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Debates in Digital Humanities: Openness and Trust

It's not a debate within DH, but a debate between DH and the rest of the academic establishment: openness and trust.

January 24, 2012

This is a post that will be frustratingly incomplete, confuse and conflate certain matters that will probably annoy many of you who expect blog posts to be short academic essays with a clear thesis rather than opportunities to reflect and react in non-linear ways. We’ve been bombarded lately with the idea and concept of openness, from PIPA and SOPA, to the recent Supreme Court ruling on copyright, as well as Apple announcing they want to own your intellectual property. Professors are breaking up with prestigious universities to create more “open” online courses. What started as a post that was to deal with openness and collaboration in higher education became so much more complicated.

I wanted to open with how my favorite essay so far in the book is Mark Sample’s reflection of the gap in digital humanities caused by copyright and other physical restrictions on contemporary literature and archives, specifically in his example about the works of Don Delillo. I work with contemporary 20th century authors (and their translations) which lead to a complicated web of permissions, exemptions, and international laws (as I work on Canadian authors who have been published and translated elsewhere). Also, I too deal with archives produced on now-archaic platforms, thus almost inaccessible. I actually spoke extensively about this issue this past fall at the DH conference in Toronto I attended.

But I also love the essay because it is untraditional in its format: playful, creative, but no less thoughtful and researched than a traditional essay. I enjoy Mark Sample’s tweets and his blogs, and I think he would be a fantastic teacher to have (unless it’s all an act, which he’s also indicated). His voice, then for me, stands out more than some of the others in the collection, coupled with the relevant subject matter, making it my favorite. I think that in order to be playful in scholarship, one has to be open to failure, open to ridicule, and trust that someone, somewhere, will get it as well as help you make it better.

And then last night (Tuesday), Fish happened. Stanley Fish, that is. I am loath to link to it, because you’ll click to it, thus making Fish and the New York Times think that he is a must-read. But what impressed me was how my Twitter timeline reacted: with humor. This isn’t to say that those digital humanists that I follow didn’t take what he wrote seriously, or that they are fundamentally unserious academics. No, when one contributor was called “messianic,” he reacted in stride, wryly wondering where that would go on his CV. There were limericks, an attempt at a meme, taunting and teasing between those who had read it versus those who were trying to avoid reading it at all costs, and generally everyone ended up having a good time poking holes in Fish using humor. In fact, one could even argue that the tweets reveal that DH’er aren’t all that nice, or at least know how to get down and dirty.

Contrast that immediate and somewhat spontaneous response on Twitter to the responses in the comment section of the post itself. Embraced on both sides by those who don’t trust humanists and those who don’t trust technology, Fish would seem to have articulated every fear, phobia, and distrust of what I can only identify as the old-guard of academia with some neo-liberalism thrown in for good measure. But what it reveals about Fish (and those celebrating his post) is that not only do they fundamentally misunderstand the tools and methods of digital humanists, but they also fundamentally misunderstand those people (not machines) who practice digital humanities: they assume that DH’ers are traditional scholars like themselves – selfish, competitive, petty and egotistical. Now, I’m not saying that no one in DH exhibits those traits, but they sure seem to do a better job of hiding it. Fish and company remember how they were when they usurped the dominant paradigm, and naturally assume that DH must possess that same attitude, approach, and temperament.  

How  open, then, is academia? Unfortunately, not very. Digital humanists work together, collaborate, share, practice transparency, and support one another. DH is getting money and attention for all the “wrong” reasons. Certainly, this breeds resentment and a lack of trust. I’m not sure how to bridge that gap. Maybe it’s because so many people in digital humanities practice outside of the traditional structure of the tenure stream, which is scary for the future of tenure. Academia still values the model (or, more accurately, the myth) of the individual scholar making discoveries and producing knowledge. We hide the process, hoard the knowledge, and seek prestige, tenure, and rankings. That model and the myth it’s based on is severely challenged by digital humanities scholars and scholarship.

There is, indeed, no openness without trust. Government doesn’t trust us, corporations don’t trust us, we don’t trust each other. There is a fundamental lack of trust in higher education. This plays out on a micro level when I ask my students to collaborate: they don’t trust one another. On a larger scale, we fear collaboration and more openness because of that same lack of trust. Digital humanists, in large part, trust one another. If there is something that I (perhaps naively) am drawn to, it’s this. There is little hypocrisy here, towards colleagues, towards adjuncts, towards non-academic work, towards the process. To me, it’s not the work itself that makes the digital humanities exciting, it’s how they do the work, interact with each other (and those outside their immediate spheres) that holds great attraction for me. I don’t just want to be doing the work that they do, I want to do it with them, because of who they are and how they represent themselves. 


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