Last year Temple University Press published Toby Miller's Blow Up the Humanities, a book that starts straining for provocation with its title and never lets up. The author is a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside. His preferred rhetorical stance is that of the saucy lad -- pulling the nose of Matthew Arnold and not fooled for a minute by all that “culture as the best which has been thought and said” jazz, man.
What we must recognize, his argument goes, is that there are two forms of the humanities now. What the author calls "Humanities One" (with literature, history, and philosophy at their core) is just the privileged and exclusionary knowledge of old and dying elites, with little value, if any, to today’s heterogeneous, globalized, wired, and thrill-a-minute world. By contrast, we have studies of mass media and communications making up “Humanities Two,” which emerged and thrived in the 20th century outside “fancy schools with a privileged research status.”
In the future we must somehow establish a third mode: “a blend of political economy, textual analysis, ethnography, and environmental studies such that students learn the materiality of how meaning is made, conveyed, and discarded.” Enough with the monuments of unaging intellect! Let the dead bury the dead; henceforth, culture must be biodegradable.
What I chiefly remember about Blow Up the Humanities, a few months after reading it, is exclaiming “What a cheeky monkey you are!” every few pages -- or at least feeling like this was expected of me. Otherwise it mostly seemed like vintage cultural-studies boilerplate. But one passage in the book did strike me as genuinely provocative. It takes the form of a footnote responding to Google’s claim of a "commitment to the digital humanities." Here it is, in full:
“In the United States, ‘the digital humanities’ can mean anything from cliometric analysis to ludic observation. It refers to a method of obtaining funds for conventional forms of Humanities One, dressed up in rather straightforward electronic empiricism. So counting convicts in law reports or references to Australia in Dickens becomes worthy of grant support because it is archival and computable.”
A scrawl in the margin records my immediate response upon reading this: “Cute but misleading.” But now, on second thought… Well, actually “cute but misleading” pretty well covers it. The caricature of the digital humanities might have been recognizable a dozen years ago, though just barely even then. What makes Miller’s polemical blast interesting is the angle of the assault. For once, a complaint about the digital humanities isn’t coming from traditionalist, semi-luddite quarters -- “traditionalist” with regard to the objects of study (i.e., books, manuscripts, paintings) if not necessarily the theories and methods for analyzing them.
On the contrary, Miller regards video games as a rich cultural medium, both profitable and profound. To shore up his claims for Humanities Two (or, fingers crossed, Three) he finds it useful to pretend that the digital humanities will, in effect, take us back to the era of professors tabulating Chaucer’s use of the letter “e.” The scholarship will be more efficient, if no less dull.
Now, I have no interest in impeding the forward march of Angry Birds studies, but there is no way that Miller doesn’t know better. The days when humanities computing was used to count dead convicts are long gone. Much more likely now would be a project in which all of the surviving files of Victorian prisons are not simply rendered searchable but integrated with census data, regional maps, and available documentation of riots, strikes, and economic trends during any given year.
MLA is a major component of the Humanities One infrastructure, of course, but has enough Humanities Two people in it to suggest that the distinction is anything but airtight. And while Miller pillories the digital humanities as nothing but “a method of obtaining funds for conventional forms of Humanities One,” even old-school philological practice takes on new valences in a digital environment.
“In the humanities,” write Charles Cooney, Glenn Roe, and Mark Olsen in their contribution, “scholars are primarily concerned with the specifics of language and meaning in context, or what is in the works. [Textbases] tend to represent specific linguistic or national traditions, genres, or other characteristics reflecting disciplinary concerns and scholarly expertise.… [T]extbases in the digital humanities are generally retrospective collections built with an emphasis on canonical works in particular print traditions.”
So far, so Humanities One-ish -- with only the neologism “textbase” to show that much has changed since Isaac Casaubon’s heroic proof that the Corpus Hermeticum wasn’t as ancient as everybody thought. Textbase just means “collection,” of course. For that matter, the options available in textbase design (the ways of annotating a text, of making it searchable, of cross-referencing it with other items in the textbase or even in other textbases) are basically high-tech versions of what scholars did four hundred years ago.
Alas, what Casaubon could do alone in his study now requires an interdisciplinary team, plus technicians. But he did not have the distractions we do.
If digital humanists were limited to converting cultural artifacts of the print era into textbases, that would still be useful enough, in its way. The classics aren’t going to annotate themselves. But the warehouse is much larger than that. Besides the inherited mass of documents from the past 5,000 years, more and more texts are now “born digital.” Besides warehousing and glossing such material, the digital humanities incorporate the changes in how people receive and engage with cultural material, as Alan Liu discusses in “From Reading to Social Computing,” his essay for the MLA anthology.
What Liu calls “the core circuit of literary activity” – the set of institutions, routines, and people involved in transmitting a poem (or whatever) from the author’s notebook to the reader's eyeballs – has been reconfigured dramatically over the past two decades. Besides making it possible to publish or annotate a text in new ways, the developing communication system transforms the culture itself. The digital humanist has to map, and remap, the very ground beneath our feet.
Nor is that a new development. Other papers in the anthology will give you a sense of how the digital humanities have developed over the long term -- beginning when Roberto Busa started using a computer to prepare an exhaustive concordance of Thomas Aquinas in the 1940s. At some point, an important change in the digital humanities will be necessary, which is to drop the word "digital."
(Note: This essay has been updated from an earlier version to correct Toby Miller's name.)
Harvard University on Monday sent a letter to thousands of alumni, asking them to volunteer to serve as discussion leaders for a new massive open online course based on a class they took at the university, The New York Times reported. The professor who teaches "The Ancient Greek Hero," said he was thrilled with the idea of a MOOC reaching many more students than he could in Cambridge. But Claudia Filos, editor of content and social media for the course, said that there was a need for more help with discussions. She said that, in some MOOCs, discussions "tend to run off the rails." Alumni who volunteer will be screened before taking on duties monitoring and helping to guide discussions.
CourseSmart, a company that provides online course materials, said it has now partnered with 100 campus learning management systems and campus portals to provide content to students.
That, officials at the six-year-old company said, makes it the industry leader in this space. The company offers 40,000 electronic textbooks from more than 50 publishers, including Pearson and McGraw-Hill Education. Cindy Clarke, the senior vice president of marketing at CourseSmart, said the company’s online offering plugs right into different learning portals, including Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Pearson LearningStudio, Moodle and custom software created by some universities. By integrating its offerings with such portals, the company can give students at the different institutions immediate access to the course materials it sells alongside other class materials posted by instructors and used by students.
Now, the company is beta testing an analytics package, Clarke said. The goal is to produce a program to track how and if students are using materials to let educators see how engaged students are.
Simba, which analyzes publishing trends, predicts the overall market for digital course materials will account for 14 percent of the textbook market by 2014, CourseSmart said.
The University of Melbourne is a member of Coursera, one of the primary (and U.S.-based) platforms for massive open online courses. But an all-Australian MOOC platform was launched today, The Conversation reported. Several universities are already signed up to offer free courses through the platform, called Open2Study.
The top two leaders of the University of California System Academic Senate on Friday released a letter expressing "grave concerns" about California legislation proposed last week to require the state's public higher education systems to grant transfer credit for courses or programs provided by an approved pool of providers, potentially including programs that are for-profit and have never been accredited. Supporters of the plan say that it will deal with the state's serious capacity issues in which qualified students can't get into the courses they need to graduate.
Robert L. Powell, the chair of the system's Academic Senate, and Bill Jacob, the vice chair, on Friday released a joint letter reacting to the proposal. The letter stated that the leaders of the Academic Senate were not consulted as the legislation was drafted, and went on to identify several concerns.
The faculty leaders state: "First, limits on student access to the courses this bill targets are in large part the result of significant reductions in public state higher education funding, especially over the last six years. Second, the clear self-interest of for profit corporations in promoting the privatization of public higher education through this legislation is dismaying. In fact, UC’s graduation rates and time to degree performance show that access to courses for our students is not an acute issue as it may be in the other segments. Lastly, the faculty of the University of California, through the Academic Senate, approves courses for credit at the University and reviews courses offered for transfer credit to determine whether they cover the same material with equal rigor. There is no possibility that UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding authority over courses to any outside agency."
The letter adds that the "Academic Senate is committed to exploring how important measures of student success, such as graduation rates and time-to-degree, can be improved." And the letter notes that faculty leaders have backed initiatives that include the expansion of online course offerings by the university. But the letter stressed the role of professors. "There is no alternative to the deep involvement of faculty in courses and curricula and the validation provided by rigorous and continuing review of these," it says.
New research at York University in Canada both confirms and extends the concerns of many faculty members about laptop use in class. The research found that undergraduates who multitask on laptops comprehend less of what has been covered in a lecture than do other students. That part is unlikely to surprise most professors. But the study also examined students who were taking notes -- with some students sitting next to those who were multitasking on their laptops. Those next to a laptop multitasker also saw drops in what they picked up from the lecture. The findings have been published in the journal Computers & Education.
The University of California at Irvine is offering video and course materials for all required courses for a chemistry major plus some electives and graduate courses, online and free. Open Chemistry does not provide credit or a laboratory experience, but Irvine says that the material could be used by anyone trying to learn chemistry, and that other institutions could provide laboratory experience or testing to certify learning. Single courses have been provided in the past, and have gained followings online, but Open Chemistry is designed to go further. "That is the key innovation: making a full undergraduate education’s worth of classes available for immediate incorporation in part or in full by institutions of higher education or by individual professors," says a website for the program.
Harvard University secretly searched the e-mail accounts of 16 resident deans -- administrators who work with students on academic and other issues -- trying to identify the source of a leak about the university's cheating scandal, The Boston Globe reported. The news surprised and concerned some at Harvard. The university did not explicitly confirm that it engaged in the secret searches. But the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Michael Smith, issued a statement saying: "Harvard College would take all necessary and appropriate actions under our procedures to safeguard the integrity of that process, which is designed to protect the rights of our students to privacy and due process,” the statement read. And Jeff Neal, a university spokesman, appeared to acknowledge the incident when he denied that e-mail is regularly checked, telling the Globe that "any assertion that Harvard routinely monitors e-mails – for any reason – is patently false."