digital humanities interview project

Over the past summer, with the support of UB, two graduate students (Heather Duncan and Daniel Schweitzer) and I began an interview project and the initial results are now available here at dhinterviews.org. We will be discussing the interview project along with three of our interviewees (Richard Miller, Eileen Joy, and Matt Gold) at MLA.

The project formed in my mind about a year or so ago out of a couple intersecting questions or concerns.

  1. After having made a couple scholarly videos, I began to realize how hard it is do undertake the rhetorical equivalent of quotation in video format. What should one do? Read aloud from a book? Have the words scroll across the screen? Clearly what typically happens (on tv and in documentaries) is that one does an interview with the author in question. So I started thinking it would be great to have a reposistory of scholars on video discussing various matters that could at least partly address this rhetorical challenge (even though it would never fully substitute for conventional citation).
  2. Following on Digital Humanities Now and the larger conversation about middle state publishing and digital humanities in general, I was interested in talking to scholars who had situated themselves strongly in the midst of these debates. This interest then became the central subject matter for the project.
  3. I realized I could probably conduct interviews on my own, but I decided to broaden the project to involve some graduate students for a couple reasons. First, I thought it would be a good experience and opportunity for their professional development (I hope it has been that so far; they certainly have worked hard.). Second, I was interested in having some other folks perspectives on what questions should be asked

In short, the project started in what I would term a quasi-scholarly fashion. We were going to conduct and publish interviews with the idea that they might be remixed in the future to from the basis of other scholarly video. 

After having conducted six intitial vidoes (Liz Losh, Jamie Skye Bianco, and Levi Bryant in addition to the three listed above), a more conventionally ethnographic project has begun to form. We are in a watershed moment, so this seems like a valuable moment to capture in relation to the digital humanities as it moves from being a series of sub-specialties into relation with a far broader humanistic requirement for digital literacy from the undergrad level right through the professional-academic ranks. What we saw in our interviews (and you can see as well if you watch them) is that these scholars (ranging from assistant to full professors from two-year schools to R-1 universities) express views of their disciplines, the humanities, and universities as a whole that are quite divergent from those of scholars with more traditional paths. Maybe that isn't surprising. However, if this is generally the case regarding faculty that had moved very heavilty into middle-state and digital media as scholarly modes of production, then that would strongly indicate that the digital transition will be intertwined with a substantive, paradigmatic shift in the humanities. So this project then becomes a way of trying to characterize those shifts not only through an analysis of the scholarship that is produced but through interviews with the scholars that produce them.

As I have written here many time before, there is nothing natural about the 8000-word journal article or the 300-page monograph or whatever. Humanists don't like to talk about "impact" or track citations because those measure don't put our work in a good light. Instead, once one reaches a certain minimal quality threshhold (via blind review at a respectable press or journal), all the really matters is quantity (how many have you published? And the longer one's monograph is the better). But what I begin to see in these interviews (and the hypothesis I suppose I am seeking to investigate) is that the shift toward the digital is a shift toward impact and rhetorical effect. 

I am often asked if writing this blog helps me be more productive in terms of articles or a second book. I always say, "yes, to some degree." But actually I think about it the other way. Doing the kind of sustained research that is necessary for produce an article or especially a book makes me more the kind of academic blogger I want to be. That is, the larger scholarly and philosphical discoveries of my research lead to better insights on the issues I address here. I would be very happy if I had more readers of my book than readers of my blog. I think that's unrealistic. I would be ecstatic to have more people cite my book than my blog, but that's unrealistic for much the same reason. 

In a recent post, Clay Spinuzzi talks about publications as a kind of exhaust from research activity. We have commodified our scholarly exhaust and attributed an imaginary, symbolic value to it: as in, monograph equals tenure and two equals full prof. Publications are coins, and we have forgotten about their intrinsic value, which has clearly diminished in general terms in part because of over-production but mostly because intrinsic value and relevance aren't important for coins. We could easily detect different kinds of exhaust from research activity via middle-state publishing and possibly revive some emphasis on the notion that scholarship ought to do something. I think this is one of the clear messages that comes out from scholars that have shifted toward digital media and middle-state publishing: they want to have an impact and an audience. For some reason, the desire for an audience is practically villified in the humanities: to me this is the primary challenge we face in reinventing ourselves.

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