“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.
Adam Crymble is a lecturer in digital history at the University of Hertfordshire, in the United Kingdom.
For decades now, email has been the preferred form of communication for individuals in large and small organizations, including colleges and universities. The impact of the use of email on the need for vital primary sources for institutional histories, however, has been little noticed, let alone addressed. And the clock is ticking.
David Skorton, president of Cornell University (where I have taught and served as an administrator for 30 years), receives between 150 and 200 emails each day. He replies to virtually all of them. The volume of email traffic (perhaps 100,000 notes a year per person) is about the same for the provost and many of the vice presidents and deans at Cornell. Like telephone conversations, which are often informal and irreverent, with a mix of the personal and the professional, their emails can be more important – and more candid – than snail mail letters.
It is not entirely clear who owns emails. Lawyers at private colleges and universities claim that all business records and communications, including correspondence conducted on computers, iPads or iPhones purchased and maintained by the employer, are the property of the institution. In many states, email records at public colleges and universities are covered by open records laws, and can become public as a result. Many experts acknowledge, however, that few colleges and universities have policies that explicitly engage this issue with reference to email.
Past practice, moreover, has permitted presidents, provosts and deans (and, for that matter, faculty and staff) to review their own correspondence, be it in the form of hard copy or emails, before deciding what material is personal and what “documents,” if any, should be housed in library archives. It should not be surprising, then, that many college and university officials routinely delete their incoming and outgoing emails, rendering them difficult to recover and doomed to extinction when the computer that houses them is discarded.
Given the volume – and the sometimes sensitive content – of email exchanges, it seems likely that few, if any, academic leaders will have sufficient time or be inclined to conduct a comprehensive review of their “files.” Nor, I suspect, will they choose to allow a third party to make decisions about what items to include or exclude. Absent a formal policy governing this correspondence, which may or may not resemble the preserve everything that has “documentary or evidential value” approach taken by the litigation and freedom of information-conscious federal government and applied to many state employees, it may well be that in the 21st century, the official “papers” of college and university officials will lack vitally important information about decisions made during their tenure.
In my view, boards of trustees should act – with a sense of urgency. They might begin by appointing a task force, composed of professional historians, lawyers, board members, and administrators, to recommend procedures for an independent review of the correspondence of presidents and provosts. Although a mandate that all communications should reside in library archives might have a chilling effect on email exchanges (and boost the telephone bills of academic leaders), it should be considered as well. Equally important, boards of trustees should set aside funds for the review – and for cataloging presidential and provostial papers (having just completed a history of Cornell from 1940 to the present, co-authored with my colleague Isaac Kramnick, I can attest to the massive challenges posed by uncataloged collections, which contain millions of documents).
In addition to making possible more accurate institutional histories, complete and accessible presidential "papers" might well help sitting presidents facing tough decisions, by allowing them to understand what their predecessors considered, said and did in similar situations.
Such an approach will cost a considerable amount of money, but even at a time in which resources are tight, the alternative – a less complete, more sanitized, and impoverished account of the history of colleges and universities – is far too steep a price to pay. Emails are, in a sense, an endangered species: it’s in our interest to design a practical plan to preserve and protect them.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
Intellectuals in Italy are objecting to a plan of a hotel developer to use property that includes the one-time home of Antonio Gramsci to build an upscale hotel that would be named for him, The Guardian reported. The intellectuals believe that it would be an insult to the name and work of Gramsci, a Marxist thinker who was known for the idea of cultural hegemony, to use his name in such a commercial way.
In a letter to the mayor of Turin, the academics and others write: "It is always a cause of pain when a place that safeguards a part of our history becomes the container of something else that is trivial rather than a space in which the collective memory is cultivated. But this time the pain is atrocious because the trivialization is directly hitting one of our fathers, a man who wrote pages which still speak to us today, a martyr who paid for the freedom of his ideas with his life."
In today's Academic Minute, Jodie Plumert, professor and chair of psychology at the University of Iowa, discusses an experiment designed to help us understand how safety and danger are perceived. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.