The Digital Humanities backlash.

27 09 2011

All of a sudden, I’m starting to pick up signs of a digital humanities backlash. That’s a shame because there’s a big difference between digital humanities and online education since faculty can seemingly control the first thing, but not necessarily the second. The digital humanities help us do what we already do better. Online education…well, since I don’t feel like linking to my entire archive for the last three months, let’s just say I’m not convinced it helps us do anything.

Nonetheless, it appears that both these technologically-driven phenomena have employment implications, as Natalia Cicere describes here:

So it seems quite natural that there should be wariness and resistance to the growing presence of digital humanities. Perhaps there is some bitterness that you might get your new Americanist only on condition that her work involves a Google Maps mashup, because it was easy to persuade people that your department needed a new “digital humanist,” whatever the hell that is, and it was not easy to persuade people that you needed somebody to teach Faulkner.

The situation is not improved by the confrontational attitudes of certain factions of the digital humanities establishment (such as it is), which are occasionally prone to snotty comments about how innovative DH is and how tired and intellectually bankrupt everybody else’s work is. (Not so often, I find—but even a little is enough to be a problem.) Under those circumstances, DH seems clubby and not liberating; not a way of advocating the humanities but an attack on it, and specifically on the worth of that Faulkner seminar that you teach, and that non-digital research that you do. Why, an established scholar might reasonably ask, should I even deal with this “digital humanities” nonsense? Shouldn’t I just keep teaching my Faulkner seminar, because somebody ought to do it, for Christ’s sake?

She’s not suggesting that anyone ignore the digital humanities, but it appears as if the impact of this technology on our profession is a lot more important than those people whose eyes glaze over at its very mention seem to think. Take, for instance, this:

I don’t think Dan Cohen is intending to be self-important there (since DH is what he does). He’s just describing how he sees the future. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is totally irrelevant. What’s important is that that would be a huge change from the way things are done today, and we all need to be prepared for the changes it brings.

The Postal Service is apparently going to go bankrupt soon. Its effective demise is apparently inevitable, but do we want it to disappear tomorrow (or by 2025 for that matter)? Suppose you want to continue to teach your Faulkner seminar the same way that you always teach it. Is there anything necessarily wrong with that? Not necessarily, assuming that you’re a good teacher. However, if almost everyone else’s seminars go digital somehow, there will be serious pressure on those people who don’t do this sort of thing to start doing it.

Just because the digital humanities offer a different way to teach history does not mean that the old ways are necessarily bad. The key is to keep the process in the hands of professors rather than the people who administer their departments since I hope we’ll all agree that technology should be a tool rather than a club.




10 responses

27 09 2011
Jonathan Dresner

I’m not going to say that there’s no backlash, but I don’t think it’s new. There’s been resistance, often short-sighted and fundamentally wrong-headed, since computers became part of the technological toolkit. Word processors were going to destroy good writing; spreadsheets would turn historians into bean-counters; blogs would turn us all into gossips (remember Ivan Tribble?) and bad writers; etc. And all along the tension points have been in the hiring and tenure process, where innovative work has consistently been downplayed instead of rewarded, to the point where the only successful candidates are the ones who do both new and old style work well (and a lot of it!).

Dan Cohen’s tweet is silly. Any new field has a sudden growth spurt: you could do the same projection with Asian History in the late 1980s, with Islamic history in the early 2000s, etc.

Teaching issues are, as you note, separate. Though we never got trained for classroom teaching before; why should Ph.D. programs start training students for online teaching now? (just kidding)

27 09 2011

Jonathan Rees: Why should anyone take Dan Cohen’s predictions about anything seriously? What makes an advocate for Digital Humanities, who is clearly “talking his own book,” a reliable bellwether for academic employment trends in 2025? (not to pile on Jonathan Dresner.)

Digital Humanities seems to put old material into new packaging. Sure, there are some neat new digital tools out there for research. Do you remember EndNote3.0? I do. I was using it way back in 1997. Does that make me a digital humanist before my time? Remember when you could get *gasp* a faxed copy of the journal article you requested through ILL in 24 hours?!? It seemed as though we were in an age of miracles!

The Digital Humanities does not offer a new paradigm of scholarly activity. It doesn’t redefine the Humanist enterprise. Anyone telling you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

Count me as part of the backlash. I shall now change into my smoking jacket, retire to the study with a sherry and smoke my pipe while contemplating the decline of the novel. Harummph.

27 09 2011
Jonathan Dresner

Matt L.: I think you’re missing the trees for the forest, or the pattern for the static, or something like that.

I agree that “writing tools” and “note-taking tools” don’t constitute a significant shift in method *by themselves*, and I agree that Cohen is blowing smoke. But there will come a point when our ability to manage and analyze large quantities of data, and to cross-reference different kinds of data (geographic, photographic, textual, statistical, etc.) cross a threshold into something fundamentally different. The old skill sets won’t go away: but new skill sets will add dimensions to our imagining and data to our hunches.

Frankly, some of the work being done now really is quite different, very interesting, but it’s hard to see it in the haze of technobabble punditry. The pedagogical implications alone are staggering.

28 09 2011
LIsa Spiro

I’m almost certain that Dan, an historian of mathematics, is joking here. He’s a funny guy. Although he’s certainly a strong advocate for the digital humanities, he also recognizes that humanities scholars may have very good reasons for not using digital tools or methods in their work; see But humanists also have very good reasons *for* using digital resources, tools and methods, including to discern patterns in collections of data; disseminate their work in such a way that it incorporates multimedia, reaches a larger audience, and engages that audience in conversation; and enable undergraduates to develop a more nuanced understanding of technology and culture, learn valuable skills, and participate in research projects. See the NYT’s Humanities 2.0 series for a good overview of ongoing work in DH: My sense is that the digital humanities folks aren’t trying to take over the academy (although maybe we are trying to hack it); we’re trying to make the case that we have valuable contributions to offer.

29 09 2011
Natalia Cecire

Jonathan, thanks for this post. It’s a pleasure to be cited on your blog after having read so many of your righteous posts on online education. I must concur with Jon Dresner, in that I don’t think the “backlash” is a backlash so much as the becoming visible of the resistance to DH that was always there. Reservations and skepticism naturally become more visible as DH becomes more visible. But in any case, as long as we frame the state of the profession in terms of proponents and skeptics of DH, we’ll have a hard time acknowledging, much less shaping, the ways that DH has already changed, and continues to change, the way the professional humanities operate. A long time ago the question changed from “yes or no?” to “how?”

One very useful point that you raise is the distinction between DH and “online education”; one is an area of inquiry; the other is a business “solution.” The area of inquiry—DH&mdashhas, as Jon Dresner points out, “staggering” pedagogical implications; the “solution” too often scarcely qualifies as pedagogy at all.

One of the things that strikes me about THATCamps and DH conversations generally is that you often hear questions like, “how can we get undergraduates more involved in research?” In contrast, in the rest of the profession, the question is something more like, “how can we carve out a tiny space in which faculty are still allowed to do research?”

The success with which many digital humanists have integrated teaching in research (in obvious and easily demonstrable ways) seems to me to be one of the reasons DH seems so appealing. Through bad PR, doing research has come to seem like a selfish act, but once research can be shown to be a form of teaching, we are absolved of the sin of pursuing knowledge.

29 09 2011
And to think we knew her before she made it big. « More or Less Bunk

[…] a related note, Natalia Cecire dropped in here with a long comment on the post I based on her excellent discussion of what I called the Digital […]

30 09 2011
Dan Cohen

My tweet was indeed a joke, intended to deflate the whole idea that somehow DH will perniciously take over the academy.

I promise to be 100% dead serious on Twitter from this point forward.

30 09 2011
Bethany Nowviskie (@nowviskie)

I don’t think Dan Cohen is intending to be self-important, there.

5 01 2012
AHA Day 1: Keeping up with the Jones (Digital Humanities edition). « More or Less Bunk

[…] be doing some kind of hybrid between the digital and traditional humanities. If that’s what Dan Cohen meant when he said that in the future all history jobs will be digital history jobs then I’m OK […]

1 08 2014
If the first MOOC sex scandal breaks during the next two weeks… | More or Less Bunk

[…] the institute blog too. If I manage to write anything about DH that’s less embarrassing than this, I’ll link to it from here as […]

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