building communities in the humanities

I was participating in a discussion this morning around a proposal to build a kind of DH-themed interdisciplinary community on our campus. One of the central concerns that came up was that faculty in the humanities don’t tend to collaborate, so was it really feasible to imagine a scholarly community that was centered on such faculty? It’s a good question. We have struggled somewhat with building a DH community on campus because, when it comes down to it, for most conventional humanities scholars, collaboration with one’s local colleagues serves little or no purpose in relation to scholarly production. As we discussed this morning, the digital humanities is something of a counterculture in the humanities then, because it is an example of a methodological shift that invites collaboration in a way that is not typically seen elsewhere in these fields. The meeting was quite early so my mind maybe wasn’t clicking well enough at the time, but later it struck me that in fact the humanities in an abstract sense are as collaborative as any field but that those collaborations are harder to perceive because of the technologies that mediate them and what I would term the ontological/epistemological paradigms at work in research.

Let’s start with the technologies. You don’t see many humanities books or articles with multiple authors, so we clearly do not tend to collaborate to produce scholarship as authors. But the way that humanists engage with the texts they cite is quite different from what we see in most other fields. E.g., how often does one see a block quote in scientific or even social scientific research? It’s almost cliche to say that a humanist’s community sits on her bookshelf. We collaborate with other scholars through the mediating technologies of monographs and articles. And yes, every discipline does this in one way or another, but I think it’s role in the humanities is worth considering. Of course I also think it’s worth saying (since I’ve said it here many times already) that this disciplinary practice is obviously the product of certain 20th-century technological conditions that no longer pertain. But my point is to say that it’s not really a matter of moving from not being communal to being communal but rather to mediating community in a new way.

The other part of this though is the ontological/epistemological paradigm. By this I mean the way we understand our relation to our work and how that knowledge gets known. Let abstractly, in English Studies for example, historically we have done our scholarship by reading texts. Even though we recognize the social-communal contexts of reading, the activity of reading itself is individual. Even though two people can huddle around a screen and read this post, each of you would still be reading it “on your own.” Similarly writing is an individual experience whereby knowledge is not only represented but created. In a different field, where multiple scholars might collaborate on conducting an experiment, gathering data, and interpreting the results, the resulting article might be produced collaboratively as well based on the research that has been completed. In the humanities though, I think the writing of scholarship is part of the production of the research: researching and writing are not so neatly separated as they appear in other fields. So I read a text, I create an interpretation, and I write about it. Even though we might say there is a community with whom I am collaborating through the mediation of the texts I am citing, in disciplinary terms I still view this as a solitary activity. So how do we move from “I” read, interpret, and write to “we” do these things? Or perhaps even more challengingly, how do we move to viewing these as networked activities?

This is one of the central questions of my current book project (the one I am hoping next semester’s research leave will allow me to complete), as I am arguing that the challenges we face in developing digital scholarly practices and teaching digital literacies really begin with founding ontological assumptions about symbolic behavior as an exceptional human characteristic.  When symbolic behaviors become hybridized natureculture objects and practices, what does that do to the humanities and more particularly to rhetoric? For one thing I think it has to change the way we understand our disciplinary methods. It brings our interdependency to the foreground. Community, of course, is such a vexed word in theory-speak. I’m not going to get into that here, but I think it’s important to realize that when we say that humanities scholars tend to work alone that we’re hallucinating that. That isn’t to say a shift to a more DH-style kind of collaboration wouldn’t require a real change in the lived experience of humanities scholars, or that it would be easy. I just don’t think we can really say that humanities scholarship can operate without community or collaboration.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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