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.