'Big Tent Digital Humanities,' a View From the Edge, Part 1

Brian Taylor

July 31, 2011

After generations of relatively quiet progress—going back to the era of punch cards—the digital humanities has exploded into academic consciousness as the Next Big Thing at a time when the humanities seem to be in big trouble.

Some recent Ph.D.'s who were engaged with "DH," as insiders call it, before it was cool—say, seven years ago—are starting to feel jostled by the arrival of so many newcomers. As one young postdoc complained to me, "Lots of people are trying to hitch their wagon to the digital humanities star." And maybe I am one of them.

One DH leader described me as a writer who traffics in "edge discourse," which is not quite the same thing as being a "bottom feeder." I gather it means that I am not an insider, nor am I a complete outsider, since I've been following this movement for about three years now (see my previous columns, "Summer Camp for Digital Humanists," "The MLA and the Digital Humanities," and "Digital Humanities Triumphant?").

For a comprehensive introduction to the field, freely available online, I recommend A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth. Also, the Association for Computers and Humanities runs a helpful site called Digital Humanities Questions & Answers.

According to Matthew Kirschenbaum, associate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, the field is growing so fast that the major challenge is managing the proliferation of projects and approaches. Many of those were on display at Stanford University in June at the international conference of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations.

Titled "Big Tent Digital Humanities," the alliance's annual conference brought together members of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, the Association for Computers and the Humanities, and the Society for Digital Humanities, along with more than a few people who might be described as DH-curious.

A high percentage of DH'ers at the meeting were young graduate students and postdocs. A lot of others there had gone off the grid of traditional tenure-track academe without regrets: the "alt-ac community," including librarians and technologists, along with a variety of new professional identities who find homes in research centers rather than traditional departments.

The conventional academic hierarchies are quite muddled in the digital humanities. A new graduate can be more famous in the field than a senior professor. It's an informal culture of tie-dyed T-shirts and cargo shorts; interactive conversational presentations; and nonstop twittering involving audience members and DH'ers all over the world. There may have been more people monitoring the conference in real time online than attending in person.

Stanford University in June is almost too good to be believed. It seems like a computer-generated, fantasy campus built using SimCity with all the cheat codes enabled, especially the most useful one: "infinite money." Alternating between Europe and the United States, the digital-humanities conference is an expensive one compared with most academic meetings, favoring established scholars with travel budgets, although the member groups do subsidize some early-career scholars. There were more than 350 participants, most from Canada and the United States, particularly California, and a good number from England, continental Europe, Australia, and Japan. It was a highly competitive venue. According to one of the conference organizers, the acceptance rate for presentations was about 28 percent, which had an impact on the range of institutional affiliations, since most small institutions do not subsidize conference attendance for observers. A lot of people, I am sure, were attending on their own dime.

But it was worth the price of admission. If you're interested in digital humanities and the future of humanities research and teaching, this was one of those conferences where you are forced to choose among not-to-be-missed sessions. More than a few presentations still stand out in my memory, perhaps for idiosyncratic reasons.

A session called "Virtual Cities/Digital Histories" included a presentation by Chris Speed, a lecturer at the Edinburgh College of Art. He showed how QR tags, also called 3D bar codes, when combined with iPhone apps called "Touching the City" and "Tales of Things," can be used to allow places and objects to tell their own stories, so to speak. Your experiences in Philadelphia meeting loved ones at the bronze eagle in Wanamaker's—added to the experiences of thousands of other people—can become part of its history. Equally exciting, he said, special objects can be tagged and their emotional provenance can be recorded, so that the personal history of a favorite toy or piece of furniture can passed down to future generations, complete with the memories of previous users.

Both possibilities seemed to open unlimited frontiers for place studies, social history, and personal nostalgia—a whole new way of recording our lives and our culture, although one has to wonder at what point we'll begin spending more time documenting our lives than actually living them.

More than one DH veteran observed that this year's conference was characterized by reflections on professional protocols and establishing best practices. One of the most notable of those reflections came from Joshua Sternfeld, a senior program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities' division of preservation and access. In "Reforming Digital Historical Peer Review," he explained how digital historians should be transparent about their use of archival records, organizational frameworks, contextual information, and methods for users to navigate and repurpose their projects.

It's a problem, for example, if you represent African-Americans in 1920s Harlem primarily on the basis of police reports. In other words, new tools for representing large sets of data are not a replacement for expert analysis and peer review. Digital historians—given the tendency of technology to make the interpretive seem objective—need to be particularly conscientious about transparency and methodological rigor. Building on standards established by the Modern Language Association, Sternfeld offered an approach for assessing scholarship that is as rigorous and respected as the processes involved in the publication of scholarly articles and monographs.

A session on "Networks, Literature, and Culture" followed introductory remarks by Franco Moretti, author of the influential Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005). The panel included presentations by three Stanford-affiliated scholars: Zephyr Frank spoke on the visualization of character relationships in Brazilian novels and how that relates to larger social historical patterns. Ed Finn talked about the changing rules for literary success in the era of And Rhiannon Lewis covered the ways that literary genres depend on the structure of networks among characters; for example, there is a lower density of social connectedness in Shakespeare's tragedies than in his comedies, and such patterns can be observed by new tools for visualization.

Some of the sessions went over my head, as though I were in the presence of the digital-humanities sublime. Afterward, Alan Liu observed that DH projects are "quickly approaching the limits of what is graspable by the human mind." Readers can judge for themselves by browsing the abstracts of 152 presentations available online.

Clearly, the resources allowing for the growth of digital humanities are unevenly distributed. It takes a while for innovations at the major research universities to trickle down to undergraduate colleges with lesser resources. DH cultivates an egalitarian, almost evangelical, fervor for spreading its methods to the provinces—DH'ers are genuinely nice people, many of whom understand academic marginality from personal experience. But the movement also prides itself on a rapidly slicing cutting edge that was on display at the "Big Tent" conference.

In one panel discussion, "The '#alt-ac' Track: Digital Humanists Off the Straight and Narrow Path to Tenure," an audience member asked, "How can I prepare for careers in the digital humanities if my adviser is not interested, and we don't have a digital-humanities center?"

The half-joking answer from one panelist was, "Transfer."

The remark was greeted with groans even though it contained a lot of truth. DH is a field that's difficult to enter without significant support and collaboration. You can't just read more books and articles—you have to learn to build things. If you have any thoughts about exploring the field, choose your graduate program carefully—and maybe even your undergraduate program, since it won't be long before applicants to graduate schools in the humanities will be expected to possess DH skills. Some programs are already giving their students that competitive advantage (see, for example, the Digital Humanities Initiative, at Hamilton College), but the academic luxuries of this year will become necessities for many other institutions in this decade, even under the pressure of severely constrained resources.

Considering a transfer to one of those centers is less helpful for those of us who are at midcareer and are more deeply rooted in the lives of our institutions. Based at a liberal-arts college in the Midwest, I am not exactly near the center of the field, but I think I might be representative of the growing numbers of faculty members who recognize the importance of DH yet are struggling—even with administrative enthusiasm and small grants—to find the resources to keep up and participate in a meaningful way.

The most important of those resources is human. We can't succeed as islands. We have to collaborate with one another and with the larger research centers if the field is going to succeed outside of major universities. More and more, we recognize that the old model of the individual scholar—if it was ever really viable, and not a romantic myth—has become completely dysfunctional.

In Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard, 2011), Victor E. Ferrall Jr. argues convincingly that most liberal-arts colleges are going to need to collaborate, forming regional consortia if they are going to provide the kinds of educational opportunities that students will increasingly demand and faculty members will need to conduct their work. The future of digital humanities at many colleges depends on their ability to share resources and build relationships with the DH centers at major institutions, cultivating careers on the edge between innovation and tradition, as well as between research and teaching.

It's a daunting task, even at the individual level, but the alternative is to become increasingly irrelevant, rejecting innovation and embracing a seemingly principled Luddism. Or worse, standing in the way of positive developments by maintaining an inflexible vision of scholarly productivity, based entirely on term papers, journals, and monographs, that will hold a diminishing place in the marketplace of ideas.

In his extemporaneous and highly motivational Zampolli Prize lecture, "Re-Imagining Digital Scholarship in the Digital Age," Chad Gaffield, president of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, described the ways that DH is transforming every aspect of academic life by reconfiguring relationship networks both inside and outside academe. DH will change graduate education, job preparation, faculty evaluation, the structure of academic units, and the relationship of educational institutions to one another and to the communities they serve.

According to Gaffield, DH provides the most compelling counternarrative to the one about the humanities' being in decline. In the future, students will no longer see a hard line between working in the humanities and working with technology. Moreover, as a result of new networks and access to information, the undergraduate degree is fast becoming a research degree, at least at colleges that seek to prepare students for the challenges of this century.

In Part 2 of this essay, I plan to reflect on several important projects and initiatives in the digital humanities that were announced at the "Big Tent" conference and directly respond to the issues I raise here.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.