Blog Post

Are you going into the cave?

One of the hallmarks of the digital humanities is the collaborative nature of the work.What we do is interdisciplinary by nature, and we generally believe that the more eyeballs a project receives, the better. We also fully recognize that no one person has all the expertise necessary to move things forward in a meaningful way, and we are happy to draw upon and share our skills as resources for the common good.

Blogger Peter Cashmore wrote yesterday that sharing personal information is the wave of the future, one that you'll have to opt out of if you're into privacy. However, privacy is passé - actually, "privacy is dead" - and it is the life lived in public that has value. Social media "give us a simple choice: participate or fade into a lonely obscurity."

I think about this "lonely obscurity," and about my dissertation. I'm in English, even though my project is in virtual-worlds research. I have a committee, of course, but - as with all English PhDs - I'm writing a single-author work. As some of my classmates put it, I'm going to have to go into the cave, and when I emerge I'll have a shiny dissertation and an equally shiny PhD.

This is something we've always done in the humanities, I'm told. We come up with a brilliant idea, we research it, we write it up. We produce a monograph, a work on one subject by one author. Except that my friends studying the Renaissance and Middle Ages tell me that this is a myth, something that we imagine the monks of yore used to do - sitting alone in the monastery, producing beautifully illuminated manuscripts. This image has helped shape the way we do our work, and it's a total lie.

And then I look across to the science side of our campus, where engineers and computer scientists and psychologists write joint papers all the time, and where dissertation work is often a collaborative project. And I ask myself, why don't we?

I am indeed always hearing about collaborative work in the digital humanities. My real question is this: how many of us are (or are going to be) sitting in the metaphorical cave? Is anyone working on a collaborative project for their final doctoral project? Is this even a possibility for anyone? And should it be?



I think that going into the proverbial cave is un unfortunate necessity for a dissertation in the humanities, if only for the sake of getting a job and securing tenure.  Because the dissertation is generally (at least in my field of Art History) a project that develops into a book, a project that sees you through to tenure, I think it is still expected that it be individual work.  Outside of this particular project, however, I don't think there is stigma attached to collaboration.  Collaboration can be more difficult than working alone, but it can also be more rewarding and fruitful.  In my particular area of interest - Greek sculpture - the sculpture itself is studied by Art Historians, and their bases, an integral part of the whole, are studied by Epigraphists in Classics Departments.  Lately, there has been a good deal of fruitful collaboration between the two, but I still think that many of the resulting works are single-authored, despite the collaboration (perhaps consultation may be a better word here) in research.  Still, it is only a small step from where we are now to using collaboration - particularly interdisciplinary collaboration - on a larger scale.  It only takes willing scholars, like us.


I have noticed that people do collaborate on portions of the work for their dissertation. For instance, one of the doc students in my program came up with her topic after working with a professor and some other docs on a funded project. One student built the system to house the data that she is using. Her data and her dissertation feed off this collaborative project even if the only author name on the dissertation will be her own. I imagine she will have an acknowledgements section with their names since they did contribute to the work.

And I think later on, when writing something that is not considered the "magnum opus," we do collaborate a lot. (Or at least we do in library and information science.) We collaborate on furthering our research agendas with like-minded colleagues after the trial by fire of the dissertation. But I think "trial by fire" is the optimal word here - I've had it explained to me or implied to me that the dissertation is the big hoop we have to jump through in order to be accepted into the scholarly community. Because of that, it's important that the individual demonstrate capacity for the the ownership and management of the dissertation project; but at least in my field, it certainly can't be denied that your advisor and committee and possibily others aren't collaborating with you. They most definitely are even if the collaboration is largely a mentorship one.


I'm also in an English department and am in the cave these days, too. I'm also a medievalist and certainly haven't had much opportunity for collaboration. I suspect if I were asking different questions, (doing quantitative research, perhaps) I'd have a chance for it, but it doesn't bother me much... other than the persistent isolation. Maybe because we tend to study individual authors and spend so much time ourselves writing that we find it natural to work alone. Plus, the type of research we do--reading texts, theories, then synthesizing our thoughts--would be exceedingly difficult to do in more than a single head.

Oddly enough, I wrote a blog post on this topic this week before reading yours; I even used the image of the medieval scribe. Funny that we're thinking about such similar things: