Category Archives: presentations

Out of Sync: Digital Humanities and the Cloud

Matthew K. Gold

Out of Sync: Digital Humanities and the Cloud

This is the text of a keynote lecture I gave at DH Congress at the University of Sheffield on September 10, 2016. I’m grateful to Michael Pidd, the University of Sheffield Humanities Research Institute, and the conference organizing committee for inviting me to speak.

* * *

In February 1884, John Ruskin delivered an address to the London Institution titled “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.” Ruskin began with a reference to his somewhat ominous title:

Let me first assure my audience that I have no arrière pensée in the title chosen for this lecture. I might, indeed, have meant, and it would have been only too like me to mean, any number of things by such a title;—but, tonight, I mean simply what I have said, and propose to bring to your notice a series of cloud phenomena, which, so far as I can weigh existing evidence, are peculiar to our own times; yet which have not hitherto received any special notice or description from meteorologists.

Ruskin went on, in his lecture, to do just that — to convey his thoughts on clouds based on his sketches and observations of the sky, though at least some audience members and later critics have seen embedded in his remarks a critique of encroaching industrialization. And so, in a talk focused on clouds — which Ruskin elsewhere described with much beauty and care — we see the seeds of a larger political critique.

Were I to “propose to bring to your notice a series of cloud phenomena” that are, in Ruskin’s words, “peculiar to our own times,” we would begin, most likely, not by looking up to the sky, but rather down at our cell phones. We wouldn’t discuss “storm clouds,” or even “clouds,” but rather “THE cloud,” by which we would refer to the distributed set of services, platforms, and networked infrastructures that string trellised connections between our phones, laptops, desktops, and tablets. We would point to the media systems that have caused us to consign our CDs to closets and to sign up for subscription-based music services such as Spotify and Tidal. We would point to Google drives and docs, Twitter hashtags and Facebook feeds, wifi signals, Bluetooth connections, Github repositories, files synced across DropBox, Box, and SpiderOak. Indeed — the sync — the action of connecting to and syncing with the network, of comparing our local files to those on a remote server and updating them to match — might be the signal action of the cloud-based life. We become dependent on, and interdependent with, the network — always incomplete, awaiting sync, ready to be updated. The cloud produces both security and instability, offering back-up services but keeping us always in need of updates. We look to the cloud not to see an alien sky but rather to recover parts of ourselves and to connect or reconnect to our own work.

My aim in this talk is to spend some time thinking with you about the cloud and about what it portends for the digital humanities. But it’s difficult to talk about the cloud without also talking about infrastructure, in part because of the clear ways in which cloud-based services and models are dependent upon physical conduits, things in the world, that belie the cloud’s supposedly abstract, virtual, and ineffable nature. I’d like to draw the DH community’s attention to a set of conversations that are occurring both in DH and also outside of it–in the realm of media studies, and in particular, the growing area of critical infrastructure studies. In connecting these conversations, I want to encourage us to think about how DH work relates to or should relate to issues of infrastructure — particularly as these issues involve larger concerns that have been raised in the humanities about DH work around issues of instrumentalism and neoliberalism. My premise is that thinking about DH work within an infrastructural context may allow us to both focus on the work that DHers do so well — reflexive and theoretically informed building, making, and critique — and to build or rebuild that human, social, and scholarly communications infrastructure upon sturdier grounds of social justice.

It’s easy to see that an “infrastructural turn” has been growing over the past year in DH and allied fields. We can see it in evidence in the July 2016 King’s College symposium “Interrogating Infrastructure“; in the recent DH2016 panel on “Creating Feminist Infrastructure in the Digital Humanities”; in DH2016 presentations such as James Smithies “Full Stack DH,” which described his project to build a Virtual Research Environment on a Raspberry Pi; and in experiments such as my own team’s DH Box project. In media studies, we see this infrastructural turn in recent publications such as Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud and Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network; in a renewed focus, generally, on the material nature of computers; in the growth of the field of media archaeology; in calls across the academy to pay more attention to the social and political contexts of digital work; and in efforts to recover the diverse histories of early computing. This work encourages us to take account of computational work as enmeshed in the different levels of the “stack,” Benjamin H. Bratton’s term for the set of infrastructures – media infrastructures, data infrastructures, political infrastructures, physical infrastructures and legal infrastructures — that have accreted over time into an accidental whole through what Bratton calls “planetary scale computing.” As more and more DH work moves to the cloud and becomes dependent on networked infrastructure, thinking about the protocols, dependencies, and inter-dependencies of the Stack can help us fruitfully shape our work as it relates to both allied scholarly disciplines and to larger publics.

What role should the digital humanities play in conversations about infrastructure? What particular insights does work in the field have to contribute to them? And to what extent are DHers already doing the work of infrastructure in the academy broadly, and the humanities more specifically? I will argue in this talk that DHers should engage the Cloud and its associated infrastructures critically, thinking about how the emergence of the Cloud, even as it makes possible new forms of networked connection, also foregrounds multiple risks. It’s my belief, as I’ll detail later on in the talk, that DH should step back and re-consider its use of proprietary social networks, and that it should focus on building alternate forms of scholarly publishing and communication infrastructure that help move us away from proprietary networks where every interaction is always already commodified and where the network effect all too often puts marginalized populations at risk.

In his opening remarks at the “Interrogating Infrastructure” event — an event I did not attend, but which I have at least some sense of thanks to his online notes — ­­Alan Liu positioned the topic of infrastructure as a key future direction for the digital humanities. He argued not just that the topic was well-suited to the field, but that it was one which DH was well-positioned to address. Infrastructure, as the set of social and technological systems undergirding many aspects of networked modern life, for Liu, has the “potential to give us the same general purchase on social complexity that Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, and others sought when they reached for their all-purpose interpretive and critical word, ‘culture.’”

I think Liu is right that DHers can and should pay increased attention to issues of infrastructure and the effects of that infrastructure on the larger communicative and meaning-making networks of contemporary society. And clearly, much work on infrastructure is already blending scholarship in new media studies, science and technology studies, and the digital humanities. I think here of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work on forensic materiality and software platforms, Lori Emerson’s work on interfaces, Jentery Sayer’s work on prototyping the past, Jussi Parrikka’s work on media archaeology, Simone Browne’s work on surveillance networks and race, and Kari Kraus’s work on speculative design. All of these scholars are already exploring the intersections of infrastructure, platform/material studies, design and new media.

The past year has been notable within the emerging field of infrastructure studies, as scholars in the fields of new media studies and science and technology studies have published a range of books that put the infrastructure of the Cloud into theoretical and infrastructural contexts. Across four of those books — Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network; Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud; John Durham Peters’s The Marvelous Clouds; and Benjamin H. Bratton’s The Stack — we see a range of approaches:

  • An examination of the physical infrastructure underlying virtual networks. Starosielski examines the undersea cables that continue to carry much internet traffic; while Hu looks at how fiber-optic network infrastructure has been “grafted” onto America’s aging railroad track system. In both cases, we see attention paid to the physical infrastructures of the internet that are often overlooked, if not purposefully hidden.
  • An exploration of how power plays across networked interfaces, infrastructures, and protocols — and particularly how the traditional laws of the nation-state become confused and overwritten across the liminal space of the web. Starosielski looks at cable stations across the Pacific, exploring past and present effects of colonized states; Hu examines what he calls the “sovereignty of data,” exploring how we “invest the cloud’s technology with cultural fantasies about security and participation.” And Bratton delineates, as I’ve noted earlier, the various layers of what he calls “the Stack.” In Bratton’s view, computation itself has become a “global infrastructure [that] contributes to an ungluing and delamination of land, governance, and territory, one from the other” (14).
  • A connection, drawn by Peters through what he calls “infrastructuralism,” of computing technologies and the environment. This involves partly a consideration of the effect of computing technology on the environment — what Bratton calls “the ponderous heaviness of Cloud computing” — and partly, through Peters’s book, a consideration of media as environment, as space and place through which we move.

Across all of these works, we see concerns over issues of power, capital and surveillance; the physical and commercial structures through which the phenomenon we refer to as “the network” is built; and the growing sense in which media and networked infrastructures have become constitutive of much of our experience in the world.

The cloud is blurring lines and connecting us in ways that have reshaped conventional boundaries. For instance, As Bratton considers issues of sovereignty, citizenship, the polis, and the network, he ponders the dividing lines between “citizen” and “user,” between subject and state, wondering whether the network itself provides for new understandings of citizenship. He asks:

What if effective citizenship in a polity were granted not according to categoriocal juridical identity but as a shifting status derived from any user’s generic relationship to the machine systems that bind that polity to itself?” In other words, if the interfaces of the city address everyone as a “user,” then perhaps one’s status as a user is what really counts. The right to address and be addressed by the polity would be understood as some shared and portable relationship to common infrastructure. Properly scaled and codified, this by itself would be a significant (if also accidental) accomplishment of ubiquitous computing. From this perhaps we see less the articulation of citizenship for any one city, enclosed behind its walls, but of a “citizen” (Is that even still the right word?) of the global aggregate urban condition, a “citizen-user” of the vast, discontiguous city that striates Earth, built not only of buildings and roads but also perplexing grids and dense, fast data archipelagos. Could this aggregate “city” wrapping the planet serve as the condition, the grounded legitimate referent, from which another, more plasmic, universal suffrage can be derived and designed? Could this composite city-machine, based on the terms of mobility and immobility, a public ethics of energy and electrons, and unforeseeable manifestations of data sovereignty . . . provide for some kind of ambient homeland? If so, for whom and for what? (10, emphasis added)

The questions seething through Bratton’s book — especially those around citizenship, subjectivity, and participation in the techno-sphere – embody the kinds of questions DHers might ask of infrastructure. As enormous forces of capital and computation engender new networked publics around us, to what extent are those publics built on the grounds of equity and social justice? As DHers participate in these new cloud polities, to what extent are we asking Bratton’s question, “for whom and for what,” as we do our work?

DH has always been wildly various and multivalent, and its practices and methods range widely (some see this as a feature; others, as a bug. Count me on the side of those who appreciate DH’s capacious frame). The increasing prevalence of the cloud in our lives and works offers us a chance to intervene in the systems of media and communication developing around us. We can and should ask where and how DH insight might best contribute to scholarly conversations around infrastructure.

One possibility is the work on large-scale text, sound, and image corpora that many DHers — Franco Moretti, Ted Underwood, Tim Hitchcock, Andrew Piper, Richard Jean-So, Mark Algee-Hewitt, Matthew Jockers, Tanya Clement, Lev Manovich, and many others — have been working on, often through larger infrastructural platforms such as the Hathi Trust. Surely, this work involves issues of the cloud, infrastructure, and culture, and surely it builds on methods central to, and perhaps in some ways unique to, DH work. DHers excel at contributing to and taking advantage of this kind of networked infrastructure for scholarly work – look at how a set of national and international scholarly infrastructure projects — such as DARIAH-EU, Compute Canada, Hathi Trust, and Europeana Research — are helping DH researchers do their work at scale and also to participate in larger public conversations.

These platforms, and this type of infrastructural work is important. And they may be the answer for DH as it thinks about cloud-based infrastructure. But – aside from the fact that, as I have argued elsewhere, large-scale text mining too often stands in the public mind as a synecdoche of what DH is and should be — this kind of infrastructural work is sometimes hampered by the complex rights issues that attend cultural heritage materials, and these platforms often have a somewhat problematic relationship to access, offering member institutions one set or quality of resources, and offering the public another. Such platforms often embrace a stance of political neutrality that may be inadequate to the increasing complexity of the cloud. And so — perhaps for those reasons, and perhaps because of the direction of my own work – I’d like to consider other possibilities for DH in the cloud, as well.

Earlier, I noted that the action of the “sync” – the point where the user connects to a cloud-based service such as DropBox, Gmail, iTunes, or Google Docs to upload and download files – as the quintessential act of the cloud. As DHers, we know and recognize that these systems do much more than update files – they check us in with that vast global network of users, update terms of agreement, provide companies with a chance to flag illegal downloads. The sync is as much an act of corporate surveillance as it is an act of routine file maintenance.

As DHers, we know this and to some degree accept this in the same way that we know and accept our participation in proprietary networks like Twitter. It seems at times a cost of living in a cloud-based world.

But when we think about what DH is and what it can be, and of how it might relate to the cloud, we might consider that DHers are, among academics, perhaps best suited to reshape the nature of academic research itself. This work — often described as scholarly communication — has focused on the creation of new publishing interfaces and platforms; on the extension of humanities work to include alternatives to text-based argument; on the use of social media and blogging platforms to share in-process scholarship in public ways; on the consideration of collaborative work in the humanities; and on a reconsideration of what scholarship itself is and should be.

Perhaps the great work of DH is to envision alternate infrastructures for technical and scholarly work that help divorce us from systems of entrenched capital, that help move us away from our shared dependence on the set of proprietary service platforms — Twitter, Facebook, Github, Slack, Academia.edu — that have dominated scholarly communication in the humanities (and digital humanities) to date, and to recognize this shared dependence as such. Perhaps a central mission of DH is to build alternate infrastructures that are premised upon social and political understandings of the cloud, as articulated at least in part through scholarship in new media and science and technology studies.

This kind of work could help us address one of the most ironic gestures we see in current critiques of DH: harsh, outraged attacks on the supposed “neoliberalism” of DH, delivered by scholars through commercial proprietary platforms like Facebook and Twitter, or through online publication venues that use clickbait-y headlines to capture page views in the attention economy. It’s hard to see how the platform of delivery of those critiques does not detract at least a bit from their bite.

And yet if we think we are immune from this problem ourselves, we are wrong — this is an issue that affects not just new-media scholars or conservative humanists; it is undeniably present in the digital humanities community, as well. Yes, we have Humanist-L, DH Q&A, personal academic blogs, and multiple scholarly journals that we use to share work in the field. Yes, we are building new venues for open-access publishing such as The Open Library of the Humanities. Yes, we are building out institutional and inter-institutional methods of conversation and connection such as MLA Commons and MLA CORE, not to mention institution-specific repositories.

But DHers also participate actively and enthusiastically in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Slack, among others. Twitter has, for many, become the de facto meeting ground of the field. And there is an undeniable good here: a strong DH presence on these platforms has enabled DHers to share their work with larger publics. But they also suggest a missed opportunity for scholarly communication and a regrettable participation in the larger systems of capital accumulation that DH could potentially resist.

In “The Scandal of Digital Humanities,” Brian Greenspan’s response to “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities,” published by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia in the L.A. Review of Books, Greenspan argues that digital humanities work is fundamentally aligned against the “strictly economic logic’ of neoliberalism; he notes that much DH work resists the “pressure to commercialize” and in fact involves “either detourning commercial tools and products for scholarly purposes, or building Open Access archives, databases and platforms.” Greenspan remarks sardonically that that is why so many DH projects are “so often broken, unworking or unfinished, and far from anything ‘immediately usable by industry.'”

DH work, as Alan Liu and others have argued, presents to the academy a mode of engagement between the humanities and computational methods and tools that is self-reflexive and empowering. Building on that notion, Greenspan argues that:

DH involves close scrutiny of the affordances and constraints that govern most scholarly work today, whether they’re technical (relating to media, networks, platforms, interfaces, codes and databases), social (involving collaboration, authorial capital, copyright and IP, censorship and firewalls, viral memes, the idea of “the book,” audiences, literacies and competencies), or labour-related (emphasizing the often hidden work of students, librarians and archivists, programmers, techies, RAs, TAs and alt-ac workers).

“If anything,” Greenspan notes, “DH is guilty of making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine, along with the mechanic’s maintenance bill. . . .And that’s precisely its unique and urgent potential: by providing the possibility of apprehending these mechanisms fully, DH takes the first steps toward a genuinely materialist and radical critique of scholarship in the 21st century.”

To the extent that this critique can be baked into the building that digital humanists do — and I do think that that is one of the key aims of DH as a field and practice, particularly in the age of the cloud — Greenspan helps us see DH’s potential contribution to questions of infrastructure. Digital humanities work can indeed help us reposition the infrastructure of scholarship away from the formations we now have in place and towards a more purposeful, and more resistant digital humanism that is grounded not just in non-commercial practices, but in anti-commercial practices. In this way, the strength of DH, its ability to peek into the black box of technological platforms, can be strengthened and can help the academy as it faces the onslaught of techno-capital from all sides. The need for this kind of work is urgent, as the drumbeat of constant reductions in state funding, certainly felt here in England but also in the U.S., force institutions to adopt austerity measures of various kinds.

To some degree, DH is already doing this kind of work—and I don’t want to erase the important contributions of these projects by failing to mention them. For example, we can look at a range of representative projects — Zotero, which has provided an effective alternative to costly bibliographic software; Omeka, which has created an easy way to present cultural heritage objects; Mukurtu, which is designed specifically to take account of diverse cultural attitudes towards the sharing of heritage materials; Scalar, which encourages multi-modal and non-linear argument; Domain of One’s Own, which helps students familiarize themselves with hosting infrastructure and take some measure of control over their online persona; and a few of the projects I have been involved in — Manifold Scholarship, which is creating a new open-source platform for interactive scholarly monographs; Commons In A Box, which provides a free platform for academic social networks; DH Box, which opens DH computing software to communities without technical DH infrastructure; and Social Paper, which is planting seeds that may one day help us move away from Google docs. Across all of these projects are the beginnings of an infrastructure for shared scholarly work that offer alternatives to commercial environments and platforms.

And yet, as Miriam Posner has noted, “the digital humanities [still] actually borrows a lot of its infrastructure . . . from models developed for business applications.” For many, the mere fact that DH involves the kind of technical training that may be very much in line with marketplace demands is evidence of its complicity with the forces of neoliberalism in the academy. How can we ensure that the infrastructure DH builds is self-reflexive infrastructure for scholarly practice and communication; that its builders ask themselves Bratton’s question — for whom and for what — at every turn; that it foreground humanistic research questions and resist the persistent encroachment of capital into higher education?

I don’t have answers, but I can suggest starting points:

  • We need a re-articulation of DH technical practice as essentially reflexive endeavor. DHers tend to approach technological systems by seeking to understand them, to historicize them, to unpack the computational and ethical logics that structure them. This gives DHers a good starting place for building out more ethical tools for scholarly communication. But we need to make this case more powerfully to the public.
  • We need open and robust conversations about inclusive practices. As recent years have shown, DHers need to pay careful attention to the make-up of their own projects and conferences, seeking to counter the forces of structural racism and gender bias. We might move this conversation forward by consciously seeking to expand our project teams and ensure that our projects engage issues diversity and difference.
  • We should expand our notions of what we mean by infrastructure, Jacqueline Wernimont’s argument at DH2016 in her talk “Feminist Infrastructure as Metamorphic Infrastructure.” There, Jacque described a concept of feminist infrastructure that commits to people, that is built upon relational accountability, that embeds ideals of collaboration, collectivity, and care, and that, as Jacque notes about FemTechNet’s charter, foregrounds pedagogies that are anti-racist, queer, decolonizing, trans-feminist, and focused on civil rights.
  • We should continue to build infrastructures and infrastructural conversations that encourage the growth of global DH; Alex Gil’s minimal computing is a wonderful example of this, in that it is an infrastructural philosophy and set of technological platforms — such as Ed, his Jekyll theme designed to produce minimal textual editions. The Gacaca Community Justice archive that we heard about from Marilyn Deegan on Thursday is another wonderful example of this.
  • That we speak more about, and continue to think through, the kind of education and training that many of us provide for our colleagues and students at our universities, and to situate that work within the context of critical pedagogy, ensuring that when we teach our students, we do so by emphasizing humanities values. Our students need to use DH methods to explore and explicate ambiguity rather than to flatten it. I think we do this already, but our academic colleagues sometimes miss this point.
  • That we take seriously the proposition put forward by Geoffrey Rockwell and Stephen Ramsay that for digital projects to be taken seriously, they have to make arguments. And to the extent that they can make arguments in their conception and function, they will help explain what DH is and can be.

And that, I think, is the challenge for DH infrastructure: it needs to make an argument, and it needs to make an argument through its projects, as Tara McPherson argued in 2010. Many of the projects I mentioned above do just that — think of Alex Gil’s minimal computing, of that way it embeds an argument about access and infrastructure into its codebase. Think about James Smithies attempts to build a virtual research environment on a cheap and affordable Raspberry Pi. Consider the DH Box’s team to make DH tools available to institutions that don’t have reliable networked infrastructure. Consider how Commons In A Box offers academics an alternative to Facebook, and how it has been used by scholarly associations such as Modern Language Association to build out alternates to corporate sites like academia.edu.

There are limits, of course. DH Box, though it is available free software, currently runs through Amazon Web Hosting. Domains of One’s Own similarly is a project that is ultimately based on commercial web hosting space. As Tung-Hui Hu reminds us, network infrastructure is often literally laid on top of older commercial infrastructure. It’s hard to live completely off the commercial grid, to live on the bare wires of the network – especially if we want to be involved in larger public conversations. The cloud calls to us to sync with it, and that call is hard to resist.

And there are other challenges. Free software communities, at least those in the US with which I am most familiar, are dominated by white males and are not always welcoming to women and minorities (something that I think and hope is changing through organizations such as PyLadies, Black Girls Code, and similar organizations).

And the work is painful. We are using Twitter, and not Diaspora or App.net, for a reason. The slick, seductive surfaces, the smooth user interfaces of commercial social media platforms are not just hard to resist — they are where other conversations are happening. Removing ourselves from those platforms would cost DHers exposure — and, were more academics to follow — would risk moving academic discourse even farther from the public sphere than it already is.

But as Eben Moglen pointed out in his talk “Freedom in the Cloud” — the talk that inspired a group of NYU undergrads to create the twitter alternative Diaspora — when we use Gmail, it comes with the “free” service of semantic email analysis by Google for Google; that when we get free email and document storage we get a “free” service which is “spying all the time.” That location-based tweets may be used to squash protest. We know this – everyone knows this – but we could do more to combat the force of the commercial cloud.

DH can and will be useful to the humanities and to the academy. But it has the opportunity to consider what the next generation of scholarly communication platforms is and can be. It has the opportunity, and perhaps the responsibility, to approach questions of infrastructure with political and social contexts in mind — to consider, for instance, how its infrastructure can be modeled, to use language from Elizabeth Losh, Jacqueline Wernimont, Laura Wexler, Hong-An Wu upon feminist values, embracing “genuinely messy, heterogeneous, and contentious pluralism” in its design. Or, to return to the cloud, to offer us new visions of what it means to sync with the cloud and with the world. DH can and perhaps should be a primary force for resisting the entrance of capital into the ecosystem of educational institutions, by insisting upon critical engagements with commercial technologies. We can and must interrupt the sync.

Resisting the smooth services of the corporate web — building tools, platforms, and communities that embrace core humanities values of discourse, dialogue, inclusivity, and intellectual exchange — perhaps represent another side of what Miriam Posner has called the “radical, unrealized potential of the digital humanities.”

Were we to engage in that work — and I think we are already doing it, just not as purposefully and mindfully as we might — we would in fact have made a significant contribution to the world and would perhaps help dissipate the storm clouds of our times.

* * *

I’m grateful to Lauren F. Klein, Kari Kraus, and Brian Croxall for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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

DH and Comp/Rhet: What We Share and What We Miss When We Share

What follows is the text of a short talk I gave at the 2012 MLA as part of the session Composing New Partnerships in the Digital Humanities. Many thanks to session organizer Catherine Prendergast, my fellow panelists, and everyone who took part in the discussion in person or through twitter.


Like my fellow panelists, I joined this session because I’d like to see an increased level of communication and collaboration between digital humanists and writing-studies scholars. There is much to be gained from the kinds of partnerships that such collaborations might foster, and much for members of both fields to learn from one another. I suspect that most people in this room today agree upon that much.

So, why haven’t such partnerships flourished? What issues, misconceptions, lapses, and tensions are preventing us from working together more closely?

A shared history of marginalization

Both comp/rhet and the digital humanities scholars have existed at the margins of traditional disciplinary formations in ways that have shaped their perspectives. Writing Studies has a history of being perceived as the service wing of English departments. Beyond heavy course loads, the field is sometimes seen as being more applied than theoretical – this despite the fact that writing studies has expanded into areas as diverse as complexity theory, ecocriticism, and object-oriented rhetoric.

The digital humanities, meanwhile, arose out of comparably humble origins. After years of inhabiting the corners of literature departments, doing the kinds of work, such as scholarly editing, that existed on the margins of English departments, humanities computing scholars emerged, blinking and bit disoriented, into the spotlight as digital humanists. Now the subject of breathless articles in the popular academic press and the recipients of high-profile research grants, DHers have found their status suddenly elevated. One need only look at the soul-searching blog posts that followed Bill Pannapacker’s suggestion at the last MLA that DH had created a cliquish star-system to see a community still coming to terms with its new position.

I bring up these points not to reopen old wounds, but rather to point out that they have a common source: a shared focus on the sometimes unglamorous, hands-on activities such as writing, coding, teaching, and building. This commonality is important, and it’s something, well, to build on, not least of all because we face a common problem as we attempt to help our colleagues understand the work we do.

Given what we share, it’s surprising to me that so many writing-studies scholars seem to misunderstand what DH is about. Recent discussions of the digital humanities on the tech-rhet listserv, one of the primary nodes of communication among tech-minded writing-studies scholars, show that many members of the comp/rhet community see DH as a field largely focused on digitization projects, scholarly editions, and literary archives. Not only is this a limited and somewhat distorted view of DH, it’s also one that is especially likely to alienate writing-studies scholars, emphasizing as it does the DH work done within the very traditional literary boundaries that were used to marginalize comp/rhet in previous decades.

This understanding of DH misses some key elements of this emerging field:

  1. Its collaborative nature, which is also central to comp/rhet teaching and research;
  2. The significant number of digital humanists who, like me, focus their work not on scholarly editions and textual mark-up, but rather on networked platforms for scholarly communication and networked open-source pedagogy;
  3. The fact that the digital humanities are open in a fundamental way, both through open-access scholarship and through open-source tool building;
  4. The fact that DH, too, has what Bethany Nowviskie has called an “eternal September” – a constantly refreshed group of newbies who seem to emerge and ask the same sorts of basic questions that have been asked and answered before. We need to respond to such questions not by becoming frustrated that newcomers have missed citations to older work – work that may indeed be outside of their home disciplines – but rather by demonstrating how and why that past work remains relevant in the present moment.
  5. The fact that there is enormous interest right now in the digital humanities on networked pedagogy. This is a key area of shared interest in which we should be collaborating.
  6. The fact that DH is interdisciplinary and multi-faceted. To understand it primarily as the province of digital literary scholars is to miss the full range of the digital humanities, which involves stakeholders from disciplines such as history, archaeology, classical studies, and, yes, English, and as well as librarians, archivists, museum professionals, developers, designers, and project managers.

    In this sense, I’d like to recall a recent blog post by University of Illinois scholar Ted Underwood, who argued that DH is “a rubric under which a bunch of different projects have gathered — from new media studies to text mining to the open-access movement — linked mainly by the fact that they are responding to related kinds of fluidity: rapid changes in representation, communication, and analysis that open up detours around some familiar institutions.”

To respond to DH work by reasserting the disciplinary boundaries of those “familiar institutions,” as I believe some writing-studies scholars are doing, is to miss an opportunity for the kinds of shared endeavors that are demanded by our moment.

So, let’s begin by looking towards scholars who have begun to bridge these two fields and think about the ways in which they are moving us forward. I’m thinking here of hybrid comp-rhet/DH scholars like Alex Reid, Jentery Sayers, Jamie “Skye” Bianco, Kathie Gossett, Liz Losh, William Hart-Davidson, and Jim Ridolfo, all of whom are finding ways to blend work in these fields.

I’d like to close with some words from Matt Kirschenbaum, who reminds us, in his seminal piece, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing In English Departments,” that “digital humanities is also a social undertaking.” That is, I think Matt is saying, that DH is not just a series of quantitative methodologies for crunching texts or bunch of TEI markup tags, but rather a community that is in a continual act of becoming. We all need to do a better job of ensuring that our communities are open and of communicating more clearly with one another. This session, I hope, is a start.