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Challenges in Digital Humanities
October 28, 2012 - 8:16pm

Lest you think that my view of digital humanities (DH) is filtered through rose-colored glasses, realize that I see some very real problems and challenges, especially if DH wants to remain “open” (whatever that means). If I advocate for a “big tent” view of DH, it is also because I fear the exclusion of the same cohort of academics that are currently marginalized in higher education: the non-tt faculty member, the adjunct, the contingent.

Ernesto Priego eloquently sums up what we are facing in society at large, but also specifically within higher education, in terms of the digital divide:

“It is as if suddenly, in some section of the academic world, we were witnessing the rise of a super-humanist, who is not only an expert in Aramean manuscripts but can also develop XML schemas, tweak APIs, design WordPress templates, who is a master of custom CSS design for ebooks and blogs, tweets, curates data sets and visualises online networks; this highly-skilled born-digital creature quantifies her open access journal articles webometrics, in brief this prototype scholar is some kind of mutant 21st century super-powered being who simultaneously designs and maintains algorithmic architectures and deconstructs the history of literary theory and textual scholarship by heart.”

The super-humanist. Most contingent faculty already feel, to a certain extent, like super-humanists, expected to be able to teach just about any sub-area of their field at the drop of a hat. Add to that now the expectation that they also need to know how to code, program, do analytics, etc, etc. How is someone who is off the tenure-track supposed to keep up with the demands of their teaching load and the demands of learning how to “do” DH, at least according to super-humanist standards. How can they afford to, either time-wise and resource-wise?

But even junior scholars can find themselves overwhelmed trying to learn and then “do” DH. Between trying to keep up in the field that we specialize in and learn about what is going on in DH. I truly believe that one of the reasons more people in DH don’t know what is going on in rhetoric and composition is because there just isn’t time. Or the money to go to the various conferences (I would love to go to Computers and Writing, but really, the funds just aren’t there). Others have written about the pressure to do double-duty as a digital humanist (making sure that there are enough “traditional” publications to satisfy tenure and promotion committees and the digital stuff, not to mention the extra time to explain what it is that we do and why it should “count”), but these issues are compounded for the faculty who is trying to do this on their own, let alone contingent faculty.

I saw this problem even with the graduate students at Western; they were looking at me as an “expert” within DH. And, in some ways, I was. They may have had more experience building databases and engaging in interesting scholarship (both analogue and digital) in their fields (Hispanic and Spanish studies), they didn’t have much of an idea of the “bigger” DH picture (in other words, the various other communities that exist, as well as some of the larger names). I suggested Debates in the Digital Humanities as a place to start, seeking out the blogs and writings of the various authors. I also told them they needed to get writing (which I would include blogging) to get their voices and perspectives out there. It’s difficult and it’s time consuming, but for me the best way to learn about DH is to engage in the larger conversations about it. Again, that isn’t easy.

But this brings me to another challenge: the DIY ethos that many DH’ers have. This, in a lot of ways, is a strength; don’t have the tools, make them! Don’t have a community, find one or make one! There is a kind of hacker mentality that can be found here, cultivated through years of existing on the margins of academia. I fear that this ethos can also blind people to the very real challenges that some people face in trying to learn DH. Certainly, THATCamp and the generous scholarships to places like DHSI or NEH ODH Summer Institutes, are there to help those who might not be able to afford it, but people still have to get there, stay there, and be able to take the time off from whatever it is they are doing to pay the bills. I worry that we think that between these initiatives and free resources available online, contingent faculty have no excuse to not learn the tools.

As much as I would love to be able to teach myself Python or XML, I don’t have the time, nor the immediate aptitude. Call it a personal shortcoming, but I’ve rarely taught myself anything; I learn best when someone guides me through the basics (I’m perfectly fine in a classroom setting) and then I can play with it on my own. But I need help with the basics, with getting started. I imagine that there are many people in higher education who are the same way (one of the reasons we stayed in formal educational settings for so long: we were really good at it). Plus, I think that for many humanists, we’ve been taught both explicitly and implicitly that we just were never cut-out for “science” stuff, compounding our resistance to just simply “learning on our own.” To simply assert or expect that “everyone can do DH” (if only they want it enough) risks leaving too many people excluded.

It’s interesting to me to see how my interest in DH has intersected with my concern about contingent faculty; we talk about re-training (or providing training) for graduate students, as well a providing resources for faculty, but there need to be opportunities for contingent faculty (or junior faculty at resource-poor institutions, which is increasingly all of them) to be able to find their way into and within the collective that DH has evolved into. 

 

 

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