[What follows is a response to a recent Hybrid Pedagogy article making the rounds. It serves as a companion piece to one by Roopika Risam. We both took time away from writing articles for a digital humanities collection that solicited scholarship engaging with questions of race and difference to write these responses. Roopika and I wrote separately and come to these issues with different experiences within the field. Our interests only occasionally overlap but happily co-exist within the universe of digital humanities].
With the rising visibility of the digital humanities across the world, resistance and anxiety are expected to grow. In the United States the reactions are taking a particular bent based on the institutional histories there, linking the problem to a purported lack of critical engagement. The genre is not new. Even as far back as 1965, the important American critic Jacques Barzun argued, to the relief of many, that working with computers for the humanities was merely clerical, sounding a (gendered) labor division in the humanities that still rings true today. A few decades later, Jacques Derrida took on the baton in a series of lectures on James Joyce published under the combined title Ulysse gramophone/Deux mots pour Joyce by Éditions Galilée in 1987. In these texts, Derrida argues that Joyce is a “joyciciel” that reduces our computers to “un jouet d’enfant préhistorique.” Only the critic who would be able not to think like a computer could truly engage Joyce (cf. deconstruction). The lordly Barzun, and the slippery Derrida, like their forgetful avatars, felt they were the sole standard bearers of a true critique.
Though the rhetorical gesture remains the same, “I am the critical one,” the growing number of contemporary openings of this old wound are cut by exponents who think of themselves as “a new breed of digital humanists” on the margins. Whereas the two Jacques would not have wanted to be inducted into humanities computing, their avatars want to be recognized as digital humanists, to own it even, enacting a series of complex and complex-laden identifications in the process. Perhaps this is a result of the democratization of computing technology, the success of Big Tent policies of several generations of practitioners, the eternal september, the pressures of trenchant reward mechanisms and prestige economies, the persistence of the construct, or the phenomenon we see in some quarters where digital humanities has become the One Ring. We hear these developments play out in various ways in one of the genre’s most recent sallies, Adeline Koh’s “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You.” Despite its prestigious antecedents, Koh’s peer-reviewed essay, I hope you agree, is very much of our time.
The essay’s brevity and the author’s growing influence justify a close review of the whole, à la Barthes. Given that I may be accused of bordering on the ad hominem, I’m hoping a serious, direct rebuttal will be interpreted by my more generous readers as a dignifying gesture instead: for such an agonistic intellect, becoming the desired agon is perhaps the only sympathetic thing to do. I may be wrong, and I predict a keen hindsight after I hit the publish button. You see, not many folks remain willing to disagree with Adeline Koh publicly. Some have become afraid of engaging her because of her less-than-collegial tactics, which she attempts to ground in theory; others, bored with the subject, dismiss her as irrelevant without giving it a second thought; some, the most condescending ones, agree with her because they feel disagreeing with a minority woman is not okay in our U.S. racial environment; a select few, whom I admire enormously, engage only obliquely and in the most graceful prose imaginable. Her damage piles on. Well… I am not afraid, I acknowledge her topicality, I will not condescend to a woman of color, and I am not feeling particularly graceful this week, so here it goes.
A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You.
She is correct here. No practitioner I know of disagrees. The title, though, connects Koh’s peer reviewed essay to a debate that erupted last year over comments she made on an Inside Higher Ed article titled “Digital Humanities Bubble.” In the article, Koh had stated, “I agree that people are starting to realize that DH isn’t the kind of savior of humanities jobs it was touted as being a while ago.” After the article was published, she was asked on social media by Melissa Terras to provide evidence for the people that had made these claims. A joke by Dan Cohen was exhumed from early Twitter by Jesse Stommel, others jumped in to ask her for serious evidence, accusations of racism were bandied about, and by the time the intimidating and embarrassing episode fizzled out, no substantial evidence had been offered. Not our finest hour, to be sure. The episode serves as a backdrop for this latest offering.
The choice of the epistolary genre is another matter.
I am often asked about the digital humanities and how it can update, make relevant, and provide funding for many a beleaguered humanities department. Some faculty at underfunded institutions imagine DH is going to revitalize their discipline — it’s going to magically interest undergraduates, give faculty research funding, and exponentially increase enrollment.
My sympathies to these beleaguered departments. Koh’s reference to them somewhat grounds the open letter, making these departments—as opposed to practitioners—carry the burden of imagining that “DH” will save them. Although I do not share her experience, I am willing to give Koh the benefit of the doubt. Again, we agree here, if this is the audience. Alas, I wish I knew how to help them, but I would hesitate to arrive from out of town with a blanket solution as Koh does later on when she offers “the new wave of digital humanities,” especially without knowing the institutional histories, institutional structures, and specific state politics at play.
Well, the reality is this: what has until recently been commonly understood as real “Digital Humanities” is already belated and is not going to save humanities departments from ever bigger budget cuts and potential dissolution.
“Commonly understood” begins to set up the straw man. Though her purported audience does not know what digital humanities is, Koh tells them that such an understanding has been reached by those in the know. Like Derrida before her—who, invited to Johns Hopkins to speak on the hot new structuralism, inaugurated post-structuralism—Koh is here to tell these departments that they are late to the party. The tone is ominous also. The “ever bigger” attached to budget cuts suggests that these cuts are inevitable.
Yes, of course, everyone will tell you that there are multiple debates over what actually defines Digital Humanities as a field, whether it is a field or not, yadda yadda yadda.
Let us ignore the unprofessional, dismissive “yadda yadda yadda” which somehow passed beyond the peer reviewers. Actual, well documented “multiple debates” have and continue to take place around what digital humanities is and can be. A simple perusal of just the few texts that Koh cites in her fifth paragraph will convince you that this is what we could call a fact. Are we ready to pretend that people debating is a sign of their secret agreement? Maybe.
But the projects which have until very recently dominated the federal digital humanities grants — the NEH grants, the ACLS grants, among others — are by default, the definition of the field, or the “best” the field has to offer.
According to Koh, the Digital Humanities (or any other field) is the surface effect of an aggregate of funded projects. Are you convinced by this definition, “commonly understood”? In its kernel I see the hints of a promising Marxist argument. For example, a neo-Marxist thinker like Slavoj Žižek would say that we digital humanists debate the definitional question to blind ourselves to the collusion with funding agencies. He would call it an example of “an unknown known.” Though I see how a series of funded projects could start to give you an idea of the scope of the field, I remain unconvinced that they can represent in their relatively minuscule range the diverse set of practices that we see out there today.
We should note further that funders are structurally limited by guidelines that are pre-determined in advance, and therefore cannot serve as a part for a whole in a state of becoming. The ODH’s Startup Grant and ACLS Digital Innovation Funds are limited, for example, by the need to foster “innovation.” The officers are very aware of these limitations, and not one of them would claim that they represent the field. Though influential, these funders are just one set of stakeholders among many in the United States making evaluative judgements on digital humanities projects and practitioners. The influence is naturally multi-directional, and hardly top-down: the directors, officers and reviewers of these agencies have to stay attuned to developments as anyone else. Having submitted a few applications over the past few years, I can also testify that the reviewers of the applications often disagree with each other in their comments, as one would expect from any other review process in the academy.
To reiterate, most digital humanities in the United States and in the world happens outside of agency funding: through existing salaries or stipends, stealing time away from recognized duties, or worse, perfectly unpaid; and though agencies are influential, their role is limited structurally and historically.
This means that until very recently and with few exceptions, the list of awardees rarely includes digital work that focuses more on culture than computation, projects that focus on digital pedagogy, or digital recovery efforts for works by people of color.
“This means that” sets up a non-sequitur, but that is the least of the problems with this statement. These claims are not backed up by evidence. Without evidence, we even find it difficult to know what the author means by “culture” or “computation.” I would not separate them as easily. The author should do well to revisit her own writings, where she sides with those who do not believe computation is acultural.
Since she is publishing in a venue focusing on “digital pedagogy,” and her peer reviewers know more about the field than I do, I will assume that what she claims about agencies’ awards relating to the use of technology in the classroom, online or hybrid learning are true.
As far as “the digital recovery efforts for works by people of color,” the author does not seem to acknowledge the work of other divisions of the NEH or ACLS, or the fact that the agencies are not exempt from our racial history as a nation, digital humanities or not. Instead, and bordering on irresponsible, Koh lobbies an accusation of structural racism without providing evidence or a clear path forward for the agencies themselves.
If you look through the projects that have been funded in the last decade you’re going to see a lot of repeated themes. Heck, even when you look at the roster for who is being invited to give DH talks and what they are talking about, you see many of the same names and the same topics. You’re going to see a lot of emphasis on tools. A lot of emphasis on big data analysis. A lot of emphasis on computation, and the power of computation. What aren’t you going to see as much of? Emphasis on why computing, the conditions under which computing is manufactured, a cultural analysis of the ideologies of computing. Why is that?
Like in any other area of activity in the academy, regular names and common themes do show up. That is neither a bad, nor a good thing. A confession: I study the work of Aimé Césaire in the context of Caribbean Literature and History. I could not go to a digital humanities talk expecting everyone to be overly familiar with my area. Surely, I always find a few folks who are. I don’t study with any degree of depth the history of technology, or new media theory, or digital art. I get exposed to those areas of study because they are important to what I do, but their research questions and mine are different, and my knowledge of technology does not come from them alone: I embody that knowledge in practice.
Adeline Koh seems to want me to change my research focus. This is one of her main errors. I hope the reader does not assume that folks like me are uncritical of technology because we don’t engage in her prescribed line of archival research. I know some folks who do both excellently. She names a few down in the long list of names at the end. When I go to a digital humanities talk, as a speaker or as part of the audience, though, I want to address our use of computation and computers to shape, share and preserve our research, and yes, our teaching, on x. I hope you understand why I would want to do that at some venues, in some journals, label them digital humanities or whatever. That we may try to convince others to shift perspectives in their own areas of research is par for the course of what we do. To ask that we change our areas of research is just absurd.
Unless I misunderstand what she means, we should note that we already have and have had room for the debates on “computing, the conditions under which computing is manufactured, [and] a cultural analysis of the ideologies of computing” that Koh prescribes. She could have availed herself very easily of the archives of Humanist, for example, and using easily available research tools gathered the evidence she needed to make her strong claims about these absences. Given the author’s purported familiarity with the subject, even accepting paid invitations to offer advice to departments on digital humanities, I have to wonder why she did not use her research skills and training to bolster her claims?
In any case, she doesn’t seem to be talking to us anymore. As we can divine if we follow her logic to its radical conclusion, she wants the halls, the podiums, the grants, the websites billed digital humanities today to be divested of their current occupants, to be replaced exclusively by her own “new breed”: a rift, a paradigm shift, made up of those who finally put the critical in digital humanities.
Because “digital humanities” is currently defined in many existing works as coming out of a field previously known as “humanities computing.” This field is cast as the primary antecedent for what is now called the digital humanities, immortalized by the publication of the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities, in which the term switched from “humanities computing” to “Digital Humanities,” the use of DH in forming the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations as an umbrella global organization, and the development and naming of the NEH ODH branch. “Humanities computing” projects have primarily focused on digitization of canonical texts, text encoding and markup, the creation of tools to facilitate humanities research, and more recently, “big data” and ways to study it, such as “topic modeling.” Uniformly, advocates of DH as humanities computing have argued that DH is, in the words of Matt Kirschenbaum, “more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies.”
In this iteration digital humanities is the result of the lineage behind the term. Coming several generations after the first practitioners of humanities computing, those who rebaptized it to digital humanities were practicing in the field of humanities computing. Koh describes the situation correctly here, but misses the more important point that digital humanities today is a much larger and diverse field of practice than its predecessors could have ever predicted. Let us note also how Koh collapses time when she says “and more recently,” as if the digital humanities of today still just consisted of only markup, digitization and “tools to facilitate humanities research” besides the “big data.” Again, here as elsewhere the evidence on the ground is lacking.
This focus on methodology is important, because throughout the majority of Humanities Computing projects, the social, political and economic underpinnings, effects and consequences of methodology are rarely examined. Too many in this field prize method without excavating the theoretical underpinnings and social consequences of method. In other words, Humanities Computing has focused on using computational tools to further humanities research, and not to study the effects of computation as a humanities question.
I cannot parse the logic here very well. The first sentence says that it’s good that Humanities Computing focuses on methodology because HC rarely pays attention to its causes and consequences? Maybe it’s important that others focused on it because now she can focus on it to make a claim no one thought to make? The second repeats the second sub-claim of the first. The third adds that Humanities Computing has focused on using computational tools (computers?) to help all forms of humanities research, but not the one question we should apparently be focusing exclusively on?
But “digital humanities” in the guise of “humanities computing,” “big data,” “topic modelling,” “object oriented ontology” is not going to save the humanities from the chopping block. It’s only going to push the humanities further over the precipice. Because these methods alone make up a field which is simply a handmaiden to STEM. Think about this: Why would you turn to a pseudo-STEM field that uses STEM methods to answer your questions, rather than to STEM directly? Indeed, when I brought up “critical making” — what some consider to be the perfect marriage of “yack” and “hack” — with my engineer spouse, he commented, “Isn’t engineering already ‘critical making’?” “Critical making,” in Matt Ratto’s definition, is “processes of material and conceptual exploration and creation of novel understandings by the makers themselves.” After mulling over my husband’s remark, I realized that engineering is indeed already practicing critical making as its DH practitioners prescribe it — arguably better than they are. But in relation to the humanities, engineering does not integrally inspect critical identity categories, access and privilege in the process of making, issues that designate what the humanities considers to be “critical.”
Ah. The STEM paragraph. Let me answer Koh’s central question: “Why would you turn to a pseudo-STEM field that uses STEM methods to answer your questions, rather than to STEM directly?” The answer should not even be controversial: most people in STEM do not share our training. We wish it were not the case, that the boundaries would erode further, but for now, we must simply collaborate as much as we can and learn from each other. Some folks in STEM who are not collaborating with us are making claims about narrative, plot, history, etc. without the benefit of our disciplinary memories. They make many avoidable mistakes when they do, as I’m sure we make many mistakes when we decide to blind ourselves to their disciplinary memories. For the most part, though, most of the technology that we use in our everyday practices does not constitute a research problem for computer science anymore, or in many cases, comes from non-academic sectors.
Anyone who would engage in active engineering surely would understand “identity categories, access and privilege in the process of making” better. The opposite is nonsense: in order to understand “identity categories, access and privilege in the process of making” one should leave making up to the engineers.
As I suggested above, and this is key, in the era of the anthropocene and techno-utopianism, of technocratic capital, the Arts & Sciences need to work closer to each other than they have ever done before. The myth of the two cultures is exactly that. In the era of EbscoHost and ProQuest, of Google and Amazon, we cannot afford to let others engineer our research outputs and capitalize on them, not when the technology is easily available for us to dis-alienate ourselves from our knowledge production. Koh seems to forget that we are not only charged with writing “critique” in prose. The past does not live of narrative alone, and this means we must engage with the engineering of preservation systems, critically. You sure you want to leave the task to engineers alone? Labor structures also suffer when we think of the engineers as the makers (producers of medium), and us as the critics (producers of content). This division of labor can lead to abuses in the academic workforce in very specific ways related to our classifications as employees. A better alternative to these absurd divisions is for us to work together, and for some of us to become hybrids of sorts, producing new forms of knowing and being.
Another thing: if you want to start a DH program to save your probably very underfunded humanities department from extinction, trying to practice DH the way resource-rich, research-oriented institutions do might be prohibitively expensive. Big data analysis, 3-D printing, tool-building: these are expensive endeavors to undertake, even on a small scale. Because of their mission and resources, the majority of non-wealthy, non-R1 institutions are going to concentrate on smaller scale projects involving undergraduate students. These are not normally the sorts of projects that receive federal funding for DH.
I can only say here that I support anyone who wants to practice digital humanities without agency funding. You are not alone. In fact, you are probably in the majority. The good news is that access to a terminal and the internet means you’re already halfway there. I’m at Columbia University. Not only R1, but Ivy League. We have resources, trust me. Would you believe me if I told you that a large number of the worthwhile things we do around here we do without grant agency money, or university funding in excess of our salaries? Many of them with undergraduates just like you?
So this is what I want to say. If you want to save humanities departments, champion the new wave of digital humanities: one which has humanistic questions at its core. Because the humanities, centrally, is the study of how people process and document human cultures and ideas, and is fundamentally about asking critical questions of the methods used to document and process. And because these questions can and should be dealt with by people in departments who care about research with undergraduates, by people without the resources to develop the latest and greatest cutting edge digital humanities tool (which, quite frankly, will be enveloped by commercial industries in the blink of an eye.)
The digital humanities that values the humanities is the same old digital humanities that was humanities computing before, composed of humanists of all stripes.
The definition of the humanities that Koh offers here is not without merits, though: we study human cultures and ourselves studying those cultures self-reflectively. The definition almost notices that we re-produce the culture we study in auto-poetic ways. But she’s not there yet. Said otherwise, in the process of studying it, we recreate the past. If we focused on writing narratives or interpretations alone, we would be poor humanists indeed. As a librarian in the Humanities & History division, I would make a poor excuse for a humanist if I just wrote new books that others would catalog “mechanically.” No, the humanist must tend to the production and re-production of sources, archives, narratives and significance as Michel-Rolph Trouillot would say. This task is exacerbated by the same needs of un-silencing the past that Koh recognizes. I do hope that this new breed of digital humanists she speaks of is ready for that task. I warn the new breed that you will need the skills or collaboration of those old computational digital humanists, and if you’re not careful, you will end up being a ‘traditional’ digital humanist after all.
So instead of pouring more money into tool building or the latest and greatest 3D printer, let’s not limit the history of the digital humanities to humanities computing as a single origin point. Let’s consider “sister fields” to the digital humanities as actually foundational to the digital humanities. Consider work with undergraduates and digital pedagogy (Rebecca Frost Davis, Kathryn Tomasek, Katherine D. Harris, Angel David Nieves, Janet Simons, Jesse Stommel, Sean Michael Morris) as foundational to the field. Consider the work of scholars who engage media studies as foundational — especially as they deeply engage with questions of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, ability and the digital (Lisa Nakamura, Anna Everett, Alondra Nelson, Tara McPherson, Elizabeth Losh, Alexandra Juhasz, Wendy Chun, Cathy Davidson, Fiona Barnett, David Theo Goldberg, David Golumbia, Martha Nell Smith, Cheryl E. Ball, Edmond Chang, Anastasia Salter, Carly Kocurek, Jessie Daniels, Amy Earhart, Anne Cong-Huyen, Alexis Lothian, Radhika Gajjala, Carol Stabile, Nishant Shah, Michelle Moravec, Monica Mercado, Simone Browne, Moya Bailey, Brittney Cooper & the Crunk Collective, etc). Consider Sandra Harding and the postcolonial and feminist work of Science and Technology studies foundational to the field. Consider HASTAC, FemTechNet and FemBot foundational initiatives, none of whom have ever received NEH funding for their operations, but have been instrumental to the recent shift in federal digital humanities awards towards the “H” in DH rather than the “D.”
What an impressive list of names! I know half of them from, well, digital humanities conferences. Yes, fund these people, please, somebody. At least the ones that need it the most.
The insistent focus on computing and methodology in the humanities without incisive, introspective examination of their social implications is devaluing the humanities. We shouldn’t be pouring federal money into building tools without making the ideological structure of the process explicit and their social effects and presuppositions open to inspection; we shouldn’t be funding the digitization of canonical (read: white, often male) authors without the simultaneous digitization of works by people of color, especially women of color. To do both is to betray some of the most important lessons which the humanities has learned with the rise of women, gender and sexuality studies, race, ethnic and postcolonial studies and disability studies.
I almost agree with Koh on the first point, except that I would change the words “material conditions” for her “ideological structures,” as in “we shouldn’t be pouring federal money into building tools without making the material conditions of the process explicit.” (N.B. The process is already so to the point of fastidiousness). Ironically, the “incisive, introspective examination of [computing and methodology’s] social implications” can only come with a thorough encounter with the current mechanisms of computing and method that she accuses those who are proven experts of lacking. Though I shiver at the thought of a state organism in charge of vetting the ideological purity of humanists, I fear more the continued insistence that learning computation and engaging in the creation of tools to help each other with our shared mission is somehow auto-magically stopping us from being critical. I fear it more because it is our continuing past.
The second point still needs better documentation. The author has not considered, for example, that private companies do most of the digitizations and databases of primary and secondary sources that libraries consume at prices inflated to protect DRM. I could go on on this subject, but I feel the author has not merited a response based on her lack of research or clarity in the matter.
Instead, let’s reconsider what “core” digital humanities means. Let’s redefine what we mean by the “best,” most critical and seminal digital humanities research. Let’s open digital humanities research to people who don’t have the time and resources to learn a programming language like R, but are happy to use Wordle as an entry into literary texts as data. Let’s consider pedagogy central to DH. Let’s consider class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality primary to and constitutional of the digital humanities, not simply the “diversity box” of political correctness. Let’s remember the fringe fields and movements who did this in the past, but did not receive widespread support and funding, as part of the central history of DH. Only when we completely reconfigure and recenter the humanities in DH will we be able to talk about using the field to “save” humanities departments from extinction.
Digital humanities practitioners in the United States could be doing more as a class to engage in critical matters of the present. No doubt. We are moving in that direction, but we must do so prudently and together, and as time allows. Many individuals not listed above have been doing so for years. We should note also that the United States is very provincial in these matters. A whole world of digital humanities is out there and it does not map neatly to our issues. To speak of cores is difficult in the context of this enormous diversity. As Roopika Risam argued eloquently at the DH2015 conference in Lausanne, local practitioners are the best judges of the quality of an intervention. If we follow her logic, we can see how no ‘core’ or ‘best’ can or should be pushed forward as universals. I would be particularly careful not to do that from a position within the American academy, regardless of the color of my skin or my diasporic credentials.
On the subject of coding, what can I say? Coding is difficult to learn, no doubt, but digital humanities was never closed because you didn’t have the time to learn R. I can’t speak for the construct. The construct might have been closed. Like in any other field of the academy, in digital humanities we find beginners, apprentices and veterans. Beginners are always welcome to make the most of a word cloud. I remember my first! To be honest, I still consider myself to be an apprentice (after roughly ten years!). I will probably be one for years to come. What is perhaps confusing is that training in digital humanities happens outside the curriculum for the most part, and therefore cannot be mapped onto your existing place in the academic hierarchy. Many of us work really hard not to alienate those who are willing to learn coming from the position of experts in other areas. I have also seen enormous acts of patience from some of my teachers when a younger beginner would announce that he/she is the one that is finally going to bring a critical attitude to DH. (This happens very, very often). Koh may be a hero to those beginners who ‘discover’ her. She confirms and reassures folk that what they do is valuable and should be valued. That is a laudable impulse in Koh, the sign of a good teacher, perhaps. Most of us share that sentiment, though. The main difference is simple: most practitioners do not actively seek to divide us into critical thinkers and non-critical tool makers. This is still Barzun, this is still Derrida—even if the circumstances are different, and this is accompanied by the ambivalent desire of walking through a door that was never closed.