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On EdTech and the Digital Humanities

This post originally was published at my personal blog, Bloviate. If you wish to comment, click on the title and add to the discussion there!

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Last Wednesday Matt Gold and Charlie Edwards invited me and a few of my favorite CUNYs to come speak to the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative, a new group at the University “aimed at building connections and community among those at CUNY who are applying digital technologies to scholarship and pedagogy in the humanities.” Matt and Charlie were especially interested in bringing CUNY educational technologists to this meeting because the relationship between edtech and the digital humanities is something that’s been assumed more than theorized: we all focus on the intersection of technology and academic work in the humanities, ergo we must be doing similar and somewhat simpatico things.

With a field that’s been as nebulous in its boundaries and definitions as the digital humanities, this stance hasn’t been particularly problematic. There has, however, been significant energy within the digital humanities over the past year devoted to self-definition. At the same time, the loose, distributed community of educational technologists working with open source publishing platforms of which I consider myself a part has congealed around a certain set of ideas. I intended my contributions to the CUNY DHI to draw some points of difference between these twined trajectories, to look upon the digital humanities through the lens of my recent experience becoming an educational technologist after completing a graduate degree in history, and ultimately to raise some questions about the tensions I see between the two realms of academic life.

In advance of the visit, we were asked to circulate some readings, and I chose Mike Neary and Joss Winn’s “The Student as Producer.” This piece contextualizes the work that I and several of my colleagues have been engaged in over these past few years. Our work as educational technologists has emerged to meet a particular nefarious challenge that Neary and Winn powerfully delineate: over the past two generations, the function of the university has been increasingly shaped in response to the forces of capital. “Since the 1980s, universities, in response to government pressure, have become more business-like and enterprising to take advantage of the ‘opportunities’ presented by the so-called global ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘information society.’” At the risk of overdrawing the picture somewhat, we see the impact of such pressures in pretty much every nook and cranny of the university: in how resources are sought and allocated, in the corporatization and professionalization of athletics, in the anxiety over assessment and accreditation, in the structure and vicissitudes of the academic labor market, in the predatory student loan and credit card industry and, not least of all, in the classroom, where structures of instruction commonly lead to students being treated as vessels into which information should be dumped en route to the job market.

Blogs@Baruch and its sister projects emerged in direct response to these conditions. Our original focus was on nurturing student-centered learning by merging WAC and WID principles with the possibilities opened up by online publishing, in making more visible the pedagogy (both successful and not) at work in our classrooms, and at supporting an alternative to the proprietary course management system that still predominates across CUNY. Blackboard is itself an embodiment of the university culture that Neary and Winn rightly find so troubling: students cycle through a system that structurally, aesthetically and rhetorically reinforces the notions that education is consumption, the faculty member is a content provider, the classroom is hierarchical, and learning is closed. Less and less though do we have to convince listeners that open source publishing platforms and the many flowers they’ve allowed to bloom can create exciting possibilities in and beyond the classroom; we can show them link after model after link after model after link.

And yet our argument has quickly expanded beyond the classroom to engage broader questions about curricula, the social life of the University, the very way that our community members think about their experiences. Our engagement is a humanistic one in that it insistently constructs the university first and foremost as a site of inquiry and exploration, resists and complicates the concepts of deliverables and education as consumption, challenges staid structures of power, and seeks to constructively question motives and goals at every opportunity. Technology and the open web have empowered us in this endeavor, leveling the playing field in ways that give those who might imagine other trajectories within the university the means to counteract power.

I could say much more about the work we’ve been doing, where it’s succeeded, where it’s failed, and how it’s been a struggle. But the point here has been to situate our work, to historicize it in a way that brings to the fore its politics. This is something that I think the progressive edtech movement has done quite clearly, but that the digital humanities have not.

In many ways, the digital humanities is not really new. Or, that is to say, the methods and questions and processes that constitute its core are not new. Just drawing upon my own disciplinary (and professional) past, the folks at the American Social History Project have been exploring the implications of new technologies on scholarship and pedagogy for nearly thirty years, challenging orthodoxies and valorizing collaboration and innovative approaches to engaging with the past since the Kaypro II. The Center for History and New Media was founded in 1994 and together these two organizations built the first large scale efforts to digitally reimagine the past in the classroom and beyond. Randy Bass’s work out of Georgetown — which I first encountered as an undergraduate participant in the “Crossroads Project” at the University of Michigan in the mid-90s — has done much to promote the use of digital tools to remake the classroom and curricula. Additional examples in “humanities computing” are many.

What is new about the digital humanities, though, is the legitimacy, funding, and visibility that it’s found over the past few years, and those are the components that have sparked recent efforts to set some boundaries and define the field. Frankly, this process has sometimes bordered on the absurd. The recurrent presence of phrases like “big tent,” “expansive,” and “broadly conceived” give speakers a rhetorical tool set for drawing just about any academic work done with technology into the field. It gives graduate students who use technology in their research a language for demarcating their work from those who do not. This slipperiness makes formulating a critique a significant challenge, since the digital humanities resists being reduced to a single or even a handful of things. In trying to write this I’ve had a difficult time boiling my critique down to an unhedged essence. But, here goes.

The (un)structure of the digital humanities has led to a careerism and opportunism that, to the outsider, often obfuscates the genuinely pathbreaking work that’s happening around the field. It’s here where I see the biggest point of difference between educational technology and the digital humanities. Edtech is necessarily implicated in constructing the university of the future, and one of the many reasons that battle is so important is that its outcome will in fact go a long way towards determining the future of the humanities. While there is significant political content within the digital humanities — the valuing of openness, the emphasis on sharing, the location within technology of particular tools and methods for empowerment — one gets the sense that ideology is not the main thing. In other disciplines (history and educational technology being the two I’m most familiar with) political debates abound, often times propelling ideas forward. In the digital humanities you tend to see much more agreement than disagreement. While it’s well and good to be agreeable, and I far prefer people who are, we are in high-stakes times. The humanities have been and continue to be in crisis. Budgets are burning, departments are being axed, and in many places the very value of a humanistic education is not only being questioned, but boldly denied.

And yet, a tone predominates in the discourse around the digital humanities that often seems to sidestep this crisis, or miss it altogether. Part of this is no doubt attributable to the fact the the digital humanities has become so dependent upon Twitter and is thus subject to the distorting echo of the hive mind. Part of it is also contributable to the new sense of community and connectedness within the field, which has also spurred a significant amount of navel-gazing and those efforts to self-define. I admittedly suffer from enthusiasthma, but the “I’m okay, you’re okay” “RT congrats!” cliquishness that flows across my screen and predominates at DH gatherings seem to me to be a bit misaligned with the current trajectory of the humanities in higher education. DH jobs, funding, and departments are becoming more widely available while the broader humanistic project — to which universities are central — crumbles around us. Are new tenure track positions, attempts at building a canon and establishing authority, and a dozen new conferences representative of progress, or are they reentrenching and reinscribing power along traditional paths? (Yes, I realize the answer can be “both.”) And why do digital humanists seem to celebrate scholarship much more deeply and publicly than teaching and learning? These questions are at the core of my discomfort with aligning my work with the digital humanities, as much as I’ve learned and benefited from scholars at its center.

Some might ask, “well, what about #alt-ac?” I appreciate the extent to which that phrase articulates, illuminates and validates the variety of labor paths and modes that make the university function and evolve (including what I do). Yet I can’t help but feel that something might be lost by, as Jim Groom has said, “naming and reifying my alterity.” Adapting for myself the pressure to publish, travel to conferences, keep up with the canon, to constantly produce and present new research — all of the things that seem necessary to establish one’s self within the digital humanities, even as an “alt-ac” person — doesn’t really seem “alt” at all. It’s seems about exactly what I expected from a career in academia.

I realize this argument is deeply personal, perspectival and located mostly within my own struggles to navigate professional terrain. I’m not trying to shit on anyone’s work. Some of my best friends are digital humanists, I swear. But I know that I’m not the only person to feel some of the things I’ve written above. At the end of my brief, wholly unpolished presentation to the CUNY DHI last week, @mkgold tweeted “@lwaltzer argues for a more muscular, progressive version of the Digital Humanities that questions/critiques power.” I initially wasn’t comfortable with that conclusion being drawn from what I had said because I don’t feel myself enough of a DH insider to make any arguments for what its future should hold. And yet upon more reflection I do feel nurturing that ethos is and must be central to the humanities. It’s simply too important to be absent from or even unclear in any future vision of the university.

I guess that, thanks to Matt and Charlie’s invite and the struggle to write this post that ensued I’ve learned that I’m interested in the digital humanities only to the extent to which it helps me use technology to do the work as a humanist I’d try to do even if we had no computers. So does that mean I’m in, or out?

17 thoughts on “On EdTech and the Digital Humanities”

  1. Very interesting! I’d be lying if I said I understood it all, but I heartily agree. And not just because you’re my cousin, sort of.

    Seriously now, you should meet (or “meet”) Jo Guldi if you don’t know her already. She is a digital historian at Chicago/Harvard with similar interests.

  2. Luke,

    There’s a lot here that DH and Ed. Tech. need to address. And yep, I am espousing the “big tent” principle you reject. Call that my idealism about universities and humanities in general.

    There’s a good conversation at work about what DH is. Similar issues and tensions have come up there.

    I’m going to argue that it is too early to assert a strong division between Ed. Tech. / pedagogy and DH. To do so would be to assert, a division between pedagogy and the humanities, which no good humanist, digital or otherwise, would espouse.

    The discussion that I liked to also looks toward tensions about production, and the status and form of what is produced. I can’t argue that there are some people who want to assert that DH needs to exist in the old forms and structures. But, I think that the convo there signals that there are plenty of people in this nascent field that think that should not be the case. Instead, plenty of people do want to see DH push for changes in institutional structure, hierarchy, modes of production, modes of acceptance and valorizition.

    And, I do have to say that I think your characterization of ProfHacker as being “established authority” is far off base. Yes, there were difficult decisions about the move to the Chronicle. But, from what I glean, there was a trade-off between reaching more people, and in doing so being able to nudge change in a fruitful direction that they weighed heavily. It is not perfect, nor pure. But I don’t think that any successful revolution can really claim to be pure in the end.

    Nor can Digital Humanities Now be in any way regarded as establishing a canon. “Digital Humanities Now is a real-time, crowdsourced publication.” That’s hardly a canon. Yes, the messiness is that it is drawn from a finite list of people:

    “Digital Humanities Now is fully automated. It is created by ingesting the Twitter feeds of hundreds of scholars followed by @dhnow (a list of scholars taken from this digital humanities Twitter list), processing these feeds through to generate a more narrow feed of common interest and debate, and reformatting that feed on this site, in part to allow for further (non-Twitter) discussions.”

    I don’t think that hundreds of Twitter feeds, automated to produce a list of what is in active discussion, can be called a canon, any more than the list of trending topics over all of Twitter can be considered a canon of what is relevant. It’s a snapshot, and a way to signal what is in active discussion at the moment. It embraces the ephemerality of Twitter. Ephemerality and canonicity, I think, really don’t go together.

    Conversely, Digital Humanities Questions and Answers (the site of the convo linked to above — and fired up by Julie Meloni, who started ProfHacker) is a site that identifies itself as by and for Digital Humanists, however they define or view or characterize themselves. That, I think, is part of the point, and part of the desire to make DH specifically NOT the binary that you see. Like I said, I see the evidence that supports your position. But I think that you might not be seeing the evidence contrary.

    This is not the time for moving so quickly to binaries. You are not — you cannot be — “in or out” of something that has no solid boundaries. We’re humanists. Binaries aren’t our thing. It’s up to us to assert and put pressure to resist that, not succumb to it.


  3. @Julia: thanks, cuz. What I sense is you agree with the red diaper baby sentiment. I figured that was a safe bet with you!  (I also know Jo Guldi’s work).

    @Patrick: thanks for the comment, which gives me lots to mull over. I do here want to say though that I never intended to assert a binary relationship between the two, but rather to highlight what I see as some important points of difference (which is not the same thing). Of course they’re not  necessarily opposed, which was why writing the post was a challenge. How can something without a boundary be oppositional in any meaningful way 🙂 ? Still, aren’t the efforts to define what the digital humanities is and what it isn’t the assertion of a binary? Isn’t the very fact that folks who call this is a “field” seek to qualify the phrase “humanities,” and then when confronted on what lay behind that thrust say “we’re all humanists!” a bit divisive?

    Those are things I’ve seen repeatedly, and you have too. FWIW, I’m far less interested in definitions than action and in theorizing than doing (though there are moments for all of it). I also know full-well there are plenty of people who consider themselves DHers who are as well. That’s where the best conversation and work is happening.

    As for the DHNow and ProfHacker comments… note that I argue that these publications represent BOTH progress AND the reentrenchment and reinscription of power along traditional paths. DHNow as canonical, I probably wouldn’t double down on, though it does represent the assertion of some kind of authority, distributed though it may be… ProfHacker, I think I probably would. But not now. I have some code to wrestle with.

  4. Here, here Luke.

    You have eloquently elucidated a number of thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head and have similarly frustrated me at DH gatherings and while following twitter. I think that the different perspectives of Ed Tech and DH often arise from the amount an individual is forced to deal with people who haven’t necessarily bought into the shifts in academic and pedagogical practice that digital media have brought about. The mandate of my position (and I guess I am an Ed Tech guy although I don’t necessarily identify that way) is to convince an entire faculty and student body that digital media have merit in scholarship and in the classroom. Then I must make sure that the implementation goes smoothly enough with convincing enough results that uptake becomes voluntary rather than enforced. This forces me be diplomatic and political and use different tactics than if I was just digitizing my own scholarly work and classes. Rather than being frustrated with and dismissing less eager colleagues I have to adapt and shift tactics until they realize the value. It is a dance that the Ed Tech person must master, finding ways to circumvent and breakdown misperceptions and deal with resistance head on through practice and process rather than merely through discourse and commentary. I imagine that with Blogs@Baruch you and Mikhail face the same challenges and are more attuned with what plain old Humanities people think about all of this and how the shift to the digital is challenging not only for the implementers, but also for the resistant people who often have just not been shown why these practices are worthwhile and how to start using them on their own.

    My own frustration with Digital Humanities stems from a mindset that embodies itself even in its disciplinary connotation. By calling it “digital” humanities it seems to overdetermine the role of the digital and unnecessarily segregates itself from other work done in humanities. I am surprised at how many traditional humanities scholars have no idea what digital humanities means and often consider it silly terminology, and I have to say that I agree in many ways. The humanities is about a certain worldview and methodological approach that at its best is tool neutral. The digital may enhance that study, but not any more than any other tool or set of tools, whether they be discursive or material. This brings me to Patrick’s comment. The problem with DH is that it is actually setting itself up as a binary to the humanities because it is labeling the type of work done as different from traditional humanistic work, no matter what rhetoric to the contrary is being deployed. You may say that DH is open and boundary-less but when it causes other scholars to feel alienated and camp themselves as “traditional” humanities scholars, well then you have created a binary whether intentional or not.

    It is ironic that a movement that seems compelled to politicize its goals has made a choice that goes against its own traditions and history and ultimately disempowers itself. I think a much healthier example has been demonstrated by the certificate program in Interactive Technology & Pedagogy at CUNY. That program was not set up as a political counterposition to a discipline it felt opposed to. Rather, it was established to augment the practice of multiple disciplines and to provide an outlet to students studying across CUNY who wanted to learn about interactive technologies (whether they be digital or otherwise) for use in both scholarship and pedagogy. This was not a Digital Social Science program or a Digital Humanities program or a Digital Sciences program, but one that understood the need to integrate these new tools in the daily lives of its students so that they could then go back to their respective disciplines and change the from the inside out and discover in their own ways how best to shape the academy.

    The academy is a slow-moving, top-down, traditional institution. That needs to change, especially as the world is changing around it. But change rarely comes from creating a new island and declaring openness, superior methodology, and difference. It comes from talking with the outright most resistant factions embedded most deeply in the institution and working tirelessly to convince them why change is inevitable. This can only be done by helping them to understand why they will ultimately be compelled to shift their practice because their scholarly and pedagogical work will be more successful by embracing these new possibilities. I feel that is what educational and instructional technologists are constantly face to face with and why I am worried about how the rise to prominence of Digital Humanities may ultimately polarize a crisis situation in the academy in a non-beneficial way.

  5. Just a clarifying note to follow Patrick…I didn’t start ProfHacker and my role with them was to try to herd cats and maintain balance. For a variety of reasons, including some of the tensions you indicate here, I’m not part of that group any longer. Also, DHAnswers is a project sponsored by the ACH and currently equally administered by Bethany Nowviskie, Joe Gilbert, Stefan Sinclair & myself, but has a couple hundred users and most of the answers come from not-us (thankfully).

  6. Julie — thanks for clarifying. I do get confused sometimes.

    On the question of whether using the term “Digital Humanities” sets up a binary, I can’t see that it does. I see the term/field as a specialization within humanities, a subset. As a subset, there are points of difference that differentiate it from the rest of the set, but that doesn’t mean that it is a binary. Quite the opposite, a subset or specialization is by definition not a binary. It just has some distinguishing additional features. Or, conversely it might lack some of the features found in the rest of the set. The conversation about what “digital humanities” is is just an effort to think through those additional or lacking features, not at all to segregate.

    In a Venn Diagram, DH is still a circle inside Humanities. In another Venn Diagram, I think there is and should continue to be a lot of overlap between DH and EdTech.

    I should say, too, that I’ve heard people in DH wonder whether, or for how long, the “digital” term will indeed be relevant. It might be that before long it does become a superfluous qualifier.


  7. Patrick-

    The problem is that Digital Humanities is often deployed rhetorically as “the type of humanities that is ahead of traditional humanities” in a political move that does separate and alienate. Perhaps because of the soap box and broadcast nature of blogging and Twitter there has been much manifesto writing and posturing that in fact situates the Digital Humanities as different and “other” than Humanities as a whole and it is in that spectrum that the binary gets formed.

    I also find that the Venn Diagram analogy, although possibly effective in theory, is somewhat tenuous in practice. If Digital Humanities really was a subset of the Humanities then wouldn’t we have to consider the Postmodern Humanities, Deconstructive Humanities, Structuralist Humanities, and Formalist Humanities, because these are other alternative methodological approaches to the field of study. In the end working with digital media and algorithms is just another set of tools and an alternative methodological approach that hasn’t changed the nature of Humanities inquiry all that much. In fact, much of the self-avowed DH work is in fact studying pre-digital or non-digital history as its object of study but is using simply using these new tools to compile research and data differently.

    I think that my personal position definitely flavors my take on all of this doing media studies and coming from theatre history. First of all I consider myself a digital media historian/scholar because I am actually studying the Internet, video games, digital content delivery systems, and contemporary popular culture. In that work, my object of study is the digital whether my approach and scholarly production is practiced using pen and paper or blogging, Prezi, and interactive experience. But while I comfortably consider myself a humanist and social scientist, I feel uneasy about calling myself a digital humanist because of the connotation of separation it often implies from a legacy of knowledge production and other humanities scholars not necessarily yet engaged with digital media. I also work in theatre history, and when performance studies evolved and tried to consume theatre history as a discipline there was a strong rhetorical politics which caused unnecessary tensions between the two field. I often see this trend mirrored in a lot of the Digital Humanities handwringing about definitions, futures, fields of study, and progressive scholarship. In the end performance studies became a methodology theatre historians welcomed into their broad approach to theatre and performance as an object of study, and the overt political move many in performance studies were trying to assert sputtered and fell short, leaving many still uncertain exactly as to what parameters performance studies defines itself by.

    As far as “digital” being considered irrelevant, the sooner the better. Unfortunately usually the question of relevance sometimes comes from a “when the rest of the humanities catches up” and all humanities will be like DH rather than a better situating within the world view of academia and the relative historical arc of such disciplinary shifts. Although this all seems like semantics, it is those semantics that define discourse and shape the rhetoric that is deployed and how it is received and that is what I think is of concern to many people within proximity to but uncertain of the future of DH.

  8. Kimon,

    I have to confess that I haven’t really come across that rhetorical move among the DHers I know. Chances are I’ve just been lucky, because based on some other convos I’ve seen on this topic I have no reason to doubt that that is taking place. Let’s face it, there are plenty of scholars who thrive on overstating their position and importance. I also suspect that somewhere along the line, administrators buy a crappy line like “the type of humanities that is ahead of traditional humanities” and convince the school that they have to start a digital humanities initiative. I’ve no doubt that ignorance does fuel plenty of political and monetary decisions at universities.

    Your question:
    “If Digital Humanities really was a subset of the Humanities then wouldn’t we have to consider the Postmodern Humanities, Deconstructive Humanities, Structuralist Humanities, and Formalist Humanities, because these are other alternative methodological approaches to the field of study. ”

    is exactly right. And, within each individual discipline (literature, history, art, maybe theater?), that has happened. That’s why we have literature scholars who do deconstructionist readings, and avant-garde performances of Hamlet. It’s just that each discipline as done it in it’s own way. Maybe that’ll be one way we go with Digital Humanities — letting each discipline develop its own understanding of what that means.

    And you are exactly right that lots of DH is has predigital and nondigital history as it’s object of study, and is using the new tools to present, study, and understand in new ways. That’s exactly what I’m saying — there are a lot of people in Digital Humanities arguing that that is part of Digital Humanities, not just the study of games or youtube. The convo I linked to in my first comment exposes exactly that tension within DH.

    And so, the upshot is that I think, if you take the entire range of people calling themselves digital humanists, you’ll probably find that you have more in common with us than you think. That’s why I take the “big tent” approach. Especially when I look at the practice-oriented digital humanists, I see lots of commonality with the goals, principles, and ideals you, Luke, Jim, and others are espousing.


  9. It’s refreshing to see folks like Josh Brown (ASHP), Roy Rosenzweig (CHNM), and Randy Bass (VKP etc.) cited in a digital humanities discussion. Too often, DH seems to appear “ex novo” like Athena from Zeus’s forehead or that xenomorph from John Hurt’s belly.

    That earlier generation of Digital Humanists – – DH 1.0? – – started from disciplinary problems, issues, and projects and looked to technology as a medium to think through and practice disciplinary change. From my own experience, it was pretty marvelous to participate in VKP as it shifted from a “technology” project to a “teaching” project, and more particularly as the conversations shifted from “technology” to the problem of learning. It’s also interesting to note that much of DH 1.0 began within a broad progressive movement that included both rethinking disciplines and institutions.

    One of the really interesting things about the current Digital Humanities formation is that it seems to be trying to fabricate a new discipline – – this is after all the canonical route to institutional juice (cf. debates within Composition Studies over the past couple of decades). We all want to be free, and disciplines can be constraining, but they can also be generative. My opinion: DH 2.0 would be much more powerful if it engaged with existing disciplines, with “disciplines as problems” rather than disciplines as codified knowledge etc. But . . . perhaps this takes us over to Jim Groom’s recent, provocative post – – “Say What You Will about EdTech . . . “

  10. Luke, after reading Jim Groom’s post on the subject of Ed Tech (, I read yours and enjoyed it very much. Both posts contain compelling ideas and descriptions of the current state of affairs at our universities and of the field of Ed Tech and the Humanities. Indeed I sympathize for the sad story of how the fields within the so-called Humanities are treated today in many campuses and in general by our society. Classics? We don’t read (or study) Proust any longer; imagine what’s happened to Virgil or Homer (Interestingly, do we keep listening to Chopin and Bach?). On one hand, there’s a nice discussion of the “barbarization” of society, as writer Baricco likes to portray, which produces people and institutions more interested in malls (and their economic model) than in literature. However, it’s not at all clear that the role of the Humanities must stay the same as before, if it is still that important, or what it should be at all.

    In the new order of the world -the Google order- we should think differently.
    Darwin considered Shakespeare dull -he had no time for it: he was busy building new knowledge. The Google founders may be the prototype of the new Barbarians, but if they possibly didn’t read Flaubert it was because they were busy building the new world!

    I don’t want to be taken into this discussion now, however, but only want to suggest that perhaps :

    (0- the general assumptions on the Humanities’ role should be discussed and revised;)
    1) it seems like you map the world of investigation and reflection over learning and technologies over the Humanities, and by so doing you seem to view the world as dual (or tri-al?)
    2) If Digital Humanities is the projection of the Humanities onto the Digital (or viceversa), I don’t see this automatic link between the Digital Humanities and Ed Tech, that you and Jim portray. The problem is that you cannot really put a label over Ed Tech and freeze this discipline as belonging or being tied to the Humanities -or any discipline.

    I am tired of the dual vision Humanistic vs Other disciplines and the disdain with which some look at the field of the other. Like Downes wrote: “we [must] focus our attention on the needs of learners, all learners”, not on disciplines, or departments, or academic traditional areas. We may discover we may need to destroy the current state of affairs at our universities and, instead of talking about Humanities (or Sciences), study how to solve the dramatic puzzle of how people learn best!

  11. Patrick-

    Want to wrap up my end of what has been a great back and forth. Having met you it is no surprise to me that you of course have the healthiest and most open approach and opinion towards the notion of Digital Humanities and its possible openness to multiple perspectives and a broad range of methodologies and tools. But what I have been trying to elucidate is the very specific rhetorical steps that ultimately close down that openness, particularly with the deployment of the phrase “Digital Humanities” as an agent of change in the academy.

    I think you missed my snark a little with the whole Postmodern/Deconstructivist Humanities comment. Those methodologies were of course deployed in all the different fields we have mentioned but there was never really any substantial push to signify disciplinary difference. Postmodern and poststructuralist approaches became tools for humanists to change the developmental course of their disciplines rather than a way to stand outside of and apart from traditional humanities. As Larry wrote in his comment there really is a feeling that Digital Humanities is being couched by many as a new discipline separate and apart from traditional humanities and that is where I find the term the most perilous. In toto, the move of shaping DH as a new discipline is tied into not only a requestioning of methodological approaches but often in also positing the field against structural and political economic changes across the academy. This disciplinary flag planting is political beyond the question of field of study and methodology and as such the most vehement proponents of a kind of Digital Humanities discipline often try to co-opt the approaches of other fields such as Media Studies and Ed Tech. If I am reading them right, this is what Luke and Jim are resistant to as well as they see those political moves as also being necessary, but across the academy and not the province of a discipline or movement necessarily tied to the humanities.

    I think that this is actually where the politicized action of Digital Humanists and the big tent approach can be troubling because the questions go beyond the humanities and often have less to do with things being digital and more about flows of capital, neoliberal politics (as a commenter on Jim’s post noted), and American perception of the benefits and role of academia as a whole in society. So, in that sense while Digital Humanities welcomes that conversation, there are many people who feel that these movements have been going on for a while across many realms of scholarship and academia and that the Digital Humanities is not necessarily the best place to find solutions, nor is it a place they feel represents their view on the situation or understands the broadest of academic implications. Social scientsts, natural scientists, and yes even lowly staff and administrators have an investment in these shifts and often feel no relationship to the academics within Digital Humanities trying to lead a charge. I think it is actually telling how little you hear about Digital Social Sciences or Digital Natural Sciences. Maybe it is because the kind of algorithmic and tool based analysis has always been a part of those forms of study so the advent of digital tools has not shaken the foundations of their work as much as it has expedited it and allowed it to grow in new directions.

    So, in the end it really is the political move of discipline building and the presumption that any discipline holds the answers for all the ills of the academy that rubs people the wrong way about Digital Humanities. I personally find such a move particularly problematic in an era where we are trying to break down disciplinary walls and encourage interdisciplinarity across all fields. Antonio says “I am tired of the dual vision Humanistic vs Other disciplines and the disdain with which some look at the field of the other”. To paraphrase that I would say that I am growing weary of the Digital Humanities vs. Other disciplines and the desire of many for institutional change to happen behind an artificial disciplinary banner rather than through the actions of the individual agents and institutions that are responsible for the political economic development of the academy on a real basis.

    Look forward to more back and forth,

    Thanks for stimulating a great conversation Luke!

  12. Luke —

    Shit. You have really raised the bar for CUNY DHI talks. How am I going to clear this when I visit in December. Great post.

    A couple things. I guess you’d say that I’m a key voice for both nice and non-ideological DH, things which reasonably give you pause. For my part, however, I advocate both things not as ends in themselves, but because I find they help in advancing a third value, which you support and for which I hope I have also been a key voice, namely, getting things done. In this I think DH and EdTech are coming from different directions. It seems to me that right now, to innovate, the humanities need more consensus and less politics and EdTech needs less consensus and more politics. Too often innovation in the humanities has been dragged down by endless ideological hand wringing and knee jerk criticism (because that’s what we’re taught to do in grad school, right?) and not enough getting new things done. Conversely, the EdTech establishment has been so focused on pacifying administrators and meeting narrow needs by the easiest means necessary (i.e. vendor contracts) that it hasn’t been able to do anything really interesting. I haven’t thought this through fully, but I’m guessing these different recent pasts has something to do with the different tone and rhetoric of the two movements, which really share so much.


  13. I’m coming to this interesting conversation somewhat late, but since a couple of projects that I founded (the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning and the Interactive Technology & Pedagogy Certificate Prog., both at CUNY) have been brought up by Luke and Kimon, I thought I might, indeed, have a dog in this fight.

    I’d say what characterized both the ASHP & the ITP was our clear and unrelenting focus not only on developing and perfecting new digital formats for the presentation of scholarly ideas and information, but also on pedagogy (on the importance of improving teaching and learning) as related (twinned?) ways to confront the limitations and traditional frameworks of academia. What strikes me to date about the Digital Humanities movement is that while there IS a strong emphasis on scholarship, there isn’t a similar, strong emphasis on pedagogy. It’s much more about finding ways in which digital technologies and techniques can improve, extend, and facilitate academic scholarship, both in terms of the subject matters that can be considered and the formats in which they can be presented. I support the DH effort to push the boundaries of traditional scholarship. But I am a bit concerned that questions of pedagogy still play a relatively small role in the movement (although, to be fair, pedagogy is still the ugly stepchild in the university, overall, too). This doesn’t have to be a binary between scholarship and teaching. But we do have to make a much better effort to talk about the ways in which digital technologies can and should reshape what happens in the classroom (whether that classroom is a 300-seat undergraduate lecture hall or a 15-seat doctoral seminar room). Here I’d point not only to the pioneering work of my colleagues at ASHP and at CHNM, but also Randy Bass’s interventions on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (especially the Visible Knowledge Project), and Matt Gold’s innovative recent efforts in his “Looking for Whitman” DH project. ASs these project’s demonstrate, I think we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

  14. To stick my nose where it doesn’t belong, a few thoughts:

    * There’s a pragmatic aspect to declaring DH as distinct and new. That is, if one accepts the arguments that the Humanities is a dying planet (Fish, Edelstein, for 2 recent pieces) then the best thing to do is to go off and found a new colony.

    * +1 to calling pedagogy “the ugly stepchild in the university, overall”. My work in supporting language instruction at an R1 reminds me of that every day. Ignorance of the value of language (and, necessarily, culture and identity) learning as an end in itself informs everything our instructors face.

    * Somewhat as an addition of these two things, DH has a kinship with Christian liberation theology (not that I’ve ever studied it, just come into contact with people who have). DH can be, in my brief experience, to be a way for teacher-focused Ivory Tower dwellers to come out of the closet, to emancipate themselves from the shackles of traditional academic paths. However, for many, leaving a traditional path and traditional tools it doesn’t have to mean that they wholly divorce themselves from all traditional academic activities. (When I do woodworking, I use some power tools and some hand tools. To each task the appropriate tool [or theory].)

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