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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.

5 May 2013

Small Worlds and Big Tents

The climax of David Lodge’s novel Small World, a burlesque on academic conferences in which scholars pursue each other around the world from conference to conference, occurs at that bizarre cultural manifestation, the Convention of the Modern Languages Association. The MLA Convention attracts thousands of American scholars every year who present hundreds of papers, but the main function of the event appears to be as a beauty parade for young scholars desperately seeking the shrinking number of academic posts available in North America. Intellectual exploration and excitement don’t figure very high in this revolting bloated piece of academic corporatism. I am conscious that MLA has over the years helped promote causes to which I am sympathetic, and has played an active part in breaking down conservative approaches to the study of literature. Nevertheless, I find it astonishing that the MLA Convention attracts so many different scholars but is nevertheless one of the most parochial and inward-looking academic gatherings on the planet, preoccupied with those tiresome internal debates that characterize American academic life. MLA is the smallest and most self-absorbed of worlds. The recent calls to Occupy MLA would be very attractive as a means of attacking this horrible institution, except that it would require one to go to MLA.

Much of the excitement about Digital Humanities as ‘the next big thing’ (in itself an absurd piece of hype, given that the type of research espoused by the Digital Humanities has been practiced for over fifty years) has been generated by internal debates within MLA. The progress of DH has been measured by its prominence on the MLA platforms (particularly through Mark Sample's excellent work - my illustration above is a wordcloud by Mark of tweets from the 2009 MLA). At the 2013 Convention, a roundtable on 'The Dark Side of Digital Humanities' suggested inter alia that DH has paved the way for such managerial initiatives in universities as the use of metrics or the rise of MOOCs (The roundtable was led by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Richard Grusin, Patrick Jagoda and Rita Raley). This roundtable has generated the predictable large quantities of MLA hot air, and the blog debate around ‘The Dark Side of Digital Humanities’ is burgeoning. A recent and helpful addition to the debate by Stephen Ramsay proposes a distinction between what he calls DH Type 1, represented by such activities as the Perseus Digital Library, Rossetti Archive, TEI, etc., and DH Type 2, in which DH is used a shorthand for signifier ‘both for a very broad constellation of scholarly endeavors, and for a certain revolutionary disposition that had overtaken the academy’. The ‘big tent’ of DH Type 2, suggests Ramsay, reflects a looser definition of DH: ‘Media studies practitioners were digital humanists; people who had devoted several decades to digital pedagogy were digital humanists; cultural critics who were interested in Internet culture were digital humanists; and digital artists of a certain variety were digital humanists’. For Ramsay, much of the criticism of the dark side of the digital humanities is directed at DH Type 2  (although I can’t imagine those people he lists as representing DH Type 2 being any more enthusiastic about say MOOCs than DH Type 1). Ramsay seeks to reaffirm the identification of ‘true’ (one might almost say fundamentalist) DH with DH Type 1, and seems to suggest that the rhetoric suggesting that DH will reshape the academy should be given a rest.  In an interesting response to Ramsay’s post, Michael Kramer suggests that the emergence of ‘alt-ac’, promoting the idea that DH could be a way of offering alternative academic careers for unemployed Humanities PhDs could help explain the emergence of Ramsay’s DH Type 2.

The ‘alt-ac’ and tenure discussions are an illustration of the way in which local problems in the structure of higher education in the United States are somehow represented as an existential crisis for humanity. When attending any DH event in the United States, it appears to be a necessary and unavoidable ritual that at least 25% of the discussion time be devoted to hearing about the problems encountered by American scholars producing digital outputs in securing tenure. I’m extremely sympathetic to the difficulties faced by young scholars in America, and the casualization of American academic work through the growth of the adjunct system is undoubtedly scandalous, but I came from a country where university tenure was abolished in 1988 and it seems rather pointless to travel thousand of miles to hear complaints about something which, as far as Britain is concerned, is dead and buried. Again, I am deeply sympathetic to ‘alt-ac’ debates. In a country where most PhDs have for many years been unlikely to find employment as lecturers, the idea that careers like publishing, curatorship or research management provide equally valid means of professional academic engagement is necessarily a familiar one. I deliberately chose at first not to pursue a university career and went to the British Library. I have moved between librarianship and academic positions throughout my career. I have generally found librarianship to be a more creative, intellectually stimulating, fast-changing and satisfying activity than conventional academic work. So I am very much in favour of ‘alt-ac’, but the way in which this discussion has developed seems to me to have been derailed by its American advocates. The discussion has become focused on the failure of American universities to deliver the prizes of tenured faculty positions, the terms on which such prizes are awarded, and whether an alternate career path is an equally valid reward. I warm to the way in which ‘alt-ac’ discussions urge a rethinking of the academy, but I am aghast at the way in which it is assumed that changing the American tenure system in some way represents a new form of academic life. It isn’t – it is the United States belatedly and ineffectually trying to sort out messes in the structure of its higher education system which probably should have been reformed years ago.

Debates about American tenure devalue and distract from more fundamental issues about the way in which Digital Humanities might change the academy, which are only apparent if we try and develop a more genuinely international perspective.  In Europe, libraries and archives have been strong drivers of DH developments and the career paths of many DH professional have criss-crossed a variety of professions, including information professions and academic career paths. Many DH practitioners (like myself) relish this professional eclecticism and, while we would strongly defend the intellectual claims of Digital Humanities against more conventional disciplines, would nevertheless be horrified to end up as academics in traditional departments – I decided firmly in 1979 that I did not want to be a History Professor, and I still do not want to be a History Professor. In Britain, the increasing professionalization of higher education and the resulting insistence on particular career paths is threatening this kind of eclecticism (in 2008, I could be returned as a librarian under the British research assessment exercise; this will not be possible in 2013). In addition, there is the issue of the digital humanities developer – the person who wants to spend a career creating DH resources, not necessarily pursuing their own scholarly vision or analysing the digital reshaping of scholarship. The developer is a key part of DH, but no one has effectively worked out how good career paths of this sort can be provided in a DH department. In fact, we run a terrible risk in many DH units of imposing precisely the sort of academic/ professional apartheid that DH should be explicitly reacting against.There is an urgent need to think through the ways in which we provide career structures in DH for the highly gifted technical developer who does not want a Ph D or an academic career but is fascinated by DH, makes the most fundamental contribution and wants to spend their life absorbed in DH. DH cannot and never will be undertaken solely by tenured academic faculty supported by post-docs waiting in the wings for the tenured folk to keel over. The ad hoc methods developed so far to support such career structures are not fit for purpose. We need urgently to think through a completely new career and skill structure for DH.   

Alt-ac is, or should be, more than means of providing career advice to humanities doctoral students in a country where a sclerotic tenure system is seizing up. Alt-ac is about reconnecting the academy internationally with the vibrant intellectual and scholarly world of galleries, archives, libraries, museums and, increasingly in a digital sphere, private companies (I think a digital humanist could as legitimately have a career with Google or Facebook as with a university). It is also about creating new career structures in universities which accommodate different skills, interests and aspirations. DH is an example of a university activity where a range of skills beyond that of the conventional academic is required; further such areas will inevitably quickly follow (as robots become more ubiquitous, how will we absorb them into the academy?). The greatest threat to universities comes not from MOOCs but rather from the risk (likelihood) that universities will fail to create more flexible career and institutional structures which address wider social and economic changes. Libraries have completely reinvented themselves since I began work as a librarian in 1979, and universities will be called to do the same over the next 30 years. Whatever the resulting institutional structure in universities, the one thing that is certain is that it will not prove to be an American traditional system of tenured faculty.

DH began in Italy (if we see Roberto Busa as its founding father). Much of the most exciting and innovative work in DH has taken place in Europe through figures such as Manfred Thaller, Jan Christoph Meister, Lou Burnard, Espen Ore or Claudine Moulin. Initiatives such as openedition.org, substantially supported by French government research organisations, or the comprehensive digitisation projects undertaken in the Netherlands show a maturity of infrastructure beyond much to be seen in the United States (where the Digital Public Library of America seems to be relying on a piecemeal voluntary effort rather than the comprehensive and systematic state-funded interventions of various European governments). Yet, for all its internationalist, interdisciplinary and collaborationist pretensions, much of the available literature on DH is dominated by internal North American debates, driven by MLA. Matthew Gold’s recent Debates in the Digital Humanities consisted chiefly of very parochial North American discussions – as far as I can see, only two contributors (Patrik Svensson and Willard McCarty) held posts in universities outside North America. The contents of Gold’s book are dominated by the kind of agendas being generated from within MLA, and suggest that there is a danger that DH will become annexed to the vacuous and anal preoccupations of the MLA.

I think this is possibly the true dark side of the Digital Humanities – that there is a risk that DH becomes one of the means by which an Anglophone globalization of world culture is implemented. Domenico Fiormonte recently analysed the wider threats represented by the anglicisation of DH in his thought-provoking contribution to the Cologne Debates in the Digital Humanities (altogether a more rounded and profound collection than that assembled by Gold). Reading Fiormonte’s discussion, one realizes that Ramsay’s distinction between DH Type 1 and DH Type 2 is largely irrelevant. DH Type 1, grounded in international organizations such as ALLC, might seem to have a wider international outlook than DH Type 2, but as Fiormonte emphasizes, DH Type 1 is as firmly Anglophone as DH Type 2.  These tables from Fiormonte’s article are extremely eloquent:

In this context, I would suggest that the problem is not the distinction between DH Type 1 and DH Type 2, but rather the way in which the formal structures of DH have become so strongly Anglophone and in particular the way in which they have become hooked up with a view that seems to equate the academy with the small world of American subject associations such as MLA. This myopic approach appears to be shared by Ramsay when he seems to suggest that DH Type 1 had largely a literary approach, and suggests that digital history and digital archaeology (both key components of DH in Europe) had a more distant relationship from DH Type 1. My worry is that this MLA annexation of DH appears to proceeding apace, and again distinguishing between the different strains of DH doesn’t seem to help – they all seem to carry the lethal MLA bacillus. Tim Hitchcock in a recent Twitter exchange commented that ‘DH is a bit up itself, a bit self-absorbed, a bit over concerned to claim its place, rather than make a difference’. This anxiety that DH should claim a place is driven strongly by the internal debates in North American bodies like MLA. Scholars engaged with technology, having been very badly treated by those who in the 1960s and 1970s saw no role for technology in the study of the arts, have reacted by trying too hard to demonstrate in venues such as MLA, the intellectual credibility of their work. That shouldn’t be necessary. The important thing is to demonstrate the validity of the approach by the quality of the scholarship produced – whether through the creation of a digital object, a book or an article, a visualization, a mash-up, a map, apiece of 3D printing, a blog entry or a tweet – the format and the method don’t matter as long as the scholarship is outstanding, gives us new understandings and, as Tim Hitchcock put it, makes a difference.

PS Thanks to @joshhonn for pointing out Whitney Trettien's post after MLA 2013, which I think supplements some of my comments from another, and equally important angle.

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