teaching undigitized humanities

It’s okay not to solve “the crisis of the humanities.”

I read Cathy Davidson’s latest piece in Academe with pleasure and admiration. She’s right that humanists need to think about the social function of our work, and right that this will require self-criticism. Moreover, Davidson’s work with HASTAC seems to me a model of the sort of innovation we need now.

However, Davidson says such kind things about the digital humanities that someone needs to pour in a few grains of salt. And since I’m a digital humanist, it might as well be me.

To reimagine a global humanism with relevance to the contemporary world means understanding, using, and contributing to new computational tools and methods. … Even a few examples show how being open to digital possibilities changes paradigms and brings new ways of reimagining the humanities into the world.

Reading this, I find myself blushing and stammering. And what I’m stammering is: “slow down a sec, because I’m not sure how central any of this is really going to be to our pedagogical mission.”

I’m going to teach a graduate course on digital humanities next semester, because I’m confident that information technology will change (actually, already has changed) the research end of our discipline. But I’m not yet sure about the implications at the undergraduate level. Maybe ten years from now I’ll be teaching text mining to undergrads … but then again, maybe the things undergraduates need most from an English course will still be historical perspective, close reading, a willingness to revise, and a habit of considering objections to their own thesis.

I’m sure that text mining belongs in undergraduate education somewhere. It raises fascinating social and linguistic puzzles. But I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to fit all the puzzles raised by technological change into the undergrad English major. It’s possible that English departments will want to stay focused on an older mission, leaving these new challenges to be scooped up by Linguistics or Computer Science. If that happens, it’s okay with me. It’s not particularly crucial that all the projects I care about be combined in a single department.

I’m dwelling on this because I feel humanists spend way too much time these days arguing about “what we need to do in order to keep the discipline from shrinking.” Sometimes the answer offered is a) return to our core competence, and sometimes the answer is b) boldly take on some new mission. But really I want to answer c) it is not our job to keep the discipline from shrinking, and we shouldn’t do anything purely for that reason. Our job is to make sure that we keep passing on the critical skills that the humanities develop best, at the same time as we explore new intellectual challenges.

Maybe those new challenges require us to expand. Or maybe it turns out that new challenges are relevant mostly at the graduate level, whereas at the undergraduate level we already have our hands full teaching students social history, close reading, and revision. And maybe that means that departments of English do end up shrinking relative to Communications or CompSci. If so, I hope it doesn’t happen rapidly, because I care about the fortunes of particular graduate students. But in the long term, it would not be a tragedy. Ideas matter. Departmental boundaries don’t. Intellectual history is not a contest to see who can retain the most faculty.

UPDATE Dec. 30 2011: I have to admit that my mind is in the process of being changed about this. After participating in a NITLE-sponsored seminar about teaching digital humanities at the undergraduate level, I’m much less hesitant than I was in September. Ryan Cordell, Brian Croxall, and Jeff McClurken presented really impressive digital-humanities courses that were also deeply grounded in the context of a specific discipline. Recording available at the link above.

By tedunderwood

Ted Underwood is Professor of Information Sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter he is @Ted_Underwood.

4 replies on “It’s okay not to solve “the crisis of the humanities.””

[…] insights. Responding to Bethany, Ryan Cordell hopes to reform undergraduate teaching as well. Ted Underwood, though, is “not yet sure about the implications at the undergraduate level. Maybe ten years from […]

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