What follows is a response to a recent Hybrid Pedagogy article making the rounds. It serves as a companion piece to one by Alex Gil. We both took time away from writing articles for a digital humanities collection that solicited scholarship engaging with questions of race and difference to write these responses. Alex and I wrote separately and come to these issues with different experiences within the field. Our interests only occasionally overlap but happily co-exist within the universe of digital humanities.
Revise and Resubmit: An Unsolicited Peer Review of Adeline Koh’s “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You,” in the Style of “Blind”* Peer Review
In his/her “Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You,” the author takes up the crisis in the humanities and the needs of imperiled humanities departments hoping to save themselves from extinction. The fate of the humanities is a pressing question for which we would all like to see a solution. In lieu of an answer, however, the author offers an anti-solution: “DH will not save you.” That is to say, digital humanities is not the answer to the needs of endangered humanities departments who, according to the author, believe it is.
Where are these humanities departments looking to their savior the digital humanities? To identify them, the author relies on anecdotal data – 80% of his/her invited talks. 80% of how many, exactly? Put another way, the author may wish to clarify the n. This reviewer is reminded of the old adage, “The plural of anecdotes is not data,” but perhaps we might best leave quantitative analysis to the engineers.
For what are these befuddled humanities professors looking? According to the author, they seek to “interest undergraduates, give faculty research funding, and exponentially increase enrollment.” Don’t we all. That is to say, despite the vagueness of the author’s sample, this reviewer is sympathetic to the fact that there may be professors or even whole departments whose heads have been turned by the digital humanities. The lure of the digital – exciting and new, come aboard, we’re expecting you** – is seductive. “The next big thing,” as William Pannapacker dubbed the digital humanities, does look like an easy answer to a difficult question.
While not a novel idea, the author’s titular claim that digital humanities will not save the humanities is compelling. Yet, the basis of the argument needs more clarification, as does the confounding reversal at the end where the author writes, “If you want to save humanities departments, champion the new wave of digital humanities: one which has humanistic questions at its core.” The apparent contradiction in this essay derives from several concerns that need to be addressed before publication.
The author’s article rests on his/her suggestion that the “‘real’ Digital Humanities is already belated and is not going to save humanities departments” (original emphasis). Such a claim presupposes that humanities departments actually know what digital humanities is – here is a moment where some knowledge of the sample size or composition of the sample would be useful (Liberal arts colleges? R1 institutions? Regional comprehensives?). The author presupposes that humanities departments actually have a working definition for digital humanities and that definition is “humanities computing.” Given that humanities computing itself was a marginalized and embattled field in the days before everyone became a digital humanist, it seems unlikely that bamboozled humanities professors trying to save their souls are thinking, “I KNOW! Humanities computing!”
Why, according to the author, would they think this? The author offers “the way digital humanities is ‘currently defined’” as a reason. For “currently defined,” s/he offers a link to the Debates in the Digital Humanities collection published in 2012. An important collection, certainly, but isn’t this just one snapshot of the field? Moreover, doesn’t Debates itself contain, well, debates over the limits of the field? Here, the author would do well to do a bit more digging into the history of the field to avoid cherry picking. As it stands, the author’s definition of the “’real’ Digital Humanities” seems to rely on a caricature of the field that willfully ignores both recent developments and complexity. For example, a good place to start would be a post from four years ago by Bethany Nowviskie that identifies a number of useful links: Patrik Svensson’s series in DHQ, a post by Chris Forster that articulates four general areas within digital humanities (computational research, new media studies, digital pedagogy, and scholarly communication – two of which the author suggests need to be brought into the fold of digital humanities… even though they already seem to be there), and a beginner’s guide out of CUNY.
For an argument that rests primarily on the way “digital humanities” is defined, the author has curiously chosen to insist on a definition of the field that is alarmingly limited and presupposes that wayward humanities professors in search of salvation can’t Google themselves a working definition more reflective of the state of the field. A survey of scholarship from the last year alone would suggest that the author is one of the few people who insists on a false equivalence between humanities computing and digital humanities. The real question, to this reviewer’s mind, is what the author has to gain by such an insistence, particularly when the field seems to have scholars working within it who are pushing the boundaries of definition in a number of directions.
For example, the author might look to the work of Global Outlook::Digital Humanities, a special interest group of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, which serves as an advocacy group for national, local, and global difference within the field. Or read Isabel Galina’s article on geographic and linguistic differences that appeared in LLC/DSH, a highly respected digital humanities journal. Or consider Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s pragmatic definition:
For me it has to do with the work that gets done at the crossroads of digital media and traditional humanistic study. And that happens in two different ways. On the one hand, it’s bringing the tools and techniques of digital media to bear on traditional humanistic questions. But it’s also bringing humanistic modes of inquiry to bear on digital media. It’s a sort of moving back and forth across those lines, thinking about what computing is, how it functions in our culture, and then using those computing technologies to think about the more traditional aspects of culture.
Or take a look at Alex Gil’s DHSI keynote, “The (Digital) Library of Babel,” a vision for the digital humanities, if there ever was one. As the author’s argument elides these (among other) articulations of the field, his/her strawperson argument is decidedly lacking in ethos and logos. It is, however, appealing in its pathos – after all, who doesn’t love a good Save the Humanities story, especially one where digital humanities is the bad guy.
Speaking of bad (white) guys, the author correctly points out that digital humanities is a field that can look exceedingly “white” and “male.” Yet, again, the author seems to ignore existing work in the field that engages these issues. For example, Tara McPherson’s essay in the Debates volume asks, “Why are the digital humanities so white?” with thoughtful analysis of the relationship between race and computation. Amy Earhart’s essay in the same volume, “Can Information Be Unfettered?” takes a nuanced look at the challenges to digital textual recovery and calls for greater attention to this important work. Indeed, the author might also consider the efforts of Martha Nell Smith to outline “The Human Touch” and the messiness of lived experience that informs digital and computational tools – this is an important crossover moment with new media studies that dates back to 2007. Other great sources include the essays in an edited collection by Earhart and Andrew Jewell, The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age (U of Michigan Press, 2011), which has excellent contributions on digital humanities, race, ethnicity, gender, and Indigenous studies that consider the implications of culture on computation and vice versa. Moreover, Earhart’s forthcoming monograph Traces of the Old, Uses of the New (U of Michigan Press, 2015) takes up a number of these questions, as she considers both the gains that have been made and work that remains to be done on these issues – look for it in the fall. These sources would be germane to this article for properly situating questions of race within digital humanities scholarship.
Another disconcerting omission is the work on difference (e.g. gender, sexuality, race, and ability, among others) within the field. Should s/he choose to revise, the author might take a gander at the forthcoming Digital Humanities Quarterly special issue on DH and feminisms, which includes intersectional feminist perspectives. The author also might consider the bibliography on feminism and technology that Jacque Wernimont has been maintaining for several years or the useful crowdsourced Storify of Race and the Digital Humanities put together by Adeline Koh. The author might further look to the work of #transformDH and Postcolonial Digital Humanities and the articles being written by people involved in those initiatives. Additionally, the author might learn more about the work of George Williams, Jennifer Guiliano and others on Building an Accessible Future for the Humanities, their NEH-funded project that has been leading the way on disability studies within digital humanities. There are a number of others making contributions to the field in these areas: Élika Ortega, Padmini Ray Murray, DJ Wrisley, and Ernesto Priego – this list is sorely incomplete but space constraints prevent this reviewer from enumerating the rich work of scholars making gains for difference within the digital humanities through a range of methods: textual studies, electronic literature, cultural heritage, data visualization, mapping, pedagogy. While some of the names that have appeared in the last two paragraphs have been included in the author’s article – either hidden beneath links or buried in a list towards the end of the piece – one wonders why the author intentionally brackets them off from “digital humanities” and reifies a position for them outside the field? Why is the author so deeply invested in circumscribing the boundaries of digital humanities to Father Busa and his punch cards. What does s/he have to gain from these rhetorical moves?
As for the author’s observations about grant funding, that is certainly an area of concern. No doubt, we all wish for an infinite amount of money from the NEH to digitize the near-infinite amount of material that exists. It’s likely that the pool of NEH grant reviewers unconsciously self-selects for particular kinds of projects. More advocacy to the NEH ODH office – which, in this reviewer’s experience, is willing to listen – is necessary to ensure that there is ongoing effort at maintaining intellectual diversity in the reviewer pool. This is a particularly important issue in a time of scarcity – austerity politics often comes to the peripheries first. Yet, a project that gets funding in such trying times is necessarily going to be one that has broader implications beyond the project itself. That is to say, a project developing a tool that might be used by others or one that positions itself to design new workflows for scholarly publishing online is a better use of resources than a project with a scope limited to the project itself. With the understanding that advocating for these issues to the NEH is important, the burden is also on the grant-seeker to seek funding with an eye towards the broadest possible contribution that can be made to the field. As for the expense of projects, a definite challenge to underfunded programs, the author might look to the range of projects represented in AroundDH in 80 Days, which demonstrates the range of scales within digital humanities projects. The goal of AroundDH was precisely to unsettle the presumption that digital humanities is the sole domain of the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada and their funding agencies. Minimal computing is another key area to consider, in its attention to platforms and practices that are accessible in low-bandwidth environments and cheap. Indeed, ideas for minimal computing, alternatives to NEH funding, and microgrant funding models have emerged from the digital humanities.
Nonetheless, the author’s diversion into the land of grant funding points to a key issue of audience in the piece. The open letter is addressed to “the Humanities,” which leads one to reasonably expect that it’s directed at the delusional humanities professors bringing the author to their campuses to Save the Humanities. Yet, the piece seems to be directed at in-field debates from several years ago. Is the audience then digital humanities qua humanities computing? The NEH? Are these debates really of interest or relevance to “the Humanities”? Supposing they are for the purpose of argument, why would the author deliberately insist on a definition that is alarmingly passé? Why not take this opportunity to represent the field in its beautiful and uncomfortable complexity, in ways that aren’t disingenuous and don’t willfully silence the work of scholars within digital humanities? It’s not a perfect field by far (what is?) but it’s the space to explore humanistic questions at the intersections of computational and digital technologies and the humanities — whether it’s what distant reading can tell us about 19th century literature or the cultural implications of most popular coding languages being written in English and read from left to right.
Finally, the author needs to address the central paradox of the article, to which this reviewer alluded earlier: the title insists that digital humanities will not save the humanities (no argument there) but the author later suggests that an expansive definition of digital humanities that includes new media studies will. Perhaps the author could clarify how this might work and how to reconcile the internal contradiction in the piece in light of a definition of digital humanities that reflects current scholarship in the field (scholarship that does not, itself, preclude media studies). Certainly digital humanists aren’t positioning themselves as saviors of the humanities but if there is a way our work could achieve that, no doubt we are all ears.
To recap: should the author choose to revise this article, s/he might reconsider the effectiveness of positioning this piece from a logic of negation and clarify the argument. The author might address what, indeed, is the motivation for insisting on a retrograde definition for a swiftly-moving field that is being continuously and discursively shaped by the contributions of those who work within it. Such clarifications are particularly important given the implication of the article: digital humanities in the guise of humanities computing won’t “save the humanities” but somehow the definition of the field as it’s practiced (but which the author seems determined to deny) may. Indeed, the idea that either of these iterations could save the humanities is a dubious one that presupposes utilitarian arguments for humanities degrees. Why, indeed, get a humanities degree when one could become an engineer? That’s a question that remains unanswered in this article.
*We all know that in a small field it’s fairly easy to guess whose work we’re reviewing.
**With apologies to The Love Boat theme song.