Cultivating Partnerships in the Digital Humanities

What teaching colleges and research universities have to gain from collaboration

Brian Taylor

May 13, 2013

As academics we can be too snug in our institutional silos. We sometimes think of one another as competitors for students, and as a result we duplicate scarce resources in mutually damaging ways. Without more coordinated programs, will we go on teaching the way we have since the Industrial Revolution? Will our students, knowing it doesn't have to be that way and worried about their future, lose patience with us?

The digital humanities (or, preferably, the more inclusive digital liberal arts) provides a context for facing those questions head-on. I have written several essays extolling the value of digital approaches as a means of transforming undergraduate education.

Now I want to argue that teaching-focused institutions have much to gain from partnerships with research universities on the digital humanities, and vice versa.

Beyond liberal-arts training, the 21st-century workplace increasingly demands that graduates demonstrate technological competence and entrepreneurial ability. Instead of engaging in escalating, unsustainable, and destructive competition, colleges and universities could develop mutually supportive relationships, combining our complementary strengths to benefit the overlapping and distinct communities that we serve.

That's a much larger project than the digital humanities by itself can undertake, but DH does provide a model and an ethos of technologically enabled scholarly collaboration that could promote the growth of multi-institutional partnerships.

Consider the Praxis Network, which includes the University of Virginia, Michigan State University, the City University of New York's Graduate Center, University College London, Duke University, and two undergraduate institutions: Brock University, in Ontario, and Hope College, where I teach. Praxis was developed as a partnership to share information about efforts to reboot graduate education and prepare Ph.D.'s for a range of career paths wider than tenure-track research positions.

While each program in the Praxis Network approaches that goal in a different way, they all include an emphasis on the digital humanities. Now the network is bringing humanities and social-science programs into dialogue with each other to support new forms of pedagogy and scholarly production—across institutions and disciplines—that focus on the experiences of students and the realities of the contemporary workplace, both within and beyond academe.

Why would a teaching-focused institution want to form a partnership of that kind with a research university?

The faculty members of liberal-arts colleges are generalists by necessity and often by preference. We teach a lot of foundational courses—"Global Civilization From Origins to Internet"—and it is often difficult for us to develop new expertise unless it intersects with our teaching.

Meanwhile, the relative infrequency of new hires and the small size of our departments make it harder for teaching institutions to support fields that are not already well established in the curriculum. On our campuses, innovative programs, at least initially, have to be assembled from existing courses that already have to meet a wide variety of curricular needs.

To put it simply, we pride ourselves on excellence in teaching, and we have well-coordinated curricula, but we could benefit from access to a wide range of specialists who are primarily identified with the digital humanities and who can help us with assignments, modules, courses, and projects.

A DH partnership between a small ­liberal-arts college and a research university could develop hybrid courses that take into consideration the college's teaching needs and institutional mission with the support of specialists at the research university. Doing so would not only provide the content for, say, a Digital Liberal Arts 101 course, but also would coincide with the development of the faculty members to teach it. Faculty members would be trained by teaching the new courses—or units within courses—with the support of more experienced and specialized faculty at other institutions.

Under that model, innovations in the curriculum could be integrated in ways that are evolutionary and consistent with the culture of the campuses and respectful of the preferences of individual faculty members.

Another approach for a small liberal-arts college to delve into DH: Hire a "digital humanities fellow," perhaps as a sabbaticalreplacement or as part of a grant-supported initiative. The DH fellow (or DLA fellow)—most likely an advanced graduate student—could lead a faculty-development program in digital approaches, help teach a methods course, and provide support as needed for faculty members and students who are developing digital projects.

Meanwhile, the DH fellow is building skills and gathering experience that will be extraordinarily valuable on the academic and alt-academic job markets. The DH-fellow approach—and the reciprocity of such an arrangement—would also help establish the web of relationships from which more-robust institutional partnerships would be likely to develop.

For small colleges that want to embrace digital approaches, it is necessary to move beyond "voices crying in the wilderness" toward larger, networked communities of practice that support one another continually and that can create joint conferences and workshops, establish scholarly practices and platforms, reduce the likelihood of needlessly duplicated resources, and collaborate to enable the development and sustainability of large-scale projects.

What do teaching institutions have to offer research universities—in addition to providing fellowship positions and opportunities for collegiality and influence?

For one thing, liberal-arts colleges tend to produce a relatively large percentage of the candidates for graduate education in the humanities. Given the well-known challenges faced by the graduates of traditional doctoral programs, we have a stake in creating pathways into professional lives that support our values. And we can do that more effectively by building partnerships in which the graduate-school experience and alternative career opportunities are clearer, enabling an increasingly better fit between programs and job placements. We can work together to redesign graduate education in ways that better serve the interests of our students and the wider community.

Moreover, through such partnerships, eventually expanded to include more than one institution, small colleges can support the prominence of an individual research university as a regional center of intellectual activity, public service, and economic development. That is important in an era in which academic programs must prove their value in the court of public opinion.

For that reason, it seems most effective to build initial DH partnerships within a defined geographic context. It is also easier and more economical to build interpersonal ties between partners that are relatively close together. Proximity enables the creation of short-term faculty-development events and workshops; it allows professors and students to take relevant seminars at the university; and it creates opportunities for summer internships for students interested in digital approaches. Working together, colleges and universities can also develop projects on shared platforms—for example, online, interdisciplinary archives on local cultures—that could become resources for entire regions of the nation.

At my own college, the obvious regional partnership was between Hope College, in Holland, Mich., and Matrix: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, at Michigan State University. But our collaboration is only an initial step in a much larger project.

According to Ethan Watrall, an assistant professor of anthropology at Michigan State and associate director of Matrix, "If you want to turn a region into a center of gravitational pull for digital work, everyone has to be involved: R1s, SLACs, cultural-heritage institutions (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums), and community colleges."

Research universities that have invested in collaborative digital projects can become centers of networks of regional institutions—a hub-and-spokes relationship in which the university is a highly visible partner, facilitator, and crossroads for scholarly and pedagogical exchanges at the service of a much larger community than previously was possible.

Speaking at Lafayette College's 2012 national conference on the liberal arts, Eugene Tobin, a program officer with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and former president of Hamilton College, summarized this vision of collaboration: "Liberal-arts colleges and research universities should have a mutual interest in resisting specialization, in sustaining their commitments to general education, in demonstrating that teaching and research are integrally linked, and of course in controlling costs. Research universities have the resources and the infrastructure that would enable liberal-arts colleges to expand their curricular offerings and provide their faculties with extraordinarily interesting scholarly opportunities. And liberal-arts colleges have much to share with their university colleagues about getting undergraduates involved in research.

"But more fundamentally, if research universities really do wish to embrace undergraduate education as a time for reflection, discovering intellectual passions, and balancing private interests and the public good, then liberal-arts colleges have much to share about the experience of integrating big ideas, community engagement, and social value."

The strong mission of liberal-arts colleges—to create engaged, self-sustaining citizens in a free society, critical thinkers, and the creative class needed for economic growth—is not well served by an escalating cycle of costly competition, siloed scholarship, diminished equality of access, and unsatisfactory job placements.

Countering those tendencies through greater collaboration is something the digital liberal arts can support. In an era of diminished resources and growing need for education, institutions of higher learning need to stop competing against one another. We need to celebrate one another's missions, differentiating when necessary, but also working together to achieve larger projects in which we have a common interest.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.