Week 1: Question 3 - DH's Servant Role
  • Q3: How has DH traditionally performed a “servant role” to the humanities, and why is there the potential for this to change now?
  • 26 Comments sorted by
  • "Crisis" seems to imply a situation that has arisen as an emergency. Since this "crisis" has been going on for quite awhile, it seems more apt to discuss the chronic state of affairs in the humanities as well. It's a pertinent question at the moment, given the Harvard report and its various response, including the one that appeared the other day in the Chronicle: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-in-Dubious/140047?cid=megamenu. 

    Alan's article does take for granted that the academy perceives a crisis (or chronic) situation for the humanities and suggests that DH may have a significant role if we broaden the concept of instrumentalism beyond DH conversations alone - which necessarily means broadening beyond the concepts of "tools" and the relationship to STEM on the ground.

    I'm reminded, though, about Bill Pannapacker's piece on this year's MLA, particularly on "The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities" panel which raised issues about whether "DH is an opportunistic, instrumentalist, mechanized response to economic crisis...the enemy of good, organic humanists everywhere" (http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/01/05/on-the-dark-side-of-the-digital-humanities/). That description seems extreme, especially considering the history of Humanities Computing, which isn't new.

    Beyond direct economics or market factors (whether proving the "relevance" of the humanities or trying to get an academic job), we are undoubtedly in an age that needs DH. The internet has (and continues to) shape human experience in unprecedented ways - and who better to explore that than humanists? Our students approaches to reading and learning (and even our own) are responsive to the roles that technologies have in our lives. From the Postcolonial DH perspective, the effects on human experience are also uneven, imperialistic, and exploitative. These are all, perhaps, the result of indirect economic factors but are very much the conditions of the 21st century and DH is well positioned to engage them.

  • Apropos of this crisis in the humanities, Michael Berube just posted an article in the Chronicle today debunking the 'myth': http://chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Declining-Not/140093/
  • What's curious to me is thinking about how we can't compete with STEM, rather that STEM can't compete with us. So, STEM aspirationalism is a defeatist position on the humanities.
  • As much as I agree @roopikarisam that we don't need to compete with STEM, I'm afraid some funding instruments force us too.Take a look at the categories for funding listed (at the righthand-side) here: http://ec.europa.eu/research/index.cfm# and here: http://www.nwo.nl/en. These are the main instruments of funding outside one's own university: there are far fewer fellowship opportunities at European archives or societies ("of fellows/for advanced study" etc.) than there are in the U.S.

    So European scholars in the humanities and the social sciences have been formulating projects for years already that (at least try to) sound like STEM projects, as in, we need to form large-scale, multi-discplinary groups where people of varying rank work on the same project, especially (and most puzzling to me!) Ph.D. students, whose dissertation topics and pay-offs we can already predict.

    Dire as that may sound, I'm choosing to take a can-do/it's a challenge attitude here. In part because I remember why I left American academia to come home to Holland, so now I'm not going to whine about it. But also because I think there's a thing or two that we might learn from natural scientists/STEM folk. 

    For example, data-mining based on linguistic markers or word(-sets) is becoming popular among legal and literature scholars in Utrecht. Does anyone have a project (with findings) on such a technique/method that they'd be willing to share?

    Also, I envision projects alongside linguists--who have very high status and corresponding funding over here--on say, pre-Columbian languages, artifacts, and trade routes. Some linguists have the most amazing models to show (3-d) linguistic interactions over time. Cf. Claire Bowern's work at Yale.

    Working together intelligently seems a real option here, and I wonder if we can (try to) talk about (@adelinekoh:) "hermeneutics and the politics of interpretation" in ways that STEM folks can understand too. How do we incorporate data and quantification without losing sight of the nuances and subtleties of language? 

    For me, thinking about STEM folks as a different species that we needn't worry about is not an option, I'm afraid. I don't expect American scholars to commiserate, necessarily, but I'd appreciate your thoughts.

  • I've been collaborating with linguists in the UK and holy cow the funding is FABULOUS for corpus linguistics.  I'm totally biased towards corpus analytics, but as I make clear in every presentation I do about it, this is still me doing history.  Someone without my training in history could not use the same software and do the same thing.  It is not science (of course science isn't "science" as humanities scholars have made manifest for decades).  The empiricist bias though does seem to inhere to DH work.  However, to me digital humanities, or more precisely in my case digital history, is a methodological and theoretical approach.  It may look more scientific because a computer is involved, but ummmm I use a computer when doing non-machine based textual analysis too!  Thus the notion that DH is in a servant or master relationship isn't really the main framing. 

    I teach at a SLAC with a high percentage of first generation college students.  If DH helps them to understand how I teach them "transferable" skills that will allow them to learn and adapt in careers, then fine.  However, that is just us stealthing in what we've always done, taught students to use a wide range of approaches to problem solving and communication.  Heck I'm old enough that I remember before the internet was available to students :) 
  • Amanda Starling Gould @stargould pointed out on my FB page that Johanna Drucker makes a similar point that I do here: http://cms.mit.edu/news/2012/05/podcast_johanna_drucker_design.php
  • I know that in Canada, in any case, there is CFI (Canadian Foundation for Innovation) which is used as a start-up grant, typically to purchase (and set up) expensive pieces of equipment. Now, *typically* (as you can imagine) this money goes to STEM and Health fields buying equipment to run experiments, but CWRC (Canadian Writers Research Collaboratory) received CFI funding to purchase servers to house much of the digital Canadian "stuff" that is out there. 

    Now, I have no idea if there is an equivalent to that here in the States, and again this is a bias towards building, but the idea was to purchase equipment to then be used in a humanistic way. 

  • pretty much anything Drucker ever said is worth reading.  I actually SQUEED ALOUD when I saw her walking through the library at UCLA on a research trip out west!

    Corpus linguistics analyze texts using linguistic relationships.  Collocates are patterns of word usage based on
    frequency, proximity, and co-occurrence in a text.
      Clusters are highly frequent multi word
    sequences in a text.  Keyness 
    compares the usage of words in one body of texts to another body of texts.    Words that are used
    with unusual frequency  are called keywords and negative keywords are those with unusual infrequency 
  • To respond to roopikarisam 's message above about NSF support for digital humanities projects, I can point to three recent ones that might be of interest, but it also might be valuable for other participants to explore the NSF's database of funded projects at http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/  Many early humanities computing projects received large awards from the National Science Foundation.

    Plus the NSF (along with other humanities, science, and social sciences government funding bodies) is a partner in the international Digging into Data Challenge .

  • Speaking from my own (relatively minor) marginalized position (non-TT faculty teaching at a poor, rural, state institution), I know where you're coming from. I attended a panel last summer about the future of postcolonial studies. It was pulled together by a few PhD students and there were some "big names" (at least, big Canadian names) on the panel speaking. It was interesting, but they were talking a lot about theory, as well as how to address these issues in an R1/graduate class setting. I had a nagging feeling about what they were saying and how they were saying it, because they addressed the issue from the center and were neglecting the margins that exist (who might not be interested or inspired by "hard" PC theory, being that they live a marginalized existence already). So I asked that very question: How to convince students, their parents, and university leaders that these kinds of discussions are necessary, but also how to make them more "accessible" for lack of a better work, or perhaps relevant. Or how was a contingent faculty member supposed to teach these materials when their own position of instability undermines the theories, but also might signal there non-renewal. I didn't get an answer. 

    I teach at a school where we don't have one class in postcolonial anything, and our foray into the "digital" means certifying our kids in Adobe. These are the very real margins of either disciplines, if not the hinterlands. I have no problem working here, living here, and teaching here, as well as working with what I have to do better for the students. However, I think we need to remember to speak up from the margins, not to gain centrality (because I saw first hand the damage it can cause) but to remind the center continually that we exist, not as some theoretical concept, but as real, living, breathing, people with specific issues and challenges. I've seen big names is DH scoff at the "complaints" that people at smaller schools have had in trying to set up or "do" DH at their institutions. It's easy to neglect and forget about the margins. I don't want people to forget. 
  • In regards to the second half of the question:

    Many scholars claim that the humanities are currently in crisis. If this is the case, then the humanities would be looking for a way to re-invent themselves and the DH would provide a means to do so. Since the DH combines technological research (which gives it substantial credibility in our STEM-focused world) with humanities-related issues, it "updates" and "re-invents" traditional views of the humanities.

    This argument, however, depends on the existence of the crisis in the humanities. While I have been to numerous conferences that expound upon the "crisis" and if/how we have any chance of overcoming it, some scholars suggest that the "crisis" doesn't even exist (see: http://qz.com/98892/the-humanities-are-not-in-crisis-in-fact-theyre-doing-great/).

    So, is there a crisis in the humanities and is DH the answer? Or is there another reason that the DH has recently been given the potential to "come to the table"?
  • In relation to @clboyles' comments, more specifically: I worry that if we try to make the humanities STEM counterparts, we simply can't compete (why shouldn't we all go into STEM then)? As Alan is pointing out, I think we need to intervene by making hermeneutics and the politics of interpretation the main way that we intervene in understand computation and its effects. Or to put it differently, we should be humanists of the digital; rather than being derivative of the digital. 
  • It seems to me the Pannapacker's assessment of the DH fails to consider the "human" aspect of the field. If the DH were solely opportunistic, or solely in response to economic crisis, then we would not be so focused on speaking to the human experience (and we would probably be making a lot more money). In addition, as you said, Humanities Computing is not a new field so viewing DH as a response to an economic crisis begs the question "which one?"

    I think the real issue is the popular view of the humanities. As the Harvard report notes, "One chief service of the Harvard report is to make us worry less about
    Harvard and more about the vast majority of colleges and universities
    that are not Harvard—institutions that lack not only its resources but
    also the relative luxury of educating students who are not anxious about
    their first jobs." The DH helps to overcome this issue (as well as the general disregard for the humanities) through its use of technical skills/ability to communicate with a large audience/decentralization of the canon.

    As Liu notes, this is also the case with New Media. In response, I have re-structured my freshman composition seminar so that it focuses on a wide range of compositions (internet memes, audio narratives, websites, etc). Doing so satisfies students' desire for "relevant or practical" skills while still giving them a firm foundation in the humanities. This is what I meant by the DH's connection to STEM fields - it is strongly connected to technology.

    For me, however, the heart of DH is its grounding in humanists concerns. I would never advocate that we move more toward STEM; rather, I think that the DH is the way in which we keep the humanities strong during such a STEM-focused period in academia.
  • Good point @roopikarisam. But in terms of funding/resources, we are in some kind of competition, no? Is there a way out of this loop?
  • I don't know that in the US we're competing for funding, simply because STEM grantors won't fund our work and there is way more STEM funding than humanities funding. I don't foresee DH changing that or intervening there. In light of Adeline and Joanne's responses, I'd be curious to know if anyone has had a DH project funded by NSF. Of all grantors, that seems like one most likely to be convinced.
  • @professmoravec: could you explain what it is about corpus analytics that is more attractive for you? Especially in comparison to something like topic modelling? Explain it to us like we were five year olds. :D
  • David Theo Goldberg posted some interesting thoughts on my FB page regarding the "decline" in humanities enrollments which he allowed me to share here: "For one, the politics of numbers is no longer what it once was. It used to be the case, a couple of decades ago, that issues could more or less (largely) be settled around confirmed numbers. Today, the numbers themselves are almost invariably contested: for one set showing humanities are no worse than whenever, the counter-argument will produce the counterfactuals, so to speak. But in any case, even Silver's and Scmidt's and most everyone else's cross-historical comparisons are mostly comparing apples and pears, if not oranges.Ethnic Studies didn't exist in 1996. English may include new subfields (is litrary journalism in or out), what of Womens Studies, or STS, not to mention today's cash cow of Media Studies/Cultural Studies etc. So the numbers are less revealing than we may like (Grafton and Grossman make a comparable point).

    That said, even if the numbers are close to real and revealing, the challenges to the humanities today are as much conceptual as numerical. The concern is not what numbers we are reaching but what exactly we are reaching them with, and should be reaching them with, given a changing landscape of the human."
  • Furthering the resource suggestion: The Drucker speech above mentioned in Adeline's first comment "Amanda Starling Gould @stargould pointed out on my FB page that Johanna Drucker makes a similar point that I do here: http://cms.mit.edu/news/2012/05/podcast_johanna_drucker_design.php" is called "Designing Digital Humanities" and is well worth a listen.

    Other Drucker links to continue the theme:
    At MIT in 2010, Drucker gave a thought-provoking keynote called "Humanistic Approaches to the Graphical Expression of Interpretation" link to audio found here: http://hyperstudio.mit.edu/blog/2548/

    And she recently gave a talk at UC San Diego
    “What is the Humanistic Method in Digital Humanities?” http://humctr.ucsd.edu/blog/2013/05/08/johanna-drucker-to-speak-friday-may-17/ but I am not sure if it was recorded. If I find it, I'll post it here.

    Drucker also just co-completed the collection 
    Digital_Humanities, collaboratively written with Jeffrey Schnapp, Todd Presner, Peter Lunenfeld, and Anne Burdick (MIT Press, 2013). Available for FREE download as well as for purchase in print.

    Amanda Starling Gould
  • @professmoravec, i wish vanilla forums had the functionality to allow me to "like" your post with the SQUEE!!! So how does that differ from topic modeling (TM doesn't have the function of analyzing texts via linguistic relationships?)
  • w No topics give you individual words with links to  documents that comprise a topic, but not relationally.  Eeek that isn't very clear is it.  The easiest way is to show.  you can see how I topic modeled and did CL on my blog of the same corpus. TO be fair, I'm sure a person who does topic modeling would argue that the words in the topics are related, hence the "topic" http://tedunderwood.com/2012/04/01/what-kinds-of-topics-does-topic-modeling-actually-produce/
  • Yeah I get that--so in a sense, the tacit knowledge between the machine and the person who mutually construct the "topic" is not made as clear. I like what you're saying about corpus analytics and its making linguistic relationships between words explicit in its analysis. 
  • I guess I maintain a critical ambivalence with regard to visibility, legitimacy, and leadership. I understand some of this is important to the work we do: we ought to be recognized for our contributions, and in this manner, DH ought, as Liu suggests, claim more of a stake in producing and managing knowledge. But notice that he doubles back on the claim of DH playing the role of servant, at first decrying it and then returning to it to qualify that claim. 

    If we relate this to some work in postcolonial theory, I think we can see something productive in the parasitic, derivative, servitude of DH. I think so many of the best insights come from the margins, and trying to bring those margins into the center, to assimilate and herald them as the new players in town, potentially undermines their critical force. Isn't this the real origins of the crisis in the humanities? 

    Again, my ambivalence must be noted: having been an adjunct for several years who lived in the margins, I'm thankful and fortunate for having something currently more permanent, something institutionalized that grants me certain privileges and visibility. There are risks on both sides, though, and so I can't fully take up arms in storming the castle with laser pointers and iPads and thumb drives in tow. I think DH can and has accomplished a lot from the margins. After all, aren't some of Liu's examples--hackers, for one--emblematic of the kind of critical and political (and economic) crisis that can be generated from the position of non-belonging?
  • This conversation reminds of Gloria Anzaldua's comment that “In trying to become 'objective,' Western culture made 'objects' of
    things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing
    'touch' with them.” The university (at times), like Western culture, similarly values people as things/research subjects/opportunities rather than as individuals. Our strength, then, is our understanding and appreciation for our own marginalization as well as that of others. That is what allows us to see people rather than things.

    Even when it is difficult to promote these ends (as non-TT faculty/graduate students/etc), there are small ways in which we can make a difference. One option is adding a non-canonized text into the course curriculum to lead students into a conversation on different peoples/perspectives/lifestyles. You don't even have to necessarily discuss theory. Another possibility is having students create and audio essay (from written work that meets department requirements), to talk about oral storytelling and the cultures/peoples/classes who use it (including ourselves). You could even play the class example essays from the DALN (Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives) which houses a wide range of essay types and speakers: http://daln.osu.edu/ These are (relatively) small changes that can be integrated into a formalized curriculum.

    By taking small steps like these, we keep ourselves from being subsumed into centralized academia. We also begin to foster an appreciation for marginalized topics/works/peoples in our students (at least that is the hope).

  • Ernesto Priego has recently posted a blog entry that reflects on what we're talking about here: "The recent popularity of the digital humanities (or rather, of the term "digital humanities") has meant that many propose that in the near future everyone in the humanities will be a digital humanist, and that the adjective "digital' will have to be dropped soon. It is more and more common to see job adverts seeking scholars with PhDs in very specialised arts and humanities themes who can also code (for example, PhP, Python, whatever). In general, these are skills that are not formally included in most postgraduate humanities degrees. Often those humanities scholars who possess some level of coding skills acquired them through alternative methods, taught themselves or have backgrounds in disciplines that until very recently were not part of the humanities curricula. It is as if suddenly, in some section of the academic world, we were witnessing the rise of a super-humanist, who is not only an expert in Aramean manuscripts but can also develop XML schemas, tweak APIs, design WordPress templates, who is a master of custom CSS design for ebooks and blogs, tweets, curates data sets and visualises online networks; this highly-skilled born-digital creature quantifies her open access journal articles webometrics, in brief this prototype scholar is some kind of mutant 21st century super-powered being who simultaneously designs and maintains algorithmic architectures and deconstructs the history of literary theory and textual scholarship by heart." http://hastac.org/blogs/ernesto-priego/2012/10/22/various-shades-digital-literacy-new-digital-divides
  • Currently, in the Netherlands, it seems DH is THE way to go. In the sense that the organizations that are funding humanities research are few, as Joanne mentioned. Focussing solely on the Netherlands, there are tons of small funds, but on their own they are not enough for a fulltime income. When you are not already working inside academia and receive funding from your institution, you have to apply to the NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research), that falls directly under the responsibility of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.

    In recent years, there has been a shift when it comes to funding humanities. The NWO has put it this way: 'Results from projects funded by NWO Humanities benefit research, public and civil society organisations and industry.' Although that may sound 'nice', underneath it, it really becomes clear what they mean by it [http://www.nwo.nl/en/about-nwo/organisation/nwo-divisions/gw]. The focus of the researchers that the NWO funds, should be on their so called 'top sector policy', which translates to research on Creative Industry, Water, Life Sciences & Health, Energy and Agro/Food. One of the lines of the Creative Industry top sector reads: 'The Creative Industry programme facilitates research that can benefit the creative industry.' What all of that means, in essence, is that humanities in general in the Netherlands is viewed as a field which can not 'only' produce books, articles, lectures, talks et cetera. DH is pushed as the answer.

    On the 24th of June 2011, two Dutch research institutes, the Huygens Instituut and the Instituut voor Nieuwe Geschiedenis were combined into the ING Huygens: 'an institute that will use 'beta' methods for 'alpha' questions'. It was envisioned as a laboratory, in which for the first time a large scale structure would be implemented in which information technology and the humanities would be brought together. [http://www.scienceguide.nl/201106/een-geesteswetenschappelijk-laboratorium.aspx] In the years following, several initiatives were launched, of which an overview (and an initiative itself) is provided by the e-Humanities Group [http://ehumanities.nl/].

    It seems however that things are not progressing fast enough for the Dutch government. In the last months, many humanities research centres and institutes received notification of partial or complete cutting of their funding. Several larger humanities research organisations are likely to be merged, which caused some upheaval [http://www.nrc.nl/opklaringen/2013/06/01/in-het-digitaal-geestenpaleis/]. Regardless of what type of research, the people working at the institutes will be 'stimulated' to work with DH, so they can, as the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences put it 'answer questions that because of the size or complexity of the data can not be answered by individual research through working hermeneutically or raise completely new questions about the correlation or connection of elements that may be suspected, but could not be proven.' The merger of the institutes would mean that a large group of humanities researcher will be put in the same building and work with the same sort of methods.

    Two days ago, the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture & Science announced that all ways in which academic research is funded will be 'evaluated' and 'combed' [http://www.scienceguide.nl/201307/kabinet-herijkt-onderzoekgeld.aspx]. More and more, the government stimulates/forces researchers to cooperate with organisations and industry, which humanities researchers have difficulty dealing with. DH is seen is the solution, because it is felt that through using DH, the results of the research conducted will be more easily predicted. It is a neoliberal shift in the already meagre funding options for humanities and I feel the topics that are currently studied in the Netherlands using DH, perpetuate and reinforce the colonial hegenomic views. At a debate on the 1st of June 2013 called 'Digital Humanities: The Next Big Thing?', critical questions were hardly raised.
  • Greetings.

    Thank you @rrisam, @adelinekoh and others for all of the additional links.  I am sure they will come in handy. Forgive me if I revisit points previously established. That is what can happen when you enter  a thread late - all of the best ideas are 'outed' :)

    @cboyles, I really like your perspectives about reinventing the humanities. Your comments complimented Lui's research and perspectives. I think the alignment of DH with STEM objectives will help to also create multiple funding sources that may help to sustain humanities departments through the lean times. Multiple funding sources will also ease the individual anxieties about the 'crisis'. Personally, I am hoping that DH will serve the role of updating and reinventing humanities scholarship in a digitized world and help to contextualize how the digital divide is creating new power struggles and degrees of poverty in a glocal world. 

    Whether or not one believes that digital spaces are environments, few of us can deny the influence of the digital spaces, digital tools and new media. Each acts as a formidable means of negotiating power in contemporary society. In terms of political unrest and revolutionary acts, the use of technology in cultural contexts seems to have greater strength than  economic power and is leveraging inequities of power in the midst of economic instability. Maybe it is the newest and most popular form of guerrilla warfare. I am very interested on how some theories in Peace and Conflict Studies intersect with new media and digital humanities begin to contextualize some of those findings. It will also be interesting to explore how these studies could provide avenues of funding or be supported as DH projects. 

    @jenniferseventi, @readywriting, and @roopekarisam - Although we do not compete for the same funding sources as our colleagues in STEM disciplines, the NEH and other agencies that support the Arts and Humanities have made strong commitments to funding projects that incorporate methodologies and/or outcomes that resembles STEM style research. 

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