, and sexuality, but in some cases explicitly seeking to elide cultural issues from the frame of analysis; reinforcing the traditional academic valuation of research over teaching; and allowing the seductions of information visualization to paper over differences in material contexts.

These are all valid concerns, ones with which we would do well to grapple as the field evolves. But there is another matter of concern that we have only just begun to address, one that has to do with the material practices of the digital humanities – just who is doing DH work and where, and the extent to which the field is truly open to the entire range of institutions that make up the academic ecosystem. I want to suggest what perhaps is obvious: that at least in its early phases, the digital humanities has tended to be concentrated at research-intensive universities, at institutions that are well-endowed with both the financial and the human resources necessary to conduct digital humanities projects. Such institutions typically are sizeable enough to support digital humanities centers, which crucially house the developers, designers, project managers, and support staffs needed to complete DH projects. And the ability of large, well-endowed schools to win major grant competitions helps them continue to win major grant competitions, thus perpetuating unequal and inequitable academic structures.

At stake in this inequitable distribution of digital humanities funding is the real possibility that the current wave of enthusiastic DH work will touch only the highest and most prominent towers of the academy, leaving the kinds of less prestigious academic institutions that in fact make up the greatest part of the academic landscape relatively untouched.

As digital humanists, the questions we need to think about are these: what can digital humanities mean for cash-poor colleges with underserved student populations that have neither the staffing nor the expertise to complete DH projects on their own? What responsibilities do funders have to attempt to achieve a more equitable distribution of funding? Most importantly, what is the digital humanities missing when its professional discourse does not include the voices of the institutionally subaltern? How might the inclusion of students, faculty, and staff at such institutions alter the nature of discourse in DH, of the kinds of questions we ask and the kinds of answers we accept? What new kinds of collaborative structures might we build to begin to make DH more inclusive and more equitable?

As I’ll discuss later, DH Centers and funding agencies are well aware of these issues and working actively on these problems – there are developments underway that may help ameliorate the issues I’m going to describe today. But in order to help us think through those problems, and in an effort to provoke and give momentum to that conversation, I’d like to look at a few pieces of evidence to see whether there is, in fact, an uneven distribution of the digital humanities work that is weighted towards resource-rich institutions.

Case #1: Digital Humanities Centers

Here is a short list of some of the most active digital humanities centers in the U.S.:

The benefits that digital humanities centers bring to institutions seeking funding from granting agencies should be obvious. DH Centers provide not just the infrastructural technology, but also the staffing and expertise needed to complete resource-intensive DH projects.

There are two other important areas that we should mention and that may not be apparent to DHers working inside DH Centers. The first is the key ways in which DH Centers provide physical spaces that may not be available at cash-poor institutions, especially urban ones. Key basic elements that many people take for granted at research 1 institutions, such as stable wifi systems or sufficient electrical wiring to power computer servers, may be missing at smaller institutions. Then, too, such physical spaces provide the crucial sorts of personal networking that is just as important as infrastructural connection. Finally, we must recognize that grants create immense amounts of paperwork, and that potential DHers working at underserved institutions might not only have to complete the technical and intellectual work involved in a DH project, and publish analyses of those projects to have them count for tenure and promotion, but might also have to handle an increased administrative role in the bargain.

[At this point in the talk, I noted that most existing DH Centers did not spring fully-formed from their universities, but instead were cobbled together over a number of years through the hard and sustained work of their progenitors.]

Case Study #2: Distribution of Grants

Recently, the NEH Office of Digital Humanities conducted a study of its Start-Up grants program, an exciting venture that differs from traditional NEH grant programs in that instead of providing large sums of money to a small number of recipients, it aims to provide smaller starter grants of $25,000 to $50,000 to a wider range of projects. The program allows the ODH to operate in a venture-capitalist fashion, accepting the possibility of failure as it explicitly seeks high-risk, high-reward projects.

The study (PDF), which tracked NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants from 2007-2010, show us how often members of different types of institutions applied for grants. Here is the graphic for universities:

What we see in this graph is a very real concentration of applications from universities that are Master’s level and above. The numbers, roughly, are:

Master’s/Doctoral: 575

BA or Assoc.: 80

Now, those numbers aren’t horrible, and I suspect that they have improved in recent years. And additionally, we should note that many non-university organizations applied for the NEH funding grants. Here is a breakdown of those numbers from the NEH:

What we see here, in fact, is a pretty impressive array of institutional applications for funding – certainly, this is something to build on.

And here are updated numbers of NEH SUG awards actually made – and I thank Jason Rhody, Brett Bobley, and Jennifer Serventi of the NEH ODH for their help in providing these numbers:

Now, there are a few caveats to be made here — only the home institution of the grant is shown, so collaborative efforts are not necessarily represented. Also, university libraries are mostly lumped under their respective university/college type.

Still, we can see pretty clearly here that an overwhelming number of grants have gone to Master’s level and above institutions. And we should be especially concerned that community colleges, which make up the vast number of institutions of higher education in our country, appear to have had a limited involvement in the digital humanities “revolution.”

New Models/New Solutions

Having identified a problem in DH, I’d like to turn now towards some possible solutions and close by discussing some important and hopeful signs for a more equitable future for the digital humanities work.

One of the fun things about proposing a conference paper in April and then giving the paper in January is that a lot can happen in eight months, especially in the digital humanities. And here, I’m happy to report on several new and/or newish initiatives that have begun to address some of the issues I’ve raised today. I’m going to run through them fairly quickly in the hope that many of you are already familiar with them (though I’d certainly be happy to expand on them during the Q&A):

This new initiative seeks to create a large-scale DH community resource that matches newcomers who have ideas for DH projects with experts in the field who can either help with the work itself or serve in an advisory capacity. The project, which is now affiliated with CenterNet, an international organization of digital-humanities centers, promises to do much to spread the wealth of DH expertise. The site has just been launched at this convention and should prove to be an important community-building resource for the field.

  • DH Questions and Answers

Like DH Commons, DH Questions and Answers, which was created by the Association for Computers and the Humanities, offers a way for newcomers to DH to ask many types of questions and have them answered by longstanding members of the field – thus building, in the process, a lasting knowledge resource for DH.

  • THATCamps

These small, self-organized digital-humanities unconferences have been spreading across the country and thereby bringing DH methodologies and questions into a wide variety of settings. Two upcoming THATCamps that promise to expand the purview of the field are THATCAMP HBCU and THATCAMP Caribbean. Both of these events were organized explicitly with the intent of addressing some of the issues I’ve been raising today.

  • The Growth of DH Scholarly Associations

    All of these organizations are actively drawing newcomers into the field. ACH created the above mentioned DH Questions and Answers. NITLE has done excellent public work that is enabling the members of small liberal-arts colleges to be competitive for DH grants. CenterNet is well-positioned to act as an organizational mentor for other institutions.

    These kinds of virtual, regional, and multi-institutional support networks are key, as they allow scholars with limited resources on their own campuses to create cross-institutional networks of infrastructure and support.

    • Continued Commitment to Open Access Publications, Open-Source Tools, and Open APIs

    The DH community has embraced open-access publication, a commitment that has run, in recent years, from Schriebman, Siemens, and Unsworth’s Companion to the Digital Humanities through Dan Cohen and Tom Schienfeldt’s Hacking the Academyto Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence to Bethany Nowviskie’s alt-academy to my own Debates in the Digital Humanities, which will be available in an open-access edition later this Spring. Having these texts out on the web removes an important barrier that might have prevented scholars, staff, and students from cash-poor institutions from fully exploring DH work.

    Relatedly, the fact that many major DH tools – and here the list is too long to mention specific tools – are released on an open-source basis means that scholars working at institutions without DH Centers don’t have to start from scratch. It’s especially crucial that the NEH Office of Digital Humanities states in its proposal guidelines that “NEH views the use of open-source software as a key component in the broad distribution of exemplary digital scholarship in the humanities.”

    These institutes provide key opportunities for DH outreach to academics with a range of DH skills.

    I’d like to close by offering four key ideas to build on as we seek to expand the digital humanities beyond elite research-intensive institutions:

    • Actively perform DH-related outreach at underserved institutions
    • Ask funding agencies to making partnerships and outreach with underserved peer institutions recommended/required practice
    • Continue to build out virtual/consortial infrastructure
    • Build on projects that already highlight cross-institutional partnerships [here I mentioned my own “Looking for Whitman” project]
    • Study collaborative practices [here I mentioned the importance of connecting to colleagues in writing studies]

    While none of these ideas will solve these problems alone, together they may help us arrive at a more widely distributed version of DH that will enable a more diverse set of stakeholders take active roles in the field. And as any software engineer can tell you, the more eyes you have on a problem, the more likely you are to find and fix bugs in the system. So, let’s ensure that the social, political, and economic structures of our field are as open as our code.


    Photo credit: “Abstract #1” by boooooooomblastandruin

13 thoughts on “Whose Revolution? Towards a More Equitable Digital Humanities

  1. Annemarie Pérez

    Thank you for posting this talk and the slides. I had a great time at the DH workshop at MLA and am just starting to understand how the digital humanities can / will influence my own area, Chicana/o literature. I did find myself thinking at the workshop and talks “Where Are All the Brown People?” (using the title of another talk on Latino/as in film). I’m interested in how the anthology your work grew out of addresses the issue of race, ethnicity

    Reply
  2. Matt Post author

    @Annemarie: thanks for visiting and reading. Here’s a link to the table of contents. Some of the essays in the book that address related issues are those by Tara McPherson (“Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation”), Liz Losh, Jamie Skye Bianco, George Williams, and Alan Liu. You might also check out some of the interventions being through the #transformdh tag.

    @Craig: I’d be interested in hearing more from you, but for now, I guess I’ll just point out that that the relationship of DH to cultural theory and politics is just one of the issues taken up in Debates in the Digital Humanities. Given the vision of DH encapsulated in your comment above, you might be especially interested in Steve Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell’s “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities,” which presents an argument that the tools digital humanists build embody theories in and of themselves.

    Reply
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  4. Craig Bellamy

    Well, my last comment was in haste and doesn’t reflect the considerable thought that has gone into this paper and post. Let me consider the argument some more (when I am not on holidays) and I’ll write a better response. Equity is always an important consideration.

    Reply
  5. Dean Rehberger

    As usual Matt has produced a thoughtful and diplomatic response to issues of ways grants are awarded.  If one does look from first glance at who receives grants, R1 universities appear to be favored, but this vantage point covers over a key element of digital humanities work — collaboration.  While this is acknowledged, I do not think it is pushed far enough.

    A deeper look into many grant proposals will uncover a host of partnerships with other institutions (universities, libraries, archives, museums, NGOs, historical societies, independent scholars, community groups, and so on).  Some of these institutions are “wealthy” and well-established like R1 universities and some are greatly disadvantaged and endangered.  Often the R1s will be the institutions “awarded” the grant because they have the expertise and experience to manage (and go after) grant funding but a majority of the funding will go to partners.

    Working on equity and capacitation of disadvantaged institutions is not a recent move in digital humanities (particularly in cultural heritage work), but has been at the heart of a good deal of work in the digital humanities for a long time.
         

    Reply
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  9. Matt Post author

    Thanks, Dean. I think you’re right that the issue of collaboration is acknowledged “but not pushed far enough” in this post. Maybe one of the things we need to be thinking about is how to highlight collaborative grant projects so that the partnerships fostered by DH work are more readily apparent. I would love to see additional data from the NEH ODH that would show the full range of institutions affected by the agency’s grants; I suspect that it would be likely to show a much wider dispersement of funds than my argument above might suggest.

    Reply
  10. Alex Reid

    An interesting presentation Matt. I am curious about this discrepancy among institutional types. Do you know if this difference is also reflect among NEH grant applications in general? That is, I wonder if this is a “digital” issue or a broader “grant writing” issue, if that makes sense.

    Reply
  11. Matt Post author

    That’s a great question, Alex — and one I can check into. I do know that the NEH does support some DH projects through grant programs (not run by the ODH) that are specifically aimed at underserved populations. I think it’s fair to say, though, that those projects do not have the same visibility within the DH community as those funded through the ODH, which is the hub of so much DH activity.

    Reply
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