digital humanities futures #dhdebates

My graduate seminar completed its reading of Debates in the Digital Humanities with the final section on the future of DH. I've written about each of the other sections, so I figured I would write on this one as well and perhaps say something summative about the collection. That said, I feel as though I've already written a fair amount about the future of DH, so I'm not sure what new things I have to say. I suppose I will find out. 

Stephen Ramsay has posted his remarks from a recent talk on the book. I think this passage captures the heart of his comments:

Because behind every utterance [in the book]—including, for the record, mine—lies the possibility of a terrible, soul-crushing anxiety about peoples’ place in the world.

Digital humanities is the hottest thing in the humanities. Who can deny it? We read about it in the Chronicle and the New York Times. It is “the story” of recent MLA and AHA conventions. Publishers are falling over themselves trying to create new imprints and series in the Digital Humanities. And there are jobs! Not many, of course, but many more, I would guess, than are available in any other single sub-discipline of venerable giants like English studies or History.

So it is meet and good that we talk about this hot thing. But the question is this: Are you hot?

I see his point. All the talk of who is in and who is out, the "big tent," the "cool kids table," DH as the future of the humanities, etc. etc. creates a significant context for Debates. It can't really be avoided. In addition, there is a more general anxiety in the humanities with shrinking job prospects, traditional publishing crises, and so on… to say nothing of an even broader uncertainty related to higher education itself! DH finds itself, unfairly I think, linked to these issues in a way other sub-disciplines are not. Looked at differently though, we could say that DH's increased visibility has just brought into the same old tired battles we have seen for decades. The only difference is that it isn't 1985 or 1995 or even 2005 anymore. 

In my view, we are coming to the end of period of higher education, particularly for humanities, that is only tangentially related to the digital humanities. At some point in the 60s and 70s, the humanities abandoned its traditional role: teaching great books, connect students to a national identity, offering appreciation of a universal human experience, etc. We can't go back there, even if we wanted, but back then, there was a different kind of support for universities and the humanities. But we all changed. The humanities changed. The nation changed. Our workforce and economy changed. Our citizenry changed. And our technology changed with the emergence of the post-industrial, information economy. Collectively we have failed to find a productive, sustainable role for higher education, especially the humanities. For the most part, the humanities have failed to change at all, with curricula that look the same as they did 50 years ago, with a few new courses added here or there. Obviously we have had "theory," which has greatly changed our scholarship, but it has had minimal impact on undergraduate education. However, that failure is just part of a larger systemic failure. 

DH fits into this as it appears, finally, as a form of traditional humanities scholarship that addresses this demand for change. But I don't think that DH wants to be this. It doesn't want to be "hot" in this way, even though of course it wishes to be valued. Ironically its role as the "future" probably interferes with it being valued by more traditional faculty, who then become anxious themselves. Certainly there are folks, like HASTAC, who are interested in this question of the humanities digital future, which is quite distinct from the digital humanities future. I am interested in that digital future as well, as that question fits in with my work examining the rhetoric of digital media. But I am only DH in the broadest of any possible definitions, and not one I would employ myself. 

If I had to guess, I think that humanites computing/DH will continue to develop into a strong area of methdological specialization as an area of research. It will continue to be focused at R-1 institutions with an infrastructure to support it. It will not have a significant impact on undergraduate education, though there will be courses at those institutions. I imagine DH will shift as it comes into greater contact with various theories but will remain an object of critique, as all things are. It will not "save the humanities," because ultimately DH is not interested in doing different work than the humanities has done before; it just wants to do that work differently. I don't think that's a critique. Why should DH be expected to save or transform the humanities? On the other hand, I do believe that the humanities will be transformed by these larger conditions. So, as Ramsay points out, anxiety is understandable. Ultimately DH's future will be tied to the general future of the humanities. And though I don't think DH should be expected to play a special role in shaping that future, clearly DHers have as much at stake in that future as anyone. 

Overall, Debates does a good job of capturing this period where DH came exploding into the humanities scene. The forward-looking quality of the conversations is itself an interesting and unsusual quality. We don't typically hear humanists thinking about the future. Maybe that's a sign in itself.

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