Humanities

Essay on opportunities for humanities programs in digital era

Since the 2008 Great Recession, American higher education has experienced a new round of uncertainties and reductions -- especially, but not only, in public institutions. British academics refer to the current season of top-down austerity as "the cuts," but in the U.S., we might speak of lingchi, "death by a thousand cuts." Faculty lines slashed, programs eliminated, course seats lowered, graduate student aid reduced, the decentralized U.S. higher education system has struggled to maintain quality across the disciplines. Humanities programs, in particular, have appeared threatened.

Yet, in this same time we are in the first phase of a digital revolution in higher education. Much of the teaching and learning apparatus has moved online. Computational technologies and methodologies have transformed research practices in every discipline, leading to exciting discoveries and tools. New interdisciplinary initiatives, exploiting the digital, such as bioinformatics, human cognition, and digital humanities, are bringing faculty members together in ways never before attempted.

For the humanities, the threat of diminished resources has appeared hand-in-glove with the digital turn. The recent events at the University of Virginia demonstrate just how influential the digital paradigm has become, but also how unevenly applied its pressures can be. The university's board members seemed to be swayed by the model of massive open online courses (MOOCs) under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, among other institutions, most of the key instances of which have been in the STEM fields. Meanwhile, some board members proposed to eliminate classics and German to save money in the face of the university's massive structural budget deficit. They apparently did not realize how many students actually take these subjects (a lot) or that the subjects have been required in state codes chartering the university.

As humanities chairs with a long involvement in digital issues, we have seen clearly that top-down budget cuts are often justified with arguments about how digital technologies are driving change in higher education. Just as the MOOC course model played a signature role in the University of Virginia saga, so one of the most visible controversies in the University of California system at the onset of the epic California budget crisis occurred when Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley Jr. proposed an all-digital UC campus.

So we believe that humanities faculty members, chairs, and administrators right now have a choice. One option is to take no systematic action on the digital humanities (DH) front and thus let the long-term digital future be built for them. By taking "no systematic action," we mean the present practices of many of us in the humanities who automatically denounce university ambitions for digital education without looking into the issues, allow digital humanities to be the special province of "power" users, and treat digital humanities as a discretionary field. The results of this course have been anemic: settling the responsibility for leading the humanities into the digital age on adjunct faculty or library staff, ignoring the mismatch between digital humanities and established ways of measuring academic performance, and quarantining digital humanities in a project. We have too often outsourced digital humanities to a special center on campus or tiptoed into digital humanities by advertising for faculty in established fields but adding wistfully that "digital proficiency is a plus."

The other option is for humanities faculty, chairs, and administrators to plan how to integrate the digital humanities systematically through our departments -- to infuse departments with digital technologies and practices so as to create models of organically interrelated humanities digital research, teaching, administration and staff work. Of course, we have no proof that this will "save the humanities," a goal we share but that we fear is counterproductive when posed as an all-or-nothing proposition. Good strategy requires picking some point on the line to apply leverage. The leverage point in the policies now shaping the future university is the digital, and we feel that it is crucial that the humanities try for well-conceived, humanities-friendly models of digital work that are institutionally cohesive enough to influence policy.

How can we change the dynamic and create new structures for the humanities to flourish in the digital age? We recommend the following four principles for faculty members, department chairs and administrators to follow in integrating the digital humanities in the humanities.

Think departmentally.

It all starts with where scholars live and work natively: in their departments (or similar units). Currently, digital initiatives are predominantly institutionalized in campus units, library annex programs, or interdisciplinary entities; whereas in departments themselves they spring up accidentally like weeds around particular faculty, areas, or projects. We propose an organic strategy for integrating digital initiatives into core departmental research, teaching, administration, and staff work.

Departments should help spread digital methods and tools across the curriculum, for example, by sponsoring graduate students to research digital pedagogies and promoting their cross-adoption or engaging students and faculty to build websites for best practices. Departments might cultivate DH across a larger span of faculty research and craft job searches that alternate between prioritizing established fields, with digital expertise a "plus," and prioritizing digital expertise, with an established field a "plus."

Chairs and faculty should consider adopting new guidelines for tenure and promotion reviews that value such activities as writing grant proposals, collaborating on projects, creating digital archives, building cyberinfrastructure, or contributing influential non-refereed articles or blog posts (starting with steps as simple as standardizing categories for these activities in C.V.s). We have worked in our own departments to explicitly include digital scholarship expectations in letters of offer to digital humanities scholars; to train graduate students in DH (e.g., through an introduction to digital humanities course); and to work with office staff to improve administrative and clerical support of research and teaching through digital methods that meet campus standards, where they exist, of accessibility, preservation, privacy, and security.

Think collaboratively (across departments and divisions).

In our personal experience, the digital humanities are not just a field but a conduit. Digital technologies and media typically require a broad set of methods and skills to carry out -- as in computational or archival projects that require the combined expertise of computer-science engineers, social scientists, artists, and humanists. Digital methods can thus be the common link across departments or divisions collaborating on shared grants, research projects, and curricular initiatives that strengthen the humanities with partners and make them magnets for cost-share and other funding. We have personally benefited from collaborating with other departments and divisions on digital projects, and correlatively we have seen impressive results in our campus administrations' encouragement and cost-share support.

In teaching, the need for partnership is especially acute. For example, the humanities could play an important role in helping to develop innovative digital alternatives to the thrice-weekly 50- or 75-minute large lecture course. Such alternatives could better-serve their own university's students (augmented, perhaps, with instructors and students elsewhere chosen to enhance the educational experience) than astronomically supersized MOOC courses distributed worldwide to ill-defined masses.

In general, departments could expand the collaborative reach of the humanities by taking such steps as: meeting with other departments (and deans) to explore how multiple departments might co-develop a digital course, project, or administrative tool; providing incentives to faculty to try for collaborative grants (e.g., by offering course release for grant writing that, if successful, would repay the lost teaching through curricular development or a course buyout); and creating lecture series and workshops that expose faculty to digital research and pedagogy elsewhere on campus.

Think computationally.

Humanities departments need more intensive computing power to conduct research in today's era of large-scale text and data sets, distributed archival resources, and multi-modal (including visual, aural, and cartographic) materials. Yet they often lag in both simple and complex technology. This has spillover effects on teaching as well. Though universities and colleges often furnish classroom technology through central campus agencies, we believe that boosting department-specific technology for the humanities could lead to curricular gains.

The fact is that the latest technology improves humanities research and teaching together, affecting the way our faculty offer their classes by interweaving research and teaching to the benefit of both. For example, the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) project in the University of California at Santa Barbara's English department and the Digital History Project at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln's history department have driven the adoption of higher grades of department technology (workstations, servers, backup systems, remote conferencing tools, text-encoding and image handling tools), all of which has created a thriving digital environment (and busy shared physical space) where undergraduate and graduate students work directly on the project as part of their learning in courses. In general, the humanities are now at a point where we cannot settle for the minimal provision of one aging workstation in each faculty office plus a computer with digital projector in each classroom.

Departments and chairs should seek larger start-up packages for all new hires (and, opportunistically, larger retention packages for faculty with offers elsewhere) to encourage the adoption of powerful computational technologies; initiate a replacement cycle for faculty computers; explore creating a shared department computational research facility (or at least a grouped set of research workstations) if none exist; provide at least one departmentally controlled server for project development or collaborative experimentation that would not be possible on mission-critical university servers; boost large-scale faculty data storage and backup facilities; create remote conferencing facilities to accommodate the increasing number of online meetings and job interviews; and sponsor workshops to keep faculty current on new technologies and methods.

Think societywide.

Humanities fields have enjoyed immense cultural authority and interest in every state and community. But they have organized few systematic efforts to maintain, renew, and update these associations in the digital age -- a task that is especially vital when austerity makes some leaders discount the value of the humanities on the basis of misinformed cost-benefit calculations.

The coin of the realm in the digital age, we predict, will be service to society. On the one hand, crowdsourcing and other partnerships with "citizen scholars" will increasingly contribute to humanities scholarship. On the other hand, the humanities must continue to develop their expertise as differentiated from the new, networked public knowledge. The trick will be to evolve the roles of the humanities faculty both in, and distinct from, digital public knowledge so that they will be valued as a necessary instrument in the orchestra.

While the established humanities model of research followed by presentation of finished results in scholarly lectures and publications will continue to be important, that model can no longer stand by itself. Digital technologies allow and, indeed, encourage humanities scholars to engage in open discourse about unfinished research; and they also drive them to "publish" in a wider range of socially visible venues and formats.

Humanities faculty members, chairs, and administrators should start by doing what likely has not been done in recent institutional memory: review what is meant by "service" (typically denoting committee work, supplemented by ill-defined "community" or "other" work). The goal is not to take faculty time away from research and teaching, as if academic work were a zero-sum game, but instead to explore ways to integrate service with everything else for the gain of all. We know ourselves that the simple act of creating a webpage for a project that addresses the public enriches our understanding of the project's research and teaching potential.

In all this, digital technologies are a catalyst for change. Already, digital humanists are exploring methods for publishing in open, crowd-reviewed, blog-based ways. Indeed, there is an incentive for the humanities to ask digital humanists to go even further to create next-generation scholarly platforms that integrate public engagement seamlessly with core research and teaching. For example, online journals could employ text-mining, topic-modeling, linked-data, visualization, and other tools to create on-demand summaries or "WorldCat Identities"-like pages--to be used directly by the public or by scholars for easy import into public websites or course pages.

Humanities departments can take such initial, imaginative steps as conducting a department-wide exercise in revising the departmental web site. Tomorrow's departmental site must go beyond presenting people, courses, and events just one level deep to exposing to public view some of the real content and activity streams of all these (e.g., through interviews with faculty, showcases of student projects, or excerpts from faculty lectures and articles). Other initial steps might include organizing online events that allow faculty and students to share their research with alumni or the community or creating a new service role in the department for an annual "public faculty member" charged with cultivating public engagement, agreeing to meet with members of the community, working on collaboration with local public libraries and museums, and keeping a blog or creating an online showcase for it all.

We are aware that there are valid concerns by many of our colleagues that signing on to the digital revolution in higher education in any systematic way is tantamount to undermining some of the core principles and strengths of the humanities. After all, leading philanthropists have suggested that the World Wide Web will soon eclipse all "place-based institutions" of higher education, and enormous sums of venture capital funding have moved into "for profit" higher ed. Faculty could reasonably conclude that the digital project means participating in the eclipse of their field, ceding even more influence to the oligarchy of elite, private universities with the resources and cachet to start online course consortiums, detracting from the humanistic ideal of close inquiry carried out in intimate conversation, and -- it must also be said -- eroding the need for as many faculty and instructor positions as now exist.

What the current climate tells us, however, is something quite different: that we have an opportunity and a responsibility to reframe the humanities for the digital age. We also see in our respective institutions that administrators, many colleagues, students, and the public are eager to help. The questions and concerns of the humanities continue to speak to and inspire these constituencies, and we should enlist them in our efforts. The reframing project that humanities leaders face will require imagination, leadership, and experimentation. The work we propose is to adopt the necessary level of organizational vision to systematically harness the digital age for the humanities.

William G. Thomas III is chair of the Department of History and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities and professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He is a faculty fellow of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at his university; and formerly he was founding director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia.

Alan Liu was chair of the Department of English from 2008-12 at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he founded several digital initiatives, including the English department's transcriptions center (for research and teaching on "literature and the culture of information") and the University of California multicampus research group Transliteracies (focused on online reading technologies and practices).

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Essay on ending a career as an adjunct

Harvest Moon reflects on why she loved teaching, and why she had to stop.

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New analysis on factors associated with academics publishing more than others

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Networking and motivation have more of an impact than age, gender or teaching load, according to study of European academics.

Essay on going on the humanities job market ABD

Gerry Canavan explains why networking matters, why "elite" status can hurt you, and some of the contradictions of trying to land a good position.

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Colleges award tenure

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Essay on job-hunting as a humanities ABD

In the first of a two-part column, Gerry Canavan reviews the initial preparations and minimum requirements.

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Essay on the importance of the Common Core Standards

Talk to personal trainers these days, and they will tell you that while bulging biceps and carved calves are valuable, what really matters is the strength of your core, the central muscles that ensure the body's stability and balance, the platform on which everything depends.

On that word "core" I want to hang an analogy that applies the notion of an indispensable platform to teaching and learning. In 2010 the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers unveiled the Common Core State Standards, adopted now by 46 states and the District of Columbia.  The standards represent one of the most promising developments in the decades-long effort to improve our country’s public schools. You may be thinking that you've heard that before. In the 1980s and 90s states throughout the nation adopted curriculum standards that were supposed to transform education. Yet here we are today still struggling with the persistent problem of academic underachievement. Why did our earlier efforts to establish standards not have the intended effect, and how are these new standards different?

Some states developed robust, muscular learning goals; others turned out rather anemic and feeble guidelines. For example, on the vital skill of discerning cause and effect, one state specified three detailed goals: explain how a cause and effect relationship differs from a sequence of events, distinguish between long-term and short-term cause and effect relationships, and show causal connections between particular historical events and ideas and larger trends and developments. In contrast, another state simply asked students to relate the causes and consequences of historical events to subsequent events. Similarly, when it came to student performance assessments, some states adopted evaluations that require students to do heavy lifting; others asked students to do little more than breathe. The state-by-state unevenness of standards and their evaluative instruments rendered them ineffective as engines of coordinated national reform.

The Common Core State Standards are not designed to supplant any of those standards, weak or strong. Instead, they seek to bolster all standards, not by identifying content-specific goals but by promoting an "integrated model of literacy" that encompasses skills in writing, speaking, and listening. At their heart, however, is the skill of “close, attentive reading” that will enable students to “pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally,” a skill as necessary in the workplace as in the classroom.

So how might these standards, based on a "vision of what it means to be a literate person in the 21st century," change teaching? For one thing, they emphasize the close reading of complex, challenging texts in all subjects, including math and science. To illustrate what close reading might look like in a high school class, consider how a teacher might apply it to the Declaration of Independence. After discussing the Declaration’s role in the American Revolution, she might zero in on its structure and language. She might examine the logic of its argument, leading students to discover that it is actually a three-part syllogism with a major premise — when a government destroys the inalienable rights of the people, the people have a right to abolish it — a minor premise — the King of Great Britain is destroying our rights — and an inevitable conclusion — therefore we have a right to abolish his rule.

She might ask students to critique the rhetorical impact of Jefferson’s use of repetition, or she might help them unpack the word "people" to see how Jefferson employs it to suggest unity among thirteen contentious colonies. In keeping with the standards, throughout the discussion she would ask students to support their responses by citing evidence from the Declaration itself.

This sort of teaching would help students understand the structure of a text, assess the logic of an argument, and develop an awareness of how language is consciously deployed to achieve meaning and impact. If students entered college with even a rudimentary grasp of those skills, they would have a substantial head start in mastering college-level writing.  Every freshman composition teacher in the nation would rejoice. I know because I taught freshman comp for years. My colleagues and I did not expect to turn out prose stylists in two semesters, but if we inculcated the skills I mentioned, we headed into summer satisfied with job well-done.

The rigorous and sophisticated instruction called for by the new standards will, in many cases, require considerable teacher training, just one of the many expenses involved in implementing them.  Indeed, it is fair to wonder if states will spend the millions required at a time when they are cutting education budgets.  Evidence suggests that they will and, in fact, are. California is shifting administrative funds to cover some implementation costs, and the Santa Fe school district is devoting federal funds to Common Core teacher training. In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels is leading education reform initiatives that include the standards.  New York has developed EngageNY, a website that provides implementation resources to teachers, principals, and administrators. Kentucky has aligned its teacher education programs to comport with the standards. The list goes on.

It is important to stress that the Common Core Standards are not mandated by the federal government or anyone else. Moreover, they do not represent an effort to micromanage the classroom or tell teachers what to teach. Focusing on essential skills, they leave plenty of room for teachers and curriculum specialists to develop specific content, those bulging biceps and carved calves. As their name indicates, the Standards concentrate on the core, the sophisticated literacy that prepares students for college and career and that constitutes the indispensable intellectual platform on which everything depends.

Richard R. Schramm is vice president for education programs at the National Humanities Center.

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Colorado State rewrites controversial job ad

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Review of John L. Long, "The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex"

Addressing his professional colleagues in the preface to the first edition of his Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886, the sober and unflinching Richard von Krafft-Ebing assured them he understood his duty to ward off the idly curious public. “A scientific title has been chosen,” he wrote, “and technical terms are used throughout the book in order to exclude the lay reader. For the same reason certain portions are written in Latin.” The translator of its 12th edition did not heed this due diligence. The case histories are all in English, and the “technical terms” Krafft-Ebing coined, such as “masochism,” would soon come into common usage.

Or perhaps they already were: it’s not clear when the translation appeared, though the scanned copy available at the Internet Archive looks like something printed in the 1920s or ‘30s. The paperback copy of Psychopathia that I found at a garage sale as a teenager (back in the pre-online, Betamax-era dawn of civilization) was a cruddy reprint of that edition, likely pirated in the early 1960s by somebody cashing in on the loosening of obscenity standards.

Krafft-Ebing would have been aghast to think of a wide-eyed adolescent reading his evidence that the limits of the human libido reach all the way to the limits of the human imagination -- if anything, a little beyond them. Kids these days have probably witnessed everything the Victorian-era sexologist describes on video by the age of 13, but the book sure did boggle my mind.

Time jades you. Sitting down to read John A. Long’s popular science book The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex (University of Chicago), I felt immune to the kind of astonishment that Krafft-Ebing elicited in me ages ago. The cover – which should win a prize, by the way -- shows two fossilized dinosaurs in flagrante delicto, with a black censorship bar to keep things within the bounds of decency. Part of the humor, of course, is that the mentality that would be shocked by the scene is practically as extinct as the dinosaurs themselves.

It’s an astonishing book, even so. And in a couple of ways.

The author -- who serves as vice-president of research and collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County -- devotes roughly a third of the space to recounting how he and his colleagues at the Melbourne Museum identified the earliest known fossilized embryos of a vertebrate – discovered, complete with umbilical cord, in fish from 380 million years ago. Besides its age, the fossil revealed that the mother had been carrying her fertilized eggs, rather than just depositing them in a safe place.

The team announced its findings in a paper that ran in the journal Nature in 2008. It so happened that this roughly coincided with Queen Elizabeth's visit for the opening of its Royal Institution of Australia (described on its website as a “national science hub” for research and education). A computer-animated clip showing the prehistoric mother and child ran during the festivities, and Long spent a couple of sleep-deprived days answering questions from reporters around the world.  Someone later calculated that the discovery netted “around $2 million worth of media coverage,” and within a week of announcing the fish’s scientific name, Materpiscis, a Google search found it appearing on almost 50,000 sites around the world.

The media frenzy sounds grueling, but it’s much less interesting to read about than Long’s account of subdued excitement in the laboratory, as the researchers figured out what they were seeing under the microscope. It was, Long explains, “the first known case for fishes, our distant ancestors, that involved the male copulating with the female rather than spawning in water like almost all fishes today do.” Long suggests that this intimate moment occurred on the ocean floor; and, given structure of the partners’ genitalia, the female was probably on her back as the male mounted her. (The missionary position has never seemed as old-fashioned as it does just now.)

Another paper in Nature from 1998 by a different group of Australian scientists determined that the earliest evidence of sexual reproduction of any sort can now be dated to somewhere between 1.68 and 1.78 billion years ago. Mind-bending as the temporal scale here may be, Long’s survey of the evolutionary history of sex is accessible and absorbing, and could be adapted for the screen easily enough. Which, given the rise of creationist museums, would probably be a good idea

But if it were, much of the audience would be shocked. Nothing prepares you for learning just how polymorphously perverse nature really is. Despite the enormous differences between Long’s book and Psychopathia Sexualis, they are both catalogs of behavior at its most extreme.

That doesn't mean gay penguins, either. A few years back, the heteronormative propaganda of March of the Penguins was undermined by news that Silo and Roy, two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo, were raising a chick together – with similar arrangements emerging at other zoos around the world. This is not shocking. Same-sex erotic activity has been reported in about 450 species.

No, what we're talking about here is animal behavior that wouldn’t be appropriate to mention in a diversity training video: Female porcupines seen using a stick as a dildo, masses of grunions (a kind of fish) having regular orgies on the beach in California, and male bedbugs that impregnate by stabbing the female’s abdomen and ejaculating in the wound.

Once the glans of their partner’s penis has been inserted, female Chinese fruit bats perform the impressive feat of bending down to lick the exposed portions of his genitalia. This is the first known case of a non-human mammal “practicing [fellatio] as part of the stimulation leading to mating,” notes Long, “more or less as foreplay.” The Chinese scientists who reported the behavior indicate that “mating pairs spent significantly more time in copulation” when the female performed this acrobatic maneuver, as one may well believe.

The pages on necrophilia in Psychopathia Sexualis were, as I recall, particularly disturbing. Long points out that snakes and tortoises have been known to commit it – presumably as a result of confusion, rather than by preference. And there’s a kind of spider the very name of which recalls one of the technical terms Krafft-Ebing introduced: the Harpactea sadistica. The male has “needle-like structures” used “to stab the female and deposit his sperm directly into her ovary, eliminating the need for any courtship niceties.”

Well, all sorts of bizarre stuff is bound to emerge in the course of 1.7 billion years. Every kink its own genome. But the really strange thought is that most of this behavior must have proven its worth in the struggle to survive. Not the necrophilia, let’s hope. But who knows? After reading The Dawn of the Deed, it’s hard to think of anything as an unnatural act.

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