on the necessity of digital humanities centers

In The Chronicle, Williman Pannapacker writes about the importance of receiving digital humanities training, which he summarizes in a tweet: no dh, no interview. At the end of this piece he backs away from this provocation, writing "even though I've been excited about the digital humanities since my first visit to the summer institute, I want to urge job candidates: Don't become a DH'er out of fear that you won't get a position if you don't." And I would certainly agree with that, though it always comes back to this matter of defintion. Even in the narrowest of defintions of DH, the field is beginning to spin out a range of sub-specializations. Pannapacker compares the current interest in DH to the focus on "theory" in the nineties, but mostly as a cautionary tale. Indeed DH has had an ambivalent (at best) relationship with theory, which makes sense in a way as two competing methods, which might become complementary (and may be complementary in some scholars' work) but are largely seen as incongruous at this point. Of course the primary difference between DH and other humanities methods is the infrastructure required to support the endeavor. As Pannapacker points out:

[Y[ou need a more comprehensive plan: strategic hires across departments and divisions, support for faculty development, and revisions of tenure-and-promotion guidelines. Such planning needs to extend to the staff as well. One goal of DH is to foster greater collaboration among technologists, librarians, and fund raisers—the wide range of alternative academics. They need to be as much a part of the plan as faculty are. If an institution is unwilling to take those kinds of steps, then hiring one or two DH'ers, while arguably a step in the right direction, isn't going to produce much change.

I think that's a fair assessment. I also think that's a tremendous investment to be made into something that wishes to identify itself as a narrow specialization. For example, here is a list of the various "centers" supported by UB's College of Arts and Sciences.  When I look at this list, I don't think any of these other centers would call for this kind of comprehensive plan. But I don't think DH sees itself as equivalent to the other centers on a list like this. When Pannapacker describes DH as pointing toward a strategic restructuring of a university, then I find this incompatible with the parallel description of DH as a narrow specialization.

How much restructuring of the university will be required to allow a scholar to conduct GIS-based research of late 19th-century American novels? And of course DH is more than this, but in its conventional definition, isn't it more of the same? A historian's distant reading of a large corpus of public documents. An archeologist's data visualization of a recent dig. What I mean is that DH in this way is a series of specific research projects requiring particular technological applications that really only share in common the fact that they are "digital." One of the ways that DH and theory are different is that the hiring of theory specialists never really took off. Perhaps some big name folks are hired that way, but the number of assistant professor theory scholars is very low. Instead, every scholar took up some part of theory–a Marxist, a feminist, a postcolonialist, etc–in relation to an object of study. DH, or more accurately a specific flavor of DH (e.g. big data), then becomes another methodological option in this list. And this is where I think we are. In English, for example, I don't think there are many places who say "I want to hire a DHer, and I don't care what objects she studies." Instead, I think they say, "I want to hire a medievalist and I strongly prefer that person does DH work."

This would work out fine, except for two problems. First, DHers require significant more infrastructure then other scholars. Second, If they were going to teach their specialization, they would require students to have a foundational education that is not commonly provided in the humanities. So this would require a larger instituional commitment. This cylces us back once again to the question of how much support is a university willing to provide for these undertakings. 

From my perspective, the necessity of the digital humanities is only indirectly related to the specific work undertaken in DH, or perhaps it is emergent in some way from the collective work of DH. Specifically, the humanities, in the long run (say next decade), will need to serve a role for digital literacy that is analogous to the role it served for print literacy in the 20th century. There are political, ethical, rhetorical, aesthetic questions surrounding digital culture; there are questions about thel inks between the digital and our non-digital past; there are questions about the digital and our non-digital present and future. These are NOT questions that 99% of existing traditional humanities faculty will ever explore in a sustained intellectual way. As such, universities require something like a center to provide focused support for faculty who will investigate these concerns, as institutionally their future will depend on a vibrant humanities. That may seem overly critical of those 99% of faculty. However, I would point out that they have been trained in a very specific way, they are expected by the institution to produce a particular kind of scholarship for which they have been trained, and they have virtually no incentive to change. No university is going to say "if you want tenure or a promotion or even a raise then you have to do digital work." Nor should they. 

In short, the role of the digital humanities center, and the sole reason I can think that a university would want to invest heavily in one, is that it is going to provide leadership and innovation in meeting unavoidable digital challenges from academic publishing to MOOCs to the expanding capacities for research that digital technologies provide.

So I would echo Pannapacker's advice. Yes, only pursue DH if you are interested in the field. But I would add that anyone entering a humanities PhD program this fall should think hard about what they imagine the humanities will look like in 10 years and perhaps they should wonder that if they aren't interested in these digital questions then what other kinds of humanities will be left?



3 thoughts on “on the necessity of digital humanities centers

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  1. I enjoyed reading this, and I think you’re right that we’re looking at a new literacy rather than a narrow research specialty. Departments that think they can address this by hiring one DHer may be fooling themselves.

    On the other hand, I think it’s also possible to put too much faith in the catalytic
    power of a center. Stephen Ramsay argues that centers work best when
    they’re initiated at the grassroots, and I agree. It’s absolutely
    possible for an institution to pour a lot of money into a center that
    just fails to connect with their traditionally-trained faculty.

    And maybe I’m a pessimist, but I think you may slightly underrate the
    possibility that departments will look at this digital future and say
    “no.” At large universities, it’s possible for traditional humanities
    departments to say quite rightly that “we already have a College of
    Media that does some of this new stuff, and a Library School and
    Informatics Department that do most of the rest of it.” A department of
    English or History in that situation may still hire one digital humanist
    as a token gesture, but students won’t be knocking on their doors to
    force the broader reconceptualization you propose.

    If we take that path, to be sure, we’re essentially resigning the future of
    the humanities to other disciplines. But I think a lot of departments
    just aren’t ready to embrace the alternative with the kind of alacrity
    that would be required.


    1. Thanks Ted. I share your pessimism, if that’s what it is. I think the future of literary studies will look something like that of art history. It will no longer operate as a central mechanism by which students develop a public and professional literacy. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I suppose it depends on what one wants. For example, my department has 65 TAships that exist because the English department delivers that literacy in the form of first-year composition. We have no rhet/comp students; they are all in literary studies. If/when literary studies decides to say no, as you put it, I think that course (and those TAships) go away for the most part. I think many English doctoral programs are similarly supported. For non-doctoral program English departments, a significant portion of majors and MA students are headed into primary or secondary education. I imagine that accrediting agencies for those programs will demand future teachers have digital literacy. I’m not sure how those departments survive without providing that curriculum. Of course English departments have always been a mixture of different disciplines, so maybe literary studies just becomes a smaller part in the future of a department with other specialists who do other things.

      I also agree with you about the necessity for a DH Center to come from the faculty. I’ve never taught at an institution that had a robust DH center. However it does seem that much of the important work done in the field, at least in the US, is done a universities that have such centers. So a necessary, but not sufficient, element perhaps.


  2. I like the way this post layers the institutional concerns over the DH
    trajectory. Re the TF and literacy question: one possibility is that
    pedagogy may bridge some of the distance between lit-centered training
    and scholarship and the digital. Hopefully some of the pedagogical
    innovation associated with teaching FY comp inspires professors in
    training to pursue those literacies in their own work. Of course, this
    assumes FYC teaching also breaks away from familiar practices–not a given but probably more likely than lit.

    And really, I feel like the pessimism flavoring here makes good sense. I
    just worry that the big center directionality (somewhat like the
    critique of big data you articulate above) is another variation on
    accommodation defusing the potential for serious shaking up of things.
    Is it worth questioning the underlying premise: For DH, is it possible
    that you really just need a laptop? Or here is a lens: for my work
    (including its institutional instantiations) we’ve gotten far more
    mileage out of having a $150 per year ISP than anything provided by my
    campus. Of course, there is the time provided by the system and all of
    that. It’s a tangle but I guess that’s what some of our contemporary
    theories are helpful for.


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