DH as a social phenomenon undigitized humanities

How everyone gets to claim they do DH.

h/t @frankridgway – who now, performatively, does DH
When I saw the meme to the right come across my facebook newsfeed — and then get widely shared! — I realized that the field of digital humanities is confronting a PR crisis. In literary studies, a lot of job postings are suddenly requesting interest or experience in DH. This requirement was not advertised when people began their dissertations, and candidates are understandably ticked off by the late-breaking news.

I know where they’re coming from, since I’ve spent much of the past twenty years having to pretend that my work was relevant to a wide variety of theoretical questions I wasn’t all that passionate about. Especially in job interviews. Did my work engage de Man’s well-known essays on the topic? “Bien sûr.” Had I considered postcolonial angles? “Of course. It would be unethical not to.” And so on. There’s nothing scandalous about this sort of pretense. Not every theme can be central to every project, but it’s still fair to ask people how their projects might engage a range of contemporary debates.

The problem we’re confronting now in DH is that people don’t feel free to claim a passing acquaintance with our field. If they’re asked about Marxist theory, they can bullshit by saying “Althusser, Williams, blah blah blah.” But if they’re asked about DH, they feel they have to say “no, I really don’t do DH.” Which sounds bracingly straightforward. Except, in my opinion, bracingly straightforward is bad for everyone’s health. It locks deserving candidates out of jobs they might end up excelling in, and conversely, locks DH itself out of the mainstream of departmental conversation.

I want to give grad students permission to intelligently bullshit their way through questions about DH just as they would any other question. For certain jobs — to be sure — that’s not going to fly. At Nebraska or Maryland or George Mason or McGill, they may want someone who can reverse the polarity on the Drupal generator, and a general acquaintance with DH discourse won’t be enough. But at many other institutions (including, cough, many elite ones) they’re just getting their toes wet, and may merely be looking for someone informed about the field and interested in learning more about it. In that case “intelligent, informed BS” is basically what’s desired.

What makes this tricky is that DH — unlike some other theoretical movements — does have a strong practical dimension. And that tends to harden boundaries. It makes grad students (and senior faculty) feel that no amount of information about DH will ever be useful to them. “If I don’t have time to build a web page from scratch, I’m never going to count as a digital humanist, so why should I go to reading groups or surf blogs?”

“Don’t be a square …”
Naturally, I do want to encourage people to pick up some technical skills. They’re fun. But I think it’s also really important for the health of the field that DH should develop the same sort of penumbra of affiliation that every other scholarly movement has developed. It needs to be possible to intelligently shoot the breeze about DH even if you don’t “do” it.

There are a lot of ways to develop that kind of familiarity, from reading Matt Gold’s Debates in Digital Humanities, to surfing blogs, to blogging for yourself, to Lisa Spiro’s list of starting places in DH, to following people on Twitter, to thinking about digital pedagogy with NITLE, to affiliation with groups like HASTAC or NINES or 18th Connect. (Please add more suggestions in comments!) Those of us who are working on digital research projects should make it a priority to draw in local collaborators and/or research assistants. Even if grad students don’t have time to develop their own digital research project from the ground up, they can acquire some familiarity with the field. Finally, in my book, informed critique of DH also counts as a way of “doing DH.” When interviewers ask you whether you do DH, the answer can be “yes, and I’m specifically concerned about the field’s failure to address X.”

Bottom line: grad students shouldn’t feel that they’re being asked to assume a position as “digital” or “analog” humanists, any more than they’re being asked to declare themselves “for” or “against” close reading and feminism. DH is not an identity category; it’s a project that your work might engage, indirectly, in a variety of ways.

By tedunderwood

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

32 replies on “How everyone gets to claim they do DH.”

The ability to bullshit intelligently on a wide variety of subjects: the essential preparation graduate study provides. Shocking it is to think that the “digital” would be a stumbling block—nice post!

I–and I’m far from the only academic who thinks this way–think highly of my ability to detect and not be impressed by bullshitting, which I consider to be rhetorically distinct from the useful ability to demonstrate a superficial acquaintance with a wide variety of topics.

This may not come through clearly, but what I’m trying to do with that loaded term (“intelligent BS”) is squeeze through the very narrow space between two opposing views. View 1: Theory is far cooler than practice. Professors only need to theorize DH. Then we can hire some academic professionals to, you know, do it. View 2: Only practice matters. Most grad students right now have no practical experience in DH (unless they’re lucky enough to be at Nebraska, Maryland, UVa, etc). So … too bad for most grad students.

I think practice matters a lot in DH, and I’m willing to privilege it. That’s why I use the term “BS.” Talking about DH, for me, is never quite the same thing as doing it. Even if the talk is really smart and really well-informed. But I also think intelligent spectatorship matters, and is a great springboard for other kinds of engagement. That’s how I end up celebrating “intelligent, informed BS.” But probably this will only succeed in annoying people on both sides of the issue. 🙂

Nice post indeed. It seems to me that there are unlikely to be very many “old hands” in DH who received anything like “formal training” in the field. I’m only a “medium hand,” but my only formal training was a week-long summer institute at UNB a decade or so ago that taught the rudiments of text mark-up, most of which I had already taught myself.

What this means, in practice, is that most DHers who’ve been around longer than a half dozen years or so are autodidacts. Most of us probably “fell” into the field, quite by accident. I certainly did. It seems, in that context, a bit rich to criticize recent grads who similarly may lack formal training, but can evince an intelligent and semi-knowledgeable interest in and curiosity about DH.

Surely, in fact, this is what it *means* to be an academic, in any case: one should always be moving forward into new and unknown territory. Otherwise, one becomes one of those academics who is still lecturing on her/his dissertation topic 30 years later.

And we need people coming into the field from alternative perspectives to challenge some of the received “truths” that have already emerged in DH. More power to the genuinely interested bullshitter, says I.

Also — and this may be clear enough, but I want to be explicit — “giving grad students permission to shoot the breeze about DH” is the flip side of something else I want to do, which is “put senior faculty on notice that yes, they actually can, and need to, inform themselves about DH even if they don’t ‘do’ it.”

One suspects that, rather too often, “senior faculty” wish to hire a DH specialist precisely so that they can avoid doing exactly that. And if that is the case, then they can hardly complain very loudly if they have been “duped” into hiring someone at the entry-level to the field.

Great post—persuasive and sane and helpful. But there are of course prominent DH voices saying that only tool-building—and having the technical knowledge needed to build tools—even counts as DH in the first place. In any case, thanks for helping embolden me to say (as a mid-career type, not a new jobseeker), “Yes, I know a little about DH, although it’s not what I do.”

Thanks. You’re right that this is related to the coding / building debate. I intentionally avoided taking a firm position on that debate, but I guess I do think that eventually, at some level of involvement in DH, people will end up building something.

But building needn’t mean “tool-building.” Designing web content seems just as important and challenging to me, and it requires a different set of skills (skills, in fact, that I mostly don’t have, though I can “program” and do stuff with numbers).

I’m glad to see you write “I want to give grad students permission to intelligently bullshit their way through questions about DH just as they would any other question.” Last week I wrote the following message to the (mostly library school) students in my DH seminar, to explain why we were spending so much time on debates about what DH is, rather than learning some tools or something:

By now, hopefully, you are thoroughly sick of discussing how to define the digital humanities. Good! That is one of the few things that unites digital humanists of all stripes.

Anyway, the reason we’ve spent so much time on the topic is that I wanted to thoroughly dispel any notion you might have had coming into this class that “digital humanities” refers to an established body of skills or knowledge, which this class will initiate you into. It doesn’t, and it won’t.

I emphasize this for two reasons. One, those of you who will be on the job market soonish will see a lot of job ads mentioning digital humanities, or the topic might be raised in interviews. Hopefully by now you understand that the people writing those ads or raising the topic probably don’t know any more than you do what they mean by that. This shouldn’t be seen negatively, but as an opportunity to make a case for your own vision of what such a position should entail.

Which brings me to the second reason. One of the reasons “digital humanities” is so interesting right now is precisely because definitions are up for grabs. That won’t necessarily be the case ten years from now. So I hope that in your current and future positions you can take advantage of this window to articulate and pursue a vision of a kind of work you value, instead of having to simply settle for accepting someone else’s definition of what it is a librarian or an archivist or an art historian or a publisher or a public historian does.

That’s a great message. A lot of people are observing cynically that “committees don’t know what they’re looking for,” but you’re so right: that’s actually an opportunity for candidates who have the vision and passion to make a case for something radically new. I like that a lot.

Great post Ted! I ran a reading group last year which sought to wrestle with the problem of defining digital humanities. It aimed to put some of these questions on the table in a bit of a tongue and cheek manner – boundaries and territories and that sense of belonging to something, whether a discipline or method or movement. Two things stand out in my mind as a result of our conversations. First, that digital humanities isn’t a discipline or method in any traditional sense, it’s more of a communal “response” or movement in relation to a medium. I often feel, as others have noted, and you hint at that once institutions have “someone who does digital humanities” that they’ve “covered that” sufficiently. The implication of viewing digital humanities as a communal response is that it forces scholars into the conversation whether they identify as digital humanists or not. It also is something of a different answer to the builder/coder problem. Sure, there’s disciplinary potential, but the bullshitting thing is important and can only really occur if people have some sense of purchase. If you’re doing humanities research using digital media in some form, in some degree, you’re a digital humanist. There’s the penumbra.
Second was the problem of assessment – having people who failed to realize they were in the penumbra thinking that because they’re humanists they’ve got the skills to critically assess a project ot digital work for its merits in terms of the digital, not just its content etc. and voila clash with the first point. But the ability to bullshit about DH is like an acadmic gateway for getting others to realize the best digital humanities is one that is intensely critical of itself, like any good scholarship.

I may need to tweet a link to the comment thread, because that’s really well put. I think you’ve put your finger on a central issue: it’s not clear to humanists what kind of authorization you would need to comment on DH. One of the consequences is that we’re not even seeing what I definitely would have expected by this point: detailed polemical attacks on the field. (Stanley Fish excepted, and I give him credit for trying.)

Instead it seems to me that senior faculty are just sort of accepting the digital phenomenon with a resigned and not very interested shrug. “Guess we need to hire a digital something-or-other …” I want to say, “Come on people, this is the humanities. We’re supposed to talk about stuff!”

In speaking about humanists who are “not very interested” in DH, @Ted wrote: “Come on people, this is the humanities. We’re supposed to talk about stuff!”

You are putting your finger on an interesting phenomenon that I think about a lot. There is something about technology that makes some otherwise smart and curious people turn totally frightened, uncomfortable, and uninterested. This is what led to my joke at the SCI meeting a couple of years back: “How come humanists are comfortable with obscure words like ‘hermeneutics’ but are afraid to look up ‘cyberinfrastructure’ ?”

Most humanists, if reading a book of philosophy or history or whatever, are more than happy to look up new words and learn new concepts. But when that new word or concept smacks of technology, they recoil — “I can’t learn that,” they think, or worse, they denigrate it as “jargon,” while remaining perfectly comfortable with the complex jargon of their own discipline.

It’s a strange, but also savvy mode of resistance. I keep saying “I’m more than happy to welcome critique of DH, because critique of DH is itself … DH!” And I think humanists who don’t welcome the change grasp that too: they’ve been around the block a bit and know how these dialectical games work. To critique something, you have to learn about it, and that would mean …

So I actually suspect the “head in the sand” strategy of resistance is no accident. There’s some genuine fear of technology involved, but also a willed and deliberately preserved innocence.

This is a really great conversation, Ted. And I really agree. Within this situation we’ve found ourselves, though, one of my concerns is that digital humanities, or maybe more descriptively, computational humanities, benefit greatly from a different arrangement among researchers, namely multiparty and multidisciplinary collaboration. This is a need that doesn’t get met enough.

Here we could see DH as not another theoretical approach, but a different paradigm for how scholarship in the humanities gets made. With this in mind, the idea of some departments “getting their toes wet” is better than nothing, but it speaks to how we’re walking a line here that at once recognizes DH scholarship but also defers its more radical consequences.

Asking a job candidate to express interest in DH is one thing, but expecting that they will be a standalone unit in the department like other specialist hires is to position any DH researcher, expert or novice, in a position least advantageous to all parties involved.

On the one hand, it seems that we must certainly give DH the same treatment as other sub fields, on the other, though, we have to recognize that the potential of the DH approach is largely wrapped up in peer collaboration and technological infrastructure, and neither of these come from passing interest.

Yep. The problem you’re highlighting will probably become salient two years from now, as new “DH” hires start to settle in, and it becomes clear that many of them don’t have access to the colleagues or infrastructure they need to do good work.

For related reasons, I suspect ads are going to need to get more precise than the catch-all term “digital humanities.” Some institutions basically want a scholar of new media, or someone who can teach new media as a rhetorical practice. Other places may want a researcher comfortable with computational methods. “Digital humanities” is going to be way too broad: it’s a bit like advertising for someone who does “theory” sans adjective.

I’m just chiming in to agree with the fairmindedness and the sense of possibility that this post represents. Ryan’s framing of the issue to his students strikes me as especially useful. Well said, both of you.

Ted—I also think it’s worth linking your brilliant contribution to the MLA Jobs Tumblr, which nicely illustrates the kinds of situations that call for the informed BS you’re recommending!

Thanks, Natalia! But I, er, didn’t realize I would be listed as the author of that ad, and now feel a little sheepish, since Cornell is my alma mater. (Still love you guys in Ithaca! Just picking on you as a random Ivy, and keeping it in the family and all.)

This conversation seems to be done, and I offer this only because I don’t see that an analogy that occurs to me (often) has yet occurred to anyone else who writes on these issues — though one of Mark McDayter’s comments (that one motive of hiring in DH is to delegate responsibility for, and thus defer engagement with, whatever “DH” may represent) perhaps comes closest.

I don’t think what you propose will work, Ted, however much I would like it to, both in its own terms and in how it aligns with another unnecessary but, alas, rooted division of labor I’ve spent my own career thus far resisting, to no avail: that between “criticism” and “creative writing.”

Within in U.S.-based literary and cultural studies, at least, “practical” DH could come to occupy a space like that of creative writing: a mostly segregated, possibly permanently embattled para-disciplinary space of doing first and describing afterward, with all the stresses that go with that. (Creative writing, I think, is now facing erosion, not through the “good death” of reconquest by the scholar-writers it has always held at arm’s length, but through the messy bad death of last hired, first fired.)

That’s provided, of course, that “practical” DH remains in contact with literary and cultural studies at all, rather than being absorbed into information sciences or other aspects of administration and information/IT services. There are at least two more alternatives: build alliances with a living if residual “philology,” which would certainly require more comparative, multilingual training than any self-identified DHer I can think of has obtained; or take up the intellectual tradition — the “Theory” — that interrogates the mediation of praxis and theory first of all. I mean precisely “Marxist theory”: do DHers who cite Franco Moretti’s most recent work, I often wonder, have any idea what they are reading?

The analogy might be flawed in any number of ways, I admit. And of course, creative writing had its rise during a period of expansion (if one largely financialized since the 1970s), while DH has appeared during a contraction. The PR crisis, if there is one, is probably rooted in fears of displacement in some fight to the death over smaller slices of the pie. A semi-reasonable fear, perhaps, if things get much, much worse. But taking the long and global view, it’s not really likely. Instead, the PR crisis will pass, and the opportunists chanting “adapt or die” are not likely to survive. But if non-builders just go back to calling themselves media scholars, then what was all the fuss for? That, perhaps, is a deeper question than we suspect.

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