Tag Archives: digitalhumanities

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

Hacking Together Egalitarian Educational Communities; Some Notes on the Looking for Whitman Project

When I discuss the “Looking for Whitman” project, a multi-campus experiment in digital pedagogy sponsored by the NEH Office of the Digital Humanities, I often emphasize the place-based structure of the project. As part of it, four courses were offered in institutions located in cities in which Walt Whitman lived; students spent the Fall 2009 semester reading texts that Whitman had written in their location and sharing their thoughts, reactions, and research with one another in a dynamic, social, web-based learning environment.

What I discuss a little less often, even though it was extremely important to the project, was the way in which the project worked within existing institutional structures in order to encourage, or at least model, a shift in their functioning. Rather than forming a meta-course that would run classes outside of traditional, credit-bearing disciplinary and institutional frameworks, we chose to work within existing academic boundaries. This wound up necessitating a great deal of administrative work: faculty participants had to ensure that their courses would get on the books in forms that would allow them to be aligned with the project, which involved extensive consultations with departments, deans, registrars, colleagues, and curriculum committees.

But by working within those institutional structures, we subverted some elements of them.  Perhaps the most radical element of the project was the way in which it brought participants from very different types of schools into linked virtual learning spaces. The colleges chosen for participation in Looking for Whitman–-New York City College of Technology (CUNY), New York University, University of Mary Washington, and Rutgers University-Camden-–represented a wide swath of institutional profiles: an open-admissions public college of technology, a private research-intensive university, a public liberal arts college, and a public research university, each with very different types of students. Beyond that, the courses explicitly engaged different types of classes and learners with very different types of backgrounds and knowledge-bases. The class at University of Mary Washington consisted of senior English majors who were taking the course as a capstone experience. There were two classes at Rutgers; one contained a mix of undergraduate English majors and master’s-level students; the other consisted entirely of graduate students who were taking a methods course that served as an introduction to graduate english studies. At City Tech, meanwhile, undergraduate students with little training in literary studies were taking a course on Whitman as part of their general education requirements.

The roster of schools became even more diverse when our NYU faculty member, Karen Karbiener, received a Fulbright Fellowship to Serbia and decided to include her class at the University of Novi Sad in the project. It was this interesting mix of institutions that Jim Groom wrote about in his post on Looking for Whitman:

From the University of Mary Washington to Rutgers-Camden to CUNY’s City Tech to Serbia’s University of Novi Sad, the project represents a rather compelling spectrum of courses from a variety of universities that provide a unique network of students from a wide array of experiences. This is not a “country club for the wealthy,” but a re-imagining of a distributed, public education that is premised on an approach/architecture that is affordable and scales with the individual. It’s a grand, aggregated experiment that will hopefully demonstrate the possibilities of the new web for re-imagining the boundaries of our institutions, while at the same time empowering students and faculty through a focused and personalized learning network of peers, both local and afar.

Mixing all of these students together in a single online space — especially one that placed a great deal of emphasis on social interaction — might seem to some observers to be at best a bad idea, and at worst a dangerous one.  What could graduate students studying literature learn from undergraduate students taking gen-ed courses at an urban school of technology?  Would undergrads flame one another on the course site?  Would undergrads be intimidated by the work of more advanced students who were working within their fields of specialization?

A look around the project website will show that productive interactions did take place, though not always without complications.  We’re just beginning to sort through the data associated with the project, and we’re especially looking forward to examining student responses to the extensive survey we circulated at the close of the semester.

Still, it’s not too early to say that the radical potential of projects like “Looking for Whitman” — and, I would argue, the radical potential of Digital Humanities pedagogical projects more generally — lies in their ability to connect learners in ways that hack around the artificial boundaries of selectivity and elitism that educational institutions have erected around themselves.  And if one result of that hacking is the creation of more open, more diverse, more egalitarian learning environments that engage a broader spectrum of students and institutions, the Digital Humanities might find that it has a social mission that complements its technological one.

(Submitted to Hacking the Academy)