Where should the digital humanities live ?

Don’t get me wrong. The cluster of work that bears the label ‘digital humanities’ is important; very important. I’ve spent the last decade or so of my working life in the gap between historians and application developers, trying to make sure that digital tools get designed in the ways historians need them to be designed. Projects digitising books; collaborative editing platforms; institutional repositories; Open Access journal platforms; web archives: I’ve done a similar job, more or less well, in each case. As well as that, I was (and remain) founding co-convener of the Digital History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, which looks to showcase finished historical scholarship that would have been impossible without the digital, broadly defined.

But there is a problem with how we understand the term, I think. I receive the term as signifying a community of practice, of scholars employing new technological means to achieve the same ends as they did before ‘the digital’. And as that community of practice grows, one would naturally expect a degree of self-consciousness within it as to the distinctiveness of what we’re all doing. This is inevitable, and almost certainly helpful, as new journals, conferences and online spaces appear to in which work can get published that might be too innovative for traditional channels to handle, and for discussions about method to take place safely.

My worry is over the institutional location of this activity. Several universities have spotted the potential of locating DH people together, and so there are several Schools or Faculties or Departments of Digital Humanities, all centres of real excellence, in universities in the UK and elsewhere. It’s an institutional means of nurturing something important, and it seems to work. My concern is with the long-term.

As in all large organisations, the internal structures of universities have their own force in determining the shape of the work that goes on within them. Structures shape cultures and cultures influence behaviours. It’s nobody’s doing, but the effect is real.

A department has a head, who usually sits at the same table as the head of History, or Philosophy; and funds run down these channels, and reporting lines back up. And my concern is that this Digital Humanities, this enterprise that starts to be treated (in institutional terms) as a discipline in its own right, could become a silo. The unintended consequence of creating a permanent space in which to foster the new approach is that Dr So-and-So in English, or Philosophy, can say “Oh, a digital approach, you say ? You want DH – they’re over in the Perkins Building.” Enterprising individuals and projects can and do bridge these gaps between departments; but the effect of the existence of the silo on the general consciousness has to be reckoned with, and mitigating the effect takes time and effort.

Put it this way. When Microsoft Word came within the reach of university budgets, no-one proposed that a Department of Word-Processed Humanities be set up – although word-processing was a technology that became ubiquitous in a short space of time, and had profound and widespread and general effects on a crucial element of academic practice – just like the digital humanities. And right now, there are not Schools of Social Humanities, to foster communities of practice in the most effective use of Twitter for dissemination and impact. Both these were disruptive technologies which were (and are) promoted across departments, faculties and whole institutions until they needed (or need) promoting no longer.

The end game for a Faculty of DH should be that the use of the tools becomes so integrated within Classics, French and Theology that it can be disbanded, having done its job. DH isn’t a discipline; it’s a cluster of new techniques that give rise to new questions; but they are still questions of History, or Philosophy, or Classics; and it is in those spaces that the integration needs eventually to take place.

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3 thoughts on “Where should the digital humanities live ?

  1. Peter —

    Your post made me ponder the differences implicit and explicit between a “silo” (boo! bad! I presume) and a “community of practice” (huzzah, good?) as well as between a “cluster of new techniques that give rise to new questions” as compared to a “discipline” (what’s the difference between those two?), and “disruptive technologies” as compared to “integrated” ones (do all disruptive technologies eventually get integrated? Is this a good thing always? What would it mean for dh to never stop disrupting?).

    My question is this: what if you turned around your fear-of-the-silo argument? If DH is indeed a “cluster of new techniques that give rise to new questions” is that not a discipline in its own right? And if it is a discipline in its own right, should it then have the institutional clout afforded by departmental status, funding, etc. even if that status is in service of trying, ultimately, to reimagine the very existence of “siloing” forces? Will DH have enough institutional strength to disrupt those isolating tendencies—intellectually, ethically, politically, economically—if its goal is to one day self-immolate, purified into the pure spirit of the existing disciplinary traditions? Why are those existing siloed departments good, but a department of digital humanities bad?

    I think the key here is not just the presence of the term “digital” but also of the term “humanities” in DH. That’s the difference between DH and word processing or social media. So I don’t agree with your comparisons there. Something different going on with DH, more like History, Philosophy, Classics perhaps in its methodological distinctiveness, perhaps?

    Indeed, I would even venture to say that it might be good if suddenly others were sending digital folks over to the Perkins Building, as it were, to the Department of Digital Humanities. This might even have a strange way of achieving the very integration you seek. Only now that integration would happen not by the end game of bringing DH into History, Philosophy, Classics and closing up shop so that there is no more DH. Rather it would be by bringing History, Philosophy, Classics into DH. But not to close up those other “shops” (I mean silos, I mean disciplines, I mean communities of practice!). Rather the goal of bringing other humanistic fields into DH would be to enhance them both as specialized pursuits—disciplines, even silos—and as interdisciplinary ventures

    What are these silos anyway? Grain silos? Missile silos? I never quite understand the metaphor at work in this buzzword.

    Well, this is what your post made me ponder. Thanks. See you over at the Perkins Building one day, I hope!

    — Michael

  2. To defend DH a bit here, this seems to me a highly limited and technologically deterministic view of digital humanities. To me, DH encompasses not just digital methodologies and tools that can help us ask new (and old) questions, but it also involves a critical study of those very same tools and all of digital culture to help us further understand what it means to be human (or posthuman, or whatever) in a digital age. Granted, DH has become an umbrella term for a lot of things, and I think this is mostly (though certainly not only) strategic, but some of the best work I’ve come across includes, in addition to the work you mention, platform studies (Bogost, Montfort), evil media studies (Fuller, Goffey), cultural logics of computation (Golumbia), postcolonial digital humanities (Risam, Koh), media archaeology (Emerson), and a lot more. The argument you present here, that technology has a job to do that we can simply harness to do better what we’ve always done seems to me precisely the kind of dangerous situation that makes digital humanities so vitally important. Just as humanities is not “the book,” digital humanities is not the word processor, though I’ve read some very great DH work on the social, cultural, political formation and implications of the word processor, and that, to me, is what you’ve left out of this equation.

    I’ve tried to embody this “wider” view of DH in my work as a librarian, particularly in A Guide to Digital Humanities” (and I’m always open to suggestions and criticisms!) and in my consultations and collaborations with faculty interested in digital humanities, through acts of critical curation of tools and wide-ranging discussions on everything from the cultural biases of metadata to the dangers to techno-utopianism. To me, DH is a way of confronting the anxieties of the digital age, but also of making sure we remain human, even as what it means to be human takes on more virtual and digital forms.

    • I’m grateful to Josh for this response. The fact that he feels that DH needs defending from me makes me think that perhaps I didn’t make my point clearly enough, although I had thought that the first paragraph might suffice. Of course we need to think, and as a matter of urgency, about ‘what it means to be human … in a digital age.’ However, I still don’t see that those concerns are fundamentally different from those that have preoccupied historians, scholars of literature, philosophers and students of culture and technology as they have studied successive cultural and technological shifts that predate the digital. I simply don’t see a distinctive ‘discipline’ called DH that is so distinct in its concerns from both the “regular” humanities on one side, and on the other from the sciences (social and biological) that it is best fostered in faculties/schools/departments that have the same institutional position as the other disciplines.

      Josh also chides me for being technologically deterministic. Since the main burden of the post was that the location of DH within universities influences practice, I would have accepted a charge of organisational determinism. As for technological determinism, I’m afraid I simply don’t see the force of the criticism.

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