Higher Education

Richard Miller's MLA Dream

Richard Miller has posted his MLA address on YouTube in two parts. The first is below; the second is after the fold. I fundamentally agree with Miller's argument and vision. We are in a moment of transition in terms of media networks. Miller terms this transition incremental. I suppose it's relative. The increments are coming pretty fast but we haven't had a total break from our print past. Nor does anyone expect it will happen that way.

Miller sees the necessity for developing new media composing pedagogies that foster creativity and collaboration, for preparing faculty to teach in this way (and compose themselves in this way), and for building spaces where such activities might be possible. The interesting questions for me now concern the timeline and the institutional methods by which such goals can be accomplished.

In my view if English and the humanities choose to do nothing, or leave the matter to individual faculty to explore at their own discretion as we have to this point, then the fate of digital humanities while be largely determined by external interests: corporations (e.g Blackboard), accrediting agencies, and so on. It makes sense, does it? Either we do this or someone else does. Now certainly there are increasingly grants out there for digital humanities, organizations like HASTAC, digital humanities centers on campuses, and other interesting things going on. So yes, we have a starting point. But how do we reach the tipping point?

I think there are several things that need to happen.

  1. Universities will need to recognize that the humanities are going to cost more. And I'm sure that's a hard pill to swallow and equally hard may be the pill we will need to swallow in working out how this will happen. But digital humanities will require a significant, ongoing technology budget. It will also mean more support staff, more information infrastructure, more professional development. To be honest with ourselves, as humanists we will likely have to think about what we will give up in the face of such costs.
  2. Clearly we will need to revise the criteria for hiring, tenuring, and promoting faculty. If we expect faculty to do these things, we will need to build these activities into their job description. At the very least, we might begin with rewarding those who elect to go in this direction. I know that sounds self-serving, but oh well, I think if a department or institution wants faculty to do certain kinds of work it needs to put its money where its mouth is. This will also need to include support for professional development, digital production support, and a larger technology budget for faculty involved in digital work. (Which again, certainly begs the question of where the money will be taken from.)
  3. In turn we will need to revise undergraduate and graduate education. The latter will need to meet the new expectations of the job market and the former will need to reflect the new competencies of incoming faculty. Besides the bottom line purpose here is that we are reconstructing undergraduate education in the humanities for the digital age.
  4. We will want to redefine the purposes and practices of university service undertaken by humanities faculty. We will want to work differently, through the network. We will want to be in rooms we haven't been in before.
  5. Last, but certainly not least, we will need to redefine our scholarship. We will need to ask different questions. We will need to employ different methods. We will need to compose in new ways. And we will need to disseminate our work through new means. This does not mean giving up our traditional objects of study but rather studying them for new reasons that speak to our changing cultural landscape.

Is that all? Did I miss anything? I'm sure I did, but that's enough, right? Do I think any of this is going to happen?

Yes and no. As always there is the caveat of the gamble. You have to figure out what the timeline is here. How long do we have before someone comes along and just imposes something or simply supplants us? 30 years? 20 years? Will it begin in as little as five or ten years? Think about Wall St and the auto industry before you answer. We aren't getting a bailout.

One way this could happen is from an angle. A liberal arts college creates a digital humanities center. The center starts to get grants and increasingly becomes better funded by the institution. Faculty from across humanities departments interested in the digital become more closely tied to the center than to their departments. Humanities curriculum become increasingly driven by the Center. Hiring and tenuring priorities still ostensibly in departments start to reflect the priorities of the Center and the faculty associated with it. Graduate students increasingly work with faculty whose interests are as much in the Center as they are in the department. You start to get new interdisciplinary or postdisciplinary programs. Departments get squeezed to the periphery. Faculty in such centers around the nation establish new professional organizations and new national conferences. They get funding for new publishing venues.

Of course it doesn't have to happen this way. English could revise itself to meet the challenges of the digital age. But if it did happen this way, do you think that anyone who was left standing would really bemoan the passing of the English department?

In any case, I think Miller's presentation is quite provocative. His rhetoric of the incremental change is interesting. It's like the frog in the pot of slowly boiling water who never realizes it's about to be cooked.