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.

methodology undigitized humanities

Why everyone should welcome the coming controversy over digital humanities.

Over the next several years, I predict that we’re going to hear a lot of arguments about what the digital humanities can’t do. They can’t help us distinguish insightful and innovative works from merely typical productions of the press. They can’t help us make aesthetic judgments. They can’t help students develop a sense of what really matters about their individual lives, or about history.

Personally, I’m going to be thrilled. First of all, because Blake was right about many things, but above all about the humanities, when he wrote “Opposition is true Friendship.” The best way to get people to pay attention to the humanities is for us to have a big, lively argument about things that matter — indeed, I would go so far as to say that no humanistic project matters much until it gets attacked.

And critics of the digital humanities will be pointing to things that really do matter. We ought to be evaluating authors and works, and challenging students to make similar kinds of judgments. We ought to be insisting that students connect the humanities to their own lives, and develop a broader feeling for the comic and tragic dimensions of human history.

William Blake, "Newton," 1795

Of course, it’s not as though we’re doing much of that now. But if humanists’ resistance to the digitization of our profession causes us to take old bromides about the humanities more seriously, and give them real weight in the way we evaluate our work — then I’m all for it. I’ll sign up, in full seriousness, as a fan of the coming reaction against the digital humanities, which might even turn out to be more important than digital humanism itself.

I wouldn’t, after all, want every humanist to become a “digital humanist.” I believe there’s a lot we can learn from new modes of analysis, networking, and visualization, but I don’t believe the potential is infinite, or that new approaches ineluctably supplant old ones. The New York Times may have described data-intensive methods as an alternative to “theory,” but surely we’ve been trained to recognize a false dichotomy? “Theory” used to think it was an alternative to “humanism,” and that was wrong too.

I also predict that the furor will subside, in a decade or so, when scholars start to understand how new modes of analysis help them do things they presently want to do, but can’t. I’ve been thinking a lot about Benjamin Schmidt’s point that search engines are already a statistically sophisticated technology for assisted reading. Of course humanists use search engines to mine data every day, without needing to define a tf-idf score, and without getting so annoyed that they exclaim “Search engines will never help us properly appreciate an individual author’s sensibility!”

That’s the future I anticipate for the digital humanities. I don’t think we’re going to be making a lot of arguments that explicitly foreground a quantitative methodology. We’ll make a few. But more often text mining, or visualization, will function as heuristics that help us find and recognize significant patterns, which we explore in traditional humanistic ways. Once a heuristic like that is freely available and its uses are widely understood, you don’t need to make a big show of using it, any more than we now make a point of saying “I found these obscure sources by performing a clever keyword search on ECCO.” But it may still be true that the heuristic is permitting us to pursue different kinds of arguments, just as search engines are now probably permitting us to practice a different sort of historicism.

But once this becomes clear, we’ll start to agree with each other. Things will become boring again, and The New York Times will stop paying attention to us. So I plan to enjoy the argument while it lasts.