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Essay on the backlash against the digital humanities movement

Digital Hubris, Digital Humility

July 15, 2014

“I’m flexing my muscles. Come see me flex my muscles!”

The digital humanities (DH) is a proud discipline. Its members will be the first to tell you when they have done something impressive. Lately, that pride has started to wear on our non-digital colleagues who have quietly begun pushing back, by setting aside applications that look a little too digital, and rejecting high-profile journal submissions from digital scholars. I can’t prove it, but as an early-career scholar, I can feel it. They don’t like us.

But maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s us.

For the past decade we’ve been living in the age of digital hubris, and we can therefore hardly blame people for getting sick of us. Did you hear about the size of Soandso’s newest grant? Or did you read the latest on Whatshisname’s research in The New York Times? Did you know more people read that popular DH student’s blog post yesterday than have ever read your book?

In April, one of the most successful DH projects of all time turned 11 years old. The Old Bailey Online (OBO) first appeared in 2003, and brought 127 million words of transcribed criminal trial records to the Internet. In the decade since its launch, 309 publications have cited the OBO, the project has helped thousands of genealogists piece together their family histories, and it has even inspired a television series. As far as academic projects go, few have as much to be proud of as the OBO.

So 11 years on, what do the project leaders regret? Their hubris.

Professor Tim Hitchcock, one of the principal investigators, wrote on his blog that his enthusiasm for the project’s potential had “simply raised the ire of a group of historians ... who felt their own expertise was somehow threatened.”

It’s not just their expertise that humanists see as being under threat. Traditional humanities monographs are becoming economically unfeasible. Nonetheless, the perceived slow death of the book hasn’t been enough for many scholars in the digital humanities. They want everyone to know their stance: good riddance! Why bother with a publisher and a two-year turnaround when the internet is free and immediate?

Research budgets everywhere are being slashed, yet there always seems to be a million here or a hundred thousand there to get the next big DH project off the ground. That means less money for traditional research. A few years ago a historian colleague of mine assured me that she “does her own research” and didn’t need to waste grant money hiring someone to do it for her. She was a real researcher -- or so implied the cold fury in her intonation.

Who cares what other people think, we might say. On their own these non-digital colleagues won’t be able to put a stop to the private funding, or national-level competitions targeted at DH projects, or the pressure from humanities departments to attract grant funding. However, while they continue to sit on hiring committees, adjudication panels, and act as peer reviewers, they do still hold a number of keys to the academic world. A dose of digital humility may be in our collective best interest, not least for the sake of those of us just starting our careers.

DH is inherently interdisciplinary. My “core” discipline is history. As a (recent) graduate student, that meant my scholarship and job applications typically went through panels of historians. When the application was for something digital or not explicitly disciplinary, I (with all humility) did quite well. But if I had to convince a group of anonymous historians that my work was worthy, I seemed destined for the “no” pile.

Times are tough. I can accept that there are other great candidates out there who may have been better for the job, or more worthy of the scholarship. But it’s not just me. Most of my colleagues in Britain were self-funded during their Ph.D.s, or supported their studies as part-time developers and project managers. I know of none with the golden-ticket scholarships that have long been a measure of the top students in the humanities. I’m grateful I can support myself in other ways. But it’s difficult to ignore the feeling that young scholars are being kept on the other side of the gates by an establishment that’s decided those DH people get enough already.

I’ve seen it in traditional publishing venues as well. One of the most influential digital history articles ever written has been repeatedly rejected by traditional historical journals and is still without a home. This is despite the fact that I’m quite confident that if you are a DH scholar you would recognize the visualization that formed the basis of the article.

Some scholars are getting cunning in an effort to sidestep this digital backlash. A colleague of mine working at the corner of DH and history obfuscated his digital connections in an effort to get hired by a history department. It worked. I followed suit and immediately found my prospects improved when applying for funding.

Is it a conspiracy? No. DHers have many allies in the halls of power. But we all have room for more friends, and the wave of early-career scholars in the field can ill-afford to have people on their selection committees and peer review panels viewing them as a threat, or as arrogant, just because of their field of study.

We can dig in for another decade of covert gatekeeping, or we can move into a new phase of digital humility and mend the divide that has grown between us. I’m sure everyone would agree that DH’s proper place is alongside traditional humanists, supplementing rather than eradicating their techniques with new ways of looking at old problems. Non-digital scholars add depth to our breadth, and focus to our vision.

So I’d like to encourage DH to join me in a decade of digital humility, in which we remind our colleagues that we’re all here because we love the humanities. We appreciate their work, even if we don’t always say so. And we’d like to be on the same team.

That doesn’t mean we need to stop flexing our muscles. We’ve worked hard on them. But, when we are flexing, maybe we can let people notice on their own.
 

Bio

Adam Crymble is a lecturer in digital history at the University of Hertfordshire, in the United Kingdom.

 

 

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