Friday, February 11, 2011

Going it alone

I've spent a lot of the last week trying to convince Princeton undergrads it's OK to occasionally disagree with each other, even if they're not sure they're right. So let me make one of my notes on one of the places I've felt a little bit of skepticism as I try to figure what's going on with the digital humanities.

Since I'm late to the party, I've been trying to catch up a bit on where the field is now. One thing that jumped out is how wide-ranging the hopes are for what the digital humanities might do if they take over the existing disciplines or create their own. Being a bit of a job market determinist myself, I wonder if the wreckage many see in the current structure of the humanities doesn't promote a little bit of millenarian strand about how great the reconstruction might be. I feel occasionally I've stumbled into Moscow 1919 or Paris 1968; there are manifestos, there are spontaneous leaderless youth, and in the wreckage of the old system, anything seems possible for the new technological man. Digital humanities, to exaggerate the claims, will create the mass audience academic historians have lost, will reaffirm the importance of public history in the field, will create new fields with new jobs, will break down the boundaries between disciplines, will allow collaborative history to finally emerge. And it might be in danger if it's co-opted by the powers-that-be, as John Unsworth finds many worrying (pdf).

Paris 1968 is an exciting place to be. I've been watching Al-Jazeera all week. But all these transformations promised by DH won't happen all at once, and some of them won't happen at all. As I try to write some of this up for a Princeton audience (which is why, along with the start of our term last week, I'm not blogging much right now) I'm thinking about what it takes to get skeptical historians on board, and what parts of the promised land might put them off.

The thing I'm mulling over: collaboration. A colleague said to me yesterday he thought the digital humanities will come and go before most historians ever stopped working alone, and I think I tend to agree.  I'm pretty much agnostic on the need for collaborative history, myself. Certainly, digital humanities open up fascinating new prospects for collaborative projects. But so far as we're trying to get anyone established on board, an insistence on collaboration might be as much a liability as a benefit. I'm signing up for a THATcamp, but I have to admit a bit of trepidation about putting in volunteer work onto anything that isn't mine. Not just for selfishness, but because we often have funny standards about academic work it's difficult to impose on others. I went to a talk this week where one participant says he refuses to use the words "idea" or "concept." No one can live up to all the constraints we might want to put on work, but it's often fascinating to see what people come up with when we let them do things wholly their own way. Labs aren't always amenable to humanist practices because it's critically important for the health of our disciplines that we don't agree on methodology.

Luckily, then, I've been most struck by in the last couple months is how far one can go it alone right now--unlike the early years of humanities computing (or so I gather), you don't need teams to get computing time, all the truly technical work of digitization, OCR, and cataloging has been done by groups like the Internet Archive, and free software makes it possible to get started on some forms of analysis quite quickly. It's quite possible for someone at a university without any digital humanities infrastructure to do work in text mining or GIS without having a full lab or collaborative team behind them. Sure, it's harder than firing up an iPad app; but I'm not sure it's that much worse than all the commands plenty of senior academics learned in the dark ages to check their e-mail on pine or elm.

What about all the collaborative the labs and programs we already have? Clearly they do more than anything to advance the field, and it's hard to imagine all the great work coming out of GMU or Stanford (say) happening with lone scholars. But it's equally hard for me to imagine that the digital humanities will have actually succeeded until there's a lot of good work coming out that doesn't need the collaborative model, and that answers to some of the expectations of solitary scholars about how humanistic work is produced. At least, that's what I'm thinking for now.


  1. I had a longer comment here before Blogspot ate it, but I'll just say briefly: Thanks for this post.

    I think your points about the long tradition of solitary work in the humanities, as distinct from collaboration, are important. Most of the grad students I know doing digital work in history are making things up as we go along, and to a degree, that's how it should be. But I'm concerned that the solitary-innovation mythos of humanities research, especially at the dissertation stage, inhibits us from talking with one another about the methods we're using. What if historians' reluctance to do collaborative work isolates us unnecessarily, when figuring out what digital methods are good for might be better done in pairs or small group?

    I think it's important for historians to be talking about communities of practice as an alternative to the collaborative research project and to solitary work. I'd love to have more contexts for talking with historians about what any given digital method is good for, rather than getting semi-blindsided in an interview about my interests in spatial history. The internet is great, but it's no match for the high-bandwidth discussions one can have in a regular departmental seminar/working-group on digital methods.

  2. Shane,

    Thanks for the comments, this is really interesting. You're totally right that we need informal connections for exploring and learning how to do stuff, and historians probably do hide, in bad ways, the discussions about finding methods.

    I think you're right to point to the seminar as a model of small-group interaction that is native to and amenable to current historical practice. Maybe it's not collaboration per se that I should be skeptical of, but collectivization. What seminars are good at is helping each participant to be themselves more purely--what labs are good at is helping each person get with the collective program. The former is going to be an easier sell.

  3. Ben: Might we run such a seminar (or at least a series) here at Princeton sometime soon? I think you and Shane are both right to mention this as one of the best ways forward.

    I wonder (apropos of this conversation, among others) whether we might not also have the "larger" (deeper? not sure) conversation about the assumptions that underlie the move to DH scholarship or the lack thereof.

    That is, mightn't these new methods be an opportunity to push back against implicit theoretical structures that run pretty deep in the discipline? Not to make DH into a means to another end - but, actually, I think that's one way to embed it pretty firmly, and isn't that far off from what you've suggested.

    Just a thought!