Blog Post

Academe 2.0 - Prouder, Stuffier, More Disappointed

The new HASTAC, complete with bar-coded pronunciation, is up and running and doesn't it look great?  Isn't it interesting how seamlessly all these fora and blog tools (though surprisingly none of the widgets common to DeviantArt and other social networking sites) blend into the discourse of the modern scholar.  I'm still subscribed to listservs and none of us are ready to cut our ties with symbols, in ink, on paper, but I can't shake this feeling that the Digital Humanities is no longer an orchid requiring specialized care and a critically calibrated environment but, rather, that it is the synthesis emerging from a socio-academic dialectic.  We can't stop it, we can't cause it, and so now, I think, is the time to focus on corralling it.  We could all hold another scholarly Burning Man to celebrate achieving critical velocity, or we could furrow our brows and get to work on the new antithesis.

So let me officially declare myself on the side of the disappointed and stuffy.  Proudly disappointed and stuffy, I must add.  If you, too, want to be disappointed and stuffy, then join me on this painful but necessary exercise:  Name 10 great digital humanities projects.  Get rid of the ones that are reference works or archives.  Why?  Because research universities are tasked with producing scholar to scholar communication, and that's what we need to be producing, except in dynamic, digital form.  Pedagogical aids, archives, references and community support agents are valuable, but there's a reason why we've turned into a cult whose rituals focus on the sacred peer-reviewed article or book and I don't think we should drop that model just because we've adopted a new medium.

As an aside, if you do not work at a research one, then I'm not arguing you should turn your liberal arts college into that, but rather that I'm focusing on what I think is a critical problem with current digital projects.

Alright, back to the stuffiness.  Remember your very short list of projects?  Well, get rid of the ones that still haven't been finished (Because, really, if you were a peer reviewer and someone handed you a monograph that had 20 blank pages at the end and they assured you that they were going to finish those--or that you or any interested scholar were welcome to do so--would you approve it for publication?). Classic Digital Humanities projects that last forever must (must {MUST}) be exorcised from the scholarly world.  No, really.  I'm not ready to get rid of Peer Review and even Crowd Review (crowd-sourced or commons-based peer collaborative review relying on experts and/or non-experts) requires strict version control.

The best digital humanities projects make their claims in linear text narratives with some static visualizations, with the digital media used as a resource from which to draw the fixed statistical, spatial and visual representations of data.  In doing so they subject their claims to peer review and allow us to advance scholarship.  Sadly, the digital media itself has not been given the scrutiny it deserves.  It's time to do just that.  We've done a marvelous job lauding the achievements (both practical and conceptual) of digital projects, it's about time we turn a more critical gaze toward them.  How many negative reviews of digital projects have we seen?  How many in-depth critiques of coding, design, interfaces, breadth and sourcing have we engaged in?  And why haven't we, when we're trained to do just that when confronted with linear text narratives in support of a thesis?

The time for celebration of the digital humanities is over.  It's time for us to grow stuffy, I say.  Stuffy and proud and disappointed.  It will be good for our scholarship and good for ourselves.

 

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5 comments

Elijah, I think you're absolutely right to point out that too many DH projects either never reach completion or do so far too slowly. Having worked in the IT industry, I'm amazed at the speed difference with which an industry project is completed versus one initiated by academics. Of course, there are structural incentives for academic projects not to finish too soon: if you only do part of a project, but have something to show, then you can apply for yet more funding to keep going. This is not to suggest that people aren't working in good faith, but that they might plan projects in stages specifically so they can continue to receive funding. Then there's also the problem that most digital humanists have many other responsibilities--teaching, other reasearch, service, etc.--that keeps them from focusing solely on whatever project they have. In the industry, the situation is exactly the opposite: you have a project that you complete, then you go on to create another product.

I suspect the current research model and mindset we use for producing books and articles are just poorly suited to finishing technology projects. The leisurely pace just isn't acceptable, but, as I said, there are several structural problems keeping that pace down.

Since I've recently gotten some grant money to develop my own digital humanities project (essentially, a data-mining and cross-referencing tool), I'm finding myself frustrated with the glacial pace of the academic institution. Thankfully, I'm partnering with a coder who is actively working in the IT industry, so we're moving ahead while waiting for the university to catch up with us, provide us our funding, servers, etc. We're also using standard business practices, like a design charter, solid goals with deadlines, and similar techniques to keep us on track as we work. All this is to suggest that, rather than keeping everything within the universities, as seems to be the case now, more DH project leaders should be looking toward industry folks to give things a shot in the arm.

On your second point--being more critical of projects--I think that's incredibly hard to do right now given the regular lack of completion. In most cases, if project actually offers something worth using at all (and why bother criticizing things not worth using?), then it's often hard enough just to get the project the publicity it needs for people to actually use it. One example that comes to mind is Zotero. I know far too many grad students and others who could really benefit from it that haven't even heard of the plugin, even though it's probably one of the most high profile DH projects out there. (Aside: now that the 2.0 version offers cloud syncing, it's actually useful!) So, while I don't disagree that we need to hold projects to higher standards, I think the first goal needs to be pushing for more collaboration with professional IT people and adoption of standard business practices; we are, after all, trying to create products, right? So why not adopt the techniques people use who do this work for a living?

I'm curious to know why you downplay "pedagogical aids, archives, references and community support agents", though. Do you have examples (either real or imaginary) of the types of projects you think we should focus on? You mention "scholar to scholar communication", which, clearly, is what HASTAC enables, but it sounds like you're saying that's the sort of thing that everyone should focus on; if that's the case, I'm not sure I agree. Even though community-building and communication is, of course, vital, it's not the only worthy pursuit.

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Thanks for the response, Michael.  I agree with you that we should integrate the best practices of software development into the development of digital humanities media.  There are entire industries that have proven track records of envisioning, designing and building innovative products that have developed a raft of lessons that we all should learn.

As far as scholar to scholar communication, I'm not referring to casual communication, but rather rigorous communication of research and theses with footnotes, references and data, as is currently accomplished with monographs and scholarly journals.  By no means am I saying that digital humanities media shouldn't include pedagogy, reference works, archives, tools, community sites and public humanities showcases, I'm simply pointing out that we are not using this new media to communicate complex, scholarly claims from one scholar to the academic community, to be criticized, built upon, discarded or accepted.  We *are* using digital media as a source material to make claims in narrative structure, but that seems a rather limited, mediated way to deal with all these amazing new tools, processes and environments.

I said stuffy in the title because I think it's time for us to drag some of our formal standards into our expectations for digital humanities media.  I think that we are perfectly justified and, in fact, should be required to criticize incomplete projects and projects not worth using (For just those reasons).  It's already being done, but it's not being done so in an official manner that's going to help us all to establish some standards and advance the field.

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Thanks for your post, Elijah.  To engage in the list of ten excercise, here goes (in no particular order):

A Companion to Digital Humanities (http://digitalhumanities.org/companion/)

Temporal Modeling at UVA's SpecLab (http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/time/storyboard/index.html)

The Agrippa Files (http://agrippa.english.ucsb.edu/kirschenbaum-matthew-g-with-doug-reside-...)

Vectors (http://vectors.usc.edu/vectorspace.html)

Kairos (http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/)

Digital Humanities Quarterly (http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/) (including: http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/2/000037.html, which is quite relevant to your post)

Digital Medievalist (http://www.digitalmedievalist.org/journal/)

Technological Ecologies and Sustainability (http://ccdigitalpress.org/ebooks-and-projects/tes)

Zotero (echoing Michael: http://www.zotero.org/)

Literature + (http://currents.cwrl.utexas.edu/Spring08/Liu)

I will also suggest that the formal standards for print publications cannot simply be mapped onto digital scholarship.  Nevertheless, I would also say that each of the above, especially the journals listed, no doubt follow rigorous standards for publication and circulation. 

Looking forward to more here!

 

 

 

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I agree wholeheartedly with your post, above. Nonetheless I'd like to challenge you on a couple of points:

1) I'd like to second the request for your own list of great projects. This would, in part, help me to understand what you mean by the digital humanities, especially if it does not include archives and reference works. I would like to see if there are any undeclared criteria for what makes a project "great:" eg. scale, ambition, accessibility, applicability to many fields within the humanities, the technologies used.

2)  Does it make sense to discount those archives, reference works etc? Some of these are definitely means by which academics communicate, both with other academics and with the world outside the academy. They are methods of constructing knowledge, and often ongoing projects as well as products (I'm thinking first here about the Encyclopedia of Islam, which is used as a resource something like a very organized, peer-reviewed journal by scholars).

3) Exactly what you do mean by "finished" and "strict version control?" I'm guessing you mean a stable, operating version of the project that people can use, but I'm deliberately being a bit obtuse here: I have worked in software development and have an idea of what version control is, but I'm wondering where you draw your boundaries. Are you discounting projects that are intended to grow over time/with use? Are you discounting projects in beta/test bed stages?

I have a further set of questions regarding the whole business of building projects and products, and why departments in the humanities in academic institutions should be doing it. I'm hoping your list, or everyone's lists, of "best" DH projects might help me formulate those questions in a useful form. A poorly-formed version of the first group of questions, however, is; "what constitutes a digital humanities project? Is there any common method or intent that would link "the digital humanities" together as a whole (beyond something like "using computation in the pursuit of human interests")? Who can make such a thing (academic departments? Companies? People with no special qualifications at large)? Aside from attachment to a particular set of institutions, for what reason would we choose to make software tools or products in universities, rather than outside them?"

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I think using the term "digital humanities" to discuss standards is somewhat problematic. When we talk about standards by which to critique a digital project, most of us defer to the discplinary, or interdisciplinary, training we've had.

While I work under the broad umbrella called digital humanities, I do digital history. I wouldn't be a good judge of digital linguistics work, but I do critique digital history. In fact, I've been trained to do so. Digital history standards, by which new media is critiqued, were created as early as 2000 by journals such as Public History, http://www.publichistory.org/reviews/rating_system.html). And a university press published a guide that offers standards of good practice (see Cohen and Rosenzweig's Digital History, also available for free online: http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/). Most history journals review new media even if the limited number of articles printed do not treat digital history or humanities topics often.

There are different kinds of work w/in digital history, as with other branches of the digital humanities umbrella. There are tools and sites that help us accomplish our work; products of personal and collaborative scholarship in the form of blogs, digital journals, wikis, and online exhibitions; and teaching and learning sites that teach others to think in the ways that scholars do and provides the means to demonstrate those skills.

Many of these sites and tools are critiqued on blogs, listservs, on twitter, in print and online journals, and at conferences.

There are many mediocre projects and tools, but also many good ones. I think that part of our job as digital--whatever-we-want-to-call-ourselves--is also to talk about and critique work for scholarship, functionality, design, usefulness, et al, casually and in public forums.

Problems with projects not getting finished may be an issue of project management, which is not a  DH-specific problem.

 

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