DH as a social phenomenon disciplinary history

How much DH can we fit in a literature department?

It’s an open secret that the social phenomenon called “digital humanities” mostly grew outside the curriculum. Library-based programs like Scholars’ Lab at UVA have played an important role; so have “centers” like MITH (Maryland) and CHNM (George Mason) — not to mention the distributed unconference movement called THATCamp, which started at CHNM. At Stanford, the Literary Lab is a sui generis thing, related to departments of literature but not exactly contained inside them.

The list could go on, but I’m not trying to cover everything — just observing that “DH” didn’t begin by embedding itself in the curricula of humanities departments. It went around them, in improvisational and surprisingly successful ways.

That’s a history to be proud of, but I think it’s also setting us up for predictable frustrations at the moment, as disciplines decide to import “DH” and reframe it in disciplinary terms. (“Seeking a scholar of early modern drama, with a specialization in digital humanities …”)

Of course, digital methods do have consequences for existing disciplines; otherwise they wouldn’t be worth the trouble. In my own discipline of literary study, it’s now easy to point to a long sequence of substantive contributions to literary study that use digital methods to make thesis-driven interventions in literary history and even interpretive theory.

But although the research payoff is clear, the marriage between disciplinary and extradisciplinary institutions may not be so easy. I sense that a lot of friction around this topic is founded in a feeling that it ought to be straightforward to integrate new modes of study in disciplinary curricula and career paths. So when this doesn’t go smoothly, we feel there must be some irritating mistake in existing disciplines, or in the project of DH itself. Something needs to be trimmed to fit.

What I want to say is just this: there’s actually no reason this should be easy. Grafting a complex extradisciplinary project onto existing disciplines may not completely work. That’s not because anyone made a mistake.

Consider my home field of literary study. If digital methods were embodied in a critical “approach,” like psychoanalysis, they would be easy to assimilate. We could identify digital “readings” of familiar texts, add an article to every Norton edition, and be done with it. In some cases that actually works, because digital methods do after all change the way we read familiar texts. But DH also tends to raise foundational questions about the way literary scholarship is organized. Sometimes it valorizes things we once considered “mere editing” or “mere finding aids”; sometimes it shifts the scale of literary study, so that courses organized by period and author no longer make a great deal of sense. Disciplines can be willing to welcome new ideas, and yet (understandably) unwilling to undertake this sort of institutional reorganization.

Training is an even bigger problem. People have argued long and fiercely about the amount of digital training actually required to “do DH,” and I’m not going to resolve that question here. I just want to say that there’s a reason for the argument: it’s a thorny problem. In many cases, humanists are now tackling projects that require training not provided in humanities departments. There are a lot of possible fixes for that — we can make tools easier to use, foster collaboration — but none of those fixes solve the whole problem. Not everything can be externalized as a “tool.” Some digital methods are really new forms of interpretation; packaging them in a GUI would create a problematic black box. Collaboration, likewise, may not remove the need for new forms of training. Expecting computer scientists to do all the coding on a project can be like expecting English professors to do all the spelling.

I think these problems can find solutions, but I’m coming to suspect that the solutions will be messy. Humanities curricula may evolve, but I don’t think the majority of English or History departments are going to embrace rapid structural change — for instance, change of the kind that would be required to support graduate programs in distant reading. These disciplines have already spent a hundred years rejecting rapprochement with social science; why would they change course now? English professors may enjoy reading Moretti, but it’s going to be a long time before they add a course on statistical methods to the major.

Meanwhile, there are other players in this space (at least at large universities): iSchools, Linguistics, Departments of Communications, Colleges of Media. Digital methods are being assimilated rapidly in these places. New media, of course, are already part of media studies, and if a department already requires statistics, methods like topic modeling are less of a stretch. It’s quite possible that the distant reading of literary culture will end up being shared between literature departments and (say) Communications. The reluctance of literary studies to become a social science needn’t prevent social scientists from talking about literature.

I’m saying all this because I think there’s a strong tacit narrative in DH that understands extradisciplinary institutions as a wilderness, in which we have wandered that we may reach the promised land of recognition by familiar disciplinary authority. In some ways that’s healthy. It’s good to have work organized by clear research questions (so we aren’t just digitizing aimlessly), and I’m proud that digital methods are making contributions to the core concerns of literary studies.

But I’m also wary of the normative pressures associated with that narrative, because (if you’ll pardon the extended metaphor) I’m not sure this caravan actually fits in the promised land. I suspect that some parts of the sprawling enterprise called “DH” (in fact, some of the parts I enjoy most) won’t be absorbed easily in the curricula of History or English. That problem may be solved differently at different schools; the nice thing about strong extradisciplinary institutions is that they allow us to work together even if the question of disciplinary identity turns out to be complex.

postscript: This whole post should have footnotes to Bethany Nowviskie every time I use the term “extradisciplinary,” and to Matt Kirschenbaum every time I say “DH” with implicit air quotes.

By tedunderwood

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

11 replies on “How much DH can we fit in a literature department?”

Great post. My only thought here is that most humanities PhD programs come with enough free credits for students to take courses in stats, NLP, programming, et cet. on their own. There’s really no reason for English Departments to offer this kind of training because it’s straightforward, in most cases, for their grad students to get it elsewhere. Granted, many of these courses won’t be taught with the humanities in mind, but then, that’s one of the points of DH work, isn’t it? Figuring out how to put non-humanities skills to work for the humanities? And given enough demand, I can see non-humanities departments opening new courses of sections designed for humanities students. (For example, at my institution, Syracuse, the NLP course is now taught in a way that doesn’t assume any prior programming experience.) In other words, if English departments won’t meet the needs of DH, I can imagine other departments doing so. Of course, this still means that DH training, and therefore DH academic identity, will remain quite fractured.

It seems to work out decently. Lots of code is provided, and while students figure out what the code does, the professor also demonstrates how it works line by line. Assignments are often based around finding the right lines to tweak to change parameters and such. (But I admit that I would have been lost if I hadn’t spent the previous semester learning some Python with help of the NLTK book.)

Thanks for the super-thoughtful post, Ted.

I wanted to add one small corrective about a particular kind of “extra-curricular” DH that you mention, but engage (I think) not quite enough: the DH that happens both *in* and *with* the library. (This is *not at all* meant as a criticism of your piece, since I know you to be not only very library-aware, but also a strong library ally and friend! Rather, I want only to add to the celebration of what has been, and should be, a healthy, natural, and strong extradisciplinary player in DH space — and I think this fact makes your point even stronger.)

The history of even the supposedly “sui generis” Stanford Lit Lab is tightly bound with the Stanford Libraries. (I don’t know of any reason whatsoever that the Lit Lab should be sui generis, by the way: it started, and has proceeded, with resources that most universities in the U.S. and U.K. — and many elsewhere — already have available to them, thanks to their libraries.)

One of the Lit Lab’s co-founders (Matt Jockers, of course) happens to have been employed and funded, in part, by the Stanford Libraries, in collaboration with the English Dept. (Actually, that sort of hybrid position may be a sui generis thing — and it’s a great thing, too, one to be emulated.) But it’s no accident that the very first (2006) iteration of what became the Lit Lab was a seminar that Matt led — in the library — called “Literary Studies and the Digital Library: Beyond Search and Access.”

Not only that, but the vast majority of the Lit Lab’s literary corpora, the raw material for its research, were and are directly provided by the Libraries. My standard claim (as in, “Stop me if you’ve heard this…”) is that libraries everywhere have been “supporting” DH — and “building for DH,” and even “doing DH” — for decades, by collecting, purchasing, creating, and curating the very stuff of DH.

It goes without saying (and is too often unsaid) that all humanities scholarship depends on, has always depended on, untold shelves and boxes of library and archival collections, and on untold generations of library workers. But that extradisciplinary connection is all the more direct and essential with DH: getting raw data is not quite as easy-seeming as searching the catalog, walking to the shelf, and pulling down a bunch of books (and of course pretending that they just got there by themselves).

This is all to confirm how much I agree with your diagnosis of the dangerous “tacit narrative” of the “extradisciplinary wilderness” that you so rightly buck against. We should welcome the friction that comes with the understanding — forced by DH realities, and fed by the intrinsically collaborative DH nature — that the lone literary scholar, and even the lone English Department, is a myth of scholarship demanding to be debunked. Thanks for doing that so eloquently.

P.S. Best line in your piece: “Expecting computer scientists to do all the coding on a project can be like expecting English professors to do all the spelling.” !!

Thanks, Glen. I’m happy to file the Literary Lab with Scholars’ Lab, as examples of the kind of DH that takes shape under the aegis of a library. I knew some of this story; “sui generis” was partly a bit of CYA vagueness on my part, lest I get something wrong, and partly a (too compressed) way of conveying that the Lit Lab is different in its focus and orientation from a lot of other “centers” (less building of software products, more research-centered paper production, I would say). But thanks for fleshing out the story!

This is a thoughtful post, Ted. I’m not sure that I share the same sense that DH is essentially extradisciplinary (a word I’m glad to learn), and I’m trying to figure out why. Perhaps it is because DH, meaning digital history, can be distinguished from the digital humanities or digital literary studies. The discipline of history covers a wide range of methodologies: as it happens historians for the past few decades have been reading the same theorists as the lit and cultural studies folks, but before that historians were borrowing from the social scientists. While digital history is certainly intradisciplinary, I suspect or hope that history is methodologically omnivorous and will eventually ingest digital methods in the same way that all histories took in social history and then cultural history. But perhaps things seem that way to me because I mostly use methods such as mapping and quantitative analysis which are already recognized as historical, rather than methods such as text mining are newer and so less widely recognized.

I like the idea that history is “methodologically omnivorous”; sounds good to me! And even in literary studies, actually, I think there are many places where digital methods, or objects of study, will fit into the discipline just fine; we’re seeing lots of articles that use text mining methodology in traditional literary journals, for instance.

I’m trying to make a softer point — not that these methods are “essentially extradisciplinary” or can’t be accepted by the discipline, but that some of them may have a complex kind of disciplinary citizenship. I think it’s pretty likely that text mining, for instance, is going to be shared by linguistics, computer science, and a range of social sciences, as well as literary studies. I can envision a future where it makes significant discipline-specific contributions to literary history without becoming completely naturalized in the curriculum of most literature departments; grad students who wanted to use these methods might still have to take computational linguistics courses, and the community of people advancing the methodology itself might be interdisciplinary in character.

I’m coming to this discussion late… just wanted to add a comment:

The idea of “extradisciplinarity” (in the context of DH) mentioned by Ted in the above blog post made me think of the following comment (quoted below) by Jacques Rancière about “indisciplinarity” in this interview, ; (I’m just quoting one paragraph — the rest of the interview isn’t relevant to this and the interview isn’t about DH at all — but the idea (in the paragraph below) of the “switch of perspectives” brought about by “escaping the division between disciplines”, and the accompanying democratization (“reclaiming thought as something belonging to everyone”) and unfixing of fixed categories (the recognition of a discipline as “always a provisional grouping”), seem to me to have possible interesting analogies to the perspective-switch that is forced by DH and to what that perspective-switch sets in motion (or could set in motion) in relation to “disciplinarity”). Rancière is talking about something very different from DH, of course, but his “entering into the flesh of experience” as an extradisciplinary move that then leads to a switch of perspective, could have, I think, a parallel in how entering into the text via other dimensions, which is arguably afforded by DH (e.g. thinking of the text as an ensemble of words, or as an ensemble of relations that can then be visualized or displayed, etc. etc.) can, similarly, lead to switches of perspective that can sometimes lead to fresh viewpoints and the asking of novel questions:

Interviewer: Would it be right to suggest that your work is not so much inter-disciplinary as a-disciplinary?

Rancière: Neither. It is ‘indisciplinary’. It is not only a matter of going besides the disciplines but of breaking them. My problem has always been to escape the division between disciplines, because what interests me is the question of the distribution of territories, which is always a way of deciding who is qualified to speak about what. The apportionment of disciplines refers to the more fundamental apportionment that separates those regarded as qualified to think from those regarded as unqualified; those who do the science and those who are regarded as its objects. I began by moving outside of the boundaries of the discipline of ‘philosophy’, because the questions I was concerned with revolved around Marxist conceptions of ideology – the issue of why people found themselves in a particular place and what they could or couldn’t think in that place. Following the events of 1968 and the vicissitudes of the far left, I thought that it was to be resolved not by continuing to immerse myself in Marx’s texts, but by entering into the flesh of working-class experience, into the thinking and practice of emancipation. At the outset, this was a kind of excursion to collect historical material. But the excursion led to a switch of perspectives. I came to understand that the problem wasn’t to search on the terrain of social history for material with which to think through philosophical questions, because the primary philosophical and political question was precisely that of the separation between the intellectual world and a social world which was supposedly merely its object. How does a question come to be considered philosophical or political or social or aesthetic? If emancipation had a meaning, it consisted in reclaiming thought as something belonging to everyone – the correlate being that there is no natural division between intellectual objects and that a discipline is always a provisional grouping, a provisional territorialisation of questions and objects that do not in and of themselves possess any specific localisation or domain.

Thanks, Sayan. This is very useful, and I think I agree here with Rancière. Of course, disciplines are social institutions, and we have to work with or around them. But it’s a good starting point to acknowledge that these social institutions need not (in fact, probably don’t) correspond to any “natural division between intellectual objects.”

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