Blog Post

On "The Methodological Turn": Revolution or Reform?

At the Scholars' Lab last week Ray Siemens and Julie Meloni offered two talks under the heading of The Methodological Turn. The title itself fascinated me, inviting comparison with other "turns" in the history of the humanities: most notoriously, perhaps, the "the linguistic turn"; but also the turn to history, or the "theoretical turn" of the 1980s, or the spatial turn (it's a thing, google it). The question of a "methodological turn" equally seems to recall the set of issues I gestured towards in my previous post, particularly those encapsulated in Tom Scheinfeldt's post on a "Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology."

What Drs. Siemens and Meloni offered, however, was entirely more practical. They spoke about the practicalities involving in attempting to re-orient (to turn) scholars towards (or perhaps "on to") various methodologies. Not what is the metholodological turn, but how does one turn methodological? Prof. Siemens described a continuum of practices for the education of scholars in digital methods, ranging from very informal brown bag lunches to certificate- and degree-granting programs. While each of these approaches has its relative merits and challenges, Siemens was interested in highlighting a "sweet spot" in this continuum (which, it was his hope, the DHSI could occupy; see the DHSI curriculum for some sense of the sort of material covered).

Julie's model was, in many ways, a contrast with the "sweet spot" Ray Siemens was trying to locate. Hers was a proposal (there was an acronym... though now it eludes me; it was something catchy) focused on helping to educate "mid-career" scholars in digital humanities methodologies. The idea (and I hope I am doing it justice) is to find a way to help individual scholars train themselves through a curriculum on online materials. (As an example, I mentioned the recent, and I think awesome, TEI By Example, which I've been utilizing quite happily; though I don't recall if Julie confirmed my example or just respectfully allowed me to suggest it...) In it's focus on empowering individual scholars, Julie's project, in its attempt to bring people together outside the formal boundaries of a Digital Humanities Institute or Center, seems to echo some of the things Mark Sample has described (or his comments on digital humanities centers).

I was invited (by the ever-generous Bethany Nowviskie) to offer a brief, informal response to these presentations—just to get the conversational ball rolling (a fun and delightfully unnecessary task). My response was to highlight the in-betweenness I often feel when as a graduate student in English and someone deeply interested in the digital humanities. While the "digital humanities" can seem like an interesing idea to many of colleagues in the English department, it is not clear to me that they recognize anything so well formed as a "turn"; and certainly not one that they feel we need to be concerned about how we will make. Which is to say, while Drs. Siemens & Meloni were interested in discussing the best ways to disseminate a range of skills we might broadly term "methodological," I wanted to return to the value, or the necessity, of these skills. How, I wondered, to convince colleagues in humanities departments (though here I was thinking primarily of my own peers—graduate students in English) of the importance of these skills (however those skills may be disseminated/shared/absorbed)?

I'm not sure that there was a good answer, though I think there was a good conversation. It turned towards both research and teaching. And along the way a number of people noted the sense of urgency which Julie seemed to invoke in her presentation: the sense that these were vital skills, which needed to be made more easily accessible to a broad range of scholars and teachers (particularly those "mid-career" figures who, beyond graduate school, might have a harder time acquiring these skills).

It occurs to me now, though, in the wake of the discussion, that at stake in how we imagine the sharing of these skills is, implicitly, a vision of our changing present, and of the pace at which change is occurring. A more institutionally grounded model, based in certificate-granting DH centers, or even within the DHSI "sweet spot" described by Siemens, I think, seems to assume a gradual dissemination of digital skills as a sort of speciality, relevant to some but not necessary to all. Like textual editing, digital skills are of undoubted value—but they aren't everyone's cup of tea (or cup of TEI; the strong presence of TEI course material at DHSI seems to confirm this analogy between editing, as a local skill, and DH). The other model, I think, carries a greater sense of urgency (we need to educate people now!), because it imagines that humanistic inquiry itself (not just some corner of it) is in the midst, or is on the cusp, of some change (surely, some digital revelation is at hand!). Exactly what this change is may not be entirely clear; though broadly I think it is the sense that the way we interact text is undergoing a massive change (that much seems almost incontestable) that requires a concomitant restructuring of our lives as scholars/teachers.

Am I correct in detecting two differing temporalities in these questions of how to teach digital skills, one gradualist and modest in its ambitions, the other urgent and, perhaps even, Cassandra-like?


1 comment

First, thanks ever so much for being the respondent. I was particularly pleased. Second, I believe that acronym you're looking for the is ever-memorable DSPOADHCFMCSOU. I don't know how on earth you didn't remember that! I'd also like to note here how Lisa Spiro has taken up the cause of Opening Up Digital Humanities Education.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled discussion.