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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

7 May 2014

Digital Humanities and the Quest for Academic Respectability

Intervention at Higher Education Academy Summit 'Towards a Pedagogy for the Digital Humanities', Lewes, 7 May 2014

Andrew Sanders, in his Short Oxford History of English Literature (2000), has outlined the ideological and social influences which shaped the emergence of the study of English as an academic subject in the nineteenth century. Sanders describes how ‘the ancient English universities, once they got round to establishing chairs and then courses of study, felt obliged to make English acceptable by rendering it dry, demanding and difficult’. English had to establish its social respectability by comparison with subjects such as Classics. Sanders notes how English was considered ‘a parvenu subject largely suited to social and intellectual upstarts (a category which it assumed included women). In order to appear “respectable” in the company of gentlemanly disciplines such as Classics and History, it had to require hard labour of its students’. This was achieved partly by an emphasis on the study of Old and Middle English literature which remained fundamental to the Oxford syllabus until quite recently, provoking the celebrated protests of Kingsley Amis and Phillip Larkin, denouncing Beowulf as ‘ape’s bum fodder’. Amis found a note by Larkin in a copy of Faerie Queene which read: ‘First I thought Troilus and Criseyde was the most boring poem in English. Then I thought Beowulf was. Then I thought Paradise Lost was. Now I know that The Fairie Queene is the dullest thing out. Blast it’.

At Cambridge, of course, a more modern approach to English Literature was pioneered in the 1930s by I. A. Richards and F. R Leavis, but again a concern to affirm academic respectability is evident, through for example Richards’s emphasis on the technique of ‘close reading’ or Leavis’s stress on literature as a force for moral improvement. All academic disciplines share this need to affirm their respectability and to demonstrate their intellectual virility. The dominance of medieval history in British historical studies up to the 1950s likewise reflects an anxiety to show that historical research required hard labour. The forbidding theoretical constructs that have come to surround cultural and media studies convey the message that these disciplines deal in austere abstract ideas and not the fripperies claimed by their detractors. The use of quantification can convey similar messages in many social sciences. These tensions are particularly evident in computer science, which has had to escape from the charge that it was no more than technological tinkering, and where it has been necessary to develop a highly focussed approach to avoid the taint of being considered a support or ancillary activity. These agendas of intellectual respectability can also be developed by integrating dispersed but cognate activities, as for example in Systems Biology, where various quantitative and modelling techniques have been drawn together.

Digital Humanities is not immune from this need to demonstrate moral and intellectual respectability. Indeed, it is rather disappointing that Digital Humanities mirrors so strongly the processes we see in the Victorian development of the study of English. In what we might call Digital Humanities 1.0, we again see an enormous stress on work with canonical materials. The overwhelming majority of digital humanities projects are concerned with big names, often from the pre-modern period: Beowulf, the Exeter Book, Chaucer, Langland, Shakespeare, William Blake, Jane Austen, Rossetti, and so on. The dominance of the Classics in digital humanities projects suggests that all too often digital technologies have been used to provide an up-to-date and trendy makeover for ailing disciplines. The digital humanities is rarely used to open up access to non-canonical or obscure materials - the culture of the digital humanities has hitherto been dominated by the dead white European male. Moreover, what Digital Humanities 1.0 does to these canonical materials has frequently been very conservative. It is used as a means of continuing academic activities which print technology had rendered uneconomic or unviable. Many of the digital editions so far produced only over limited gains in functionality over conventional print editions - they allow searching and may incorporate images, but otherwise that’s about it. In historical studies, printing costs had caused the great Victorian series of calendars to peter out; digital technologies have allowed them to be revived, but eerily these digital calendars recreate editorial methods designed for print - rather as if a railway locomotive was run on a turnpike road.

Digital humanities has affirmed its respectability by frequently allying itself with extremely conservative scholarly methods. It has also affirmed its moral character by insisting that its fundamental concern is with research. Digital humanities has had to make its way by seeking soft funding. It has turned this misfortune to its advantage by trying to suggest that it is exclusively concerned with research. Digital humanities centres claim to be something like scientific research institutes, only concerned with advanced research (the term advanced is invariably invoked in discussion of digital humanities methods, even though most of the techniques are fairly standard and quite old hat). Digital humanities is seen as the preserve of a priestly caste concerned only with advanced techniques who do not sully themselves with anything lower than a postgraduate student. The terms ‘e-research’ and ‘e-science’ have been invoked to add to this aura. In the 1990s, those involved with the early days of humanities computing thought it would transform teaching and pedagogy as much as research. Among the pioneering programmes in humanities computing during the 1990s was the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP), and the development of new teaching methods was seen as just as important as research. Yet, in the pursuit of research funding, we came to feel that research was the most respectable path and pedagogy seem to have dropped out of the mainstream of academic digital humanities. This is illustrated by the lack of contact between digital humanities organisations and e-learning organisations such as the Association of Learning Technologists.

I’m glad to say there are signs that this is changing. I would especially single out the work of HASTAC under Cathy Davidson as bringing pedagogy back more centre stage for the digital humanities. Part of the future for the digital humanities has to be a greater involvement with pedagogy. But there are dangers as well as opportunities here. The current DH mania in the United States is closely related to the politically-inspired attacks on humanities funding in the US. There is a clear danger that ‘digital humanities’ is used in the United States as a term to try and persuade tea-party voters that there is a technological and economic value in the humanities. The trouble is that just rebranding the humanities as digital betrays the wider possibilities of the digital humanities. Just browsing through the job adverts from the States where literature posts have been justified but claiming that they will also encompass digital humanities shows that this is a real danger.

We don’t want a form of ‘digital studies’ which simply treats the web as yet another form of media for analysis. Digital methods offer us the possibility of engaging with and understanding the cultural materials that are the focus of the humanities in new ways. Through a site like the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, we can explore the life of poor people in eighteenth-century London in astonishing detail.In a resource like The Electronic Beowulf we can see letters concealed under conservation work that have remained hidden for 150 years. From the British Library’s digital presentation of the biblical manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, we can see the words ‘son of God’ being inserted in one of the earliest copies of the Gospel of St Mark. These are truly exciting possibilities, which can help generate a more exciting and creative form of pedagogy than will ever be feasible through any form of MOOC. A new alliance between the digital humanity and pedagogy can achieve this.          

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