The beatings will continue until morale improves.

8 01 2013

I would understand if stuff like this makes digital humanities people kind of touchy:

One MLA panel yesterday expounded on “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities.” Like all the DH sessions I’ve attended this year, it was packed. Amid the surge of Twitter conversations (like drinking from a bundle of firehoses), I was able to absorb some points in the larger bill of indictment: That DH is insufficiently diverse. That it falsely presents itself as a fast-track to academic jobs (when most of the positions are funded on soft money). That it suffers from “techno-utopianism” and “claims to be the solution for every problem.”  That DH is “a blind and vapid embrace of the digital”; it insists upon coding and gamification to the exclusion of more humanistic practices.  That it detaches itself from the rest of the humanities (regarding itself as not just “the next big thing,” but “the only thing”).  That it allows everyone else in the humanities to sink as long as the DH’ers stay afloat. That DH is complicit with the neoliberal transformation of higher education; it “capitulates to bureaucratic and technocratic logic”; and its strongest support comes from administrators who see DH’ers as successful fundraisers and allies in the “creative destruction” of humanities education. And—most damning—that DH’ers are affiliated with a specter that is haunting the humanities—the specter of MOOCs.

This whole argument is obviously incredibly unfair.  Anybody who knows anything about the digital humanities knows that it provides professors with wonderful tools that make their lives easier and higher education better.  Nevertheless, I understand this critique and I think I can use an analogy to make a distinction that will help this conversation work a little better.

Thanks to the success of a certain Johnny Depp movie series, “The beatings will continue until morale improves” frequently shows up on pirate t-shirts, but I have always associated it with Roman slave galleys, like in “Ben Hur.”  A bunch of bare-backed slaves are all grabbing  giant oars, while evil drivers in funny armor are standing behind them, beating their backs with whips trying to make them row faster.  The problem there is not with the rowing.  Even if the slaves could take control of the ship, they’d still have to go somewhere.  The problem is with the whipping.

In the case of MOOCs*, the fact that there’s an administrator standing behind the labor force with a whip is fairly obvious.  Chris Newfield described the egregious example of the UC system’s pre-MOOC online system just the other day. Aaron Bady, in one of the most astonishingly good posts about higher education in general that you will ever read, explains the MOOC problem better than anyone that I have ever read:

Instead of using new technology to do what we have always done, but do it better, it will be so thoroughly co-opted and driven by venture capital that it will be another battering ram against what’s left of high quality, low cost higher education. And it will destroy subjects and disciplines that aren’t conducive to being MOOCified, like mine. 

I know the average DHer is more than smart enough to see this.  I’ve been particular heartened by the MOOC skepticism I see coming out of the Center for New Media and History from people like Mills Kelly.

Unfortunately, the digital humanities can also be weaponized.  The problem with the digital humanities isn’t the work itself, it’s how the work gets used.  If every major archive goes totally online, what’s going to happen to travel money to visit the smaller ones?  What’s going to happen to library budgets?  What if administrators think that students can use the digital humanities to teach themselves?

While I’m not sure this qualifies entirely as digital humanities, consider Monica Rankin’s now-famous Twitter in the history class experiment at UT-Dallas.  The problem here is not the fact that Rankin uses Twitter in her class.  The problem is that the class is so large that she has to use Twitter to have a discussion in the first place.  More importantly, if she continues to use Twitter, will that lead administrators there to make her class even bigger than it already is?

Technology is not good or bad.  What’s important is the way in which it gets employed and who controls it. Do not condemn the slave or the oar.  Condemn the driver with the whip standing behind them.  And if you happen to be that slave, then the first step you have to take if you ever want to be liberated is to acknowledge that the person behind you is holding a whip, whether it’s stinging your back currently or being held in check for future use when necessary.

*  Come on, you just knew I wasn’t going to be able resist this subject for very long.




3 responses

8 01 2013
Anne Corner

Jonathan, did you see the latest article on MOOCs in the New York Times? This one talks about how MOOCs will make money. I am beginning to have more sympathy for your position. But, having spent a lot of my career building computer systems that either put people out of work or changed that work drastically, I don’t think you can stop it.

8 01 2013
Dr. V. Pasupathi

Yep. Yesssss.

10 01 2013
Contingent Cassandra

The “Dark Side” panel was, indeed, an interesting, if crowded, experience. To take it to a meta- level, one of the odder parts of the experience was not only experiencing simultaneous very different conversations on the twitter stream and at the speakers’ table, but also seeing how difficult it was, once the Q&A session began, to meld the two into a single coherent conversation (it came pretty close to happening by the end, but it took a while). Maybe we’ll eventually get better at moving back and forth between twitter and face to face conversation (I experience the same problem with facebook conversations, but not with email, but I can’t tell whether that’s a matter of length or familiarity). At the moment, even with experienced tweeters, we don’t seem to be there.

The most important takeaway from the panel, from my perspective: many deans and other administrators have no idea that Digital Humanities and MOOCs (and/or other sorts of online pedagogy) are different things — and faculty/staff seeking funding often find it’s to their advantage to perpetuate the confusion. Basically, to many administrators, “digital”=something that will save, or perhaps even bring in, money (there is, after all, NEH funding for digital humanities projects). Even if faculty know they won’t be able to deliver on that promise, they have incentives, at least in the short term, for not shattering the illusion.

Later in the day, Bethany Nowviskie added some important points to the ongoing MLA conversations about both Digital Humanities and adjunctification with her talk “Resistance in the Materials,” which is available here: . Her ideas resonate with yours (in part because she’s riffing on William Morris). Her point #3 (that labor in the Digital Humanities, like teaching labor, is increasingly casualized) is important, especially in light of the tendency of humanists to see DH as a potential source of good jobs for humanities Ph.D.s Listening to her and a few other relatively longtime directors of DH programs in the last few months, my impression is that DH *did* create some good, interesting jobs for some talented Ph.D.s in the first few years of this century, and may continue to produce a few more such jobs in the next few years, but we’re soon going to reach a point where there are more DH centers than there is outside funding available, which will lead to retrenchment, and, even after some sort of balance is achieved, there’s going to be far more need going forward for cheap (though intelligent) laborers to do piecework than for people to fill Directors’ and other positions that involve the sort of strategic, analytic thinking that Ph.D.s are good at. The directors seem very aware of this — aware that others’ livelihoods are dependent on their getting grants, and that the jobs they will have to offer in the future will probably not be as good as the ones they’ve been able to offer in the past. This awareness may stem, in part, from the fact that their own jobs are less secure than those of their tenured counterparts (and no, as someone who supports tenure, I don’t really like the implications of that statement, but I still think it’s true).

In the long run, though the “dark side” panel will be remembered (if only for illuminating by, to some extent, embodying the confusion between Digital Humanities and MOOCs), I think Nowviskie’s talk is going to be seen as more important: a clear articulation of a landmark moment in the development of the Digital Humanities.

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