Blog Post

...but will it get me tenure?

An alternative title, depending on your place in the academic food chain, could be "...but can you give me a PhD for it?"  In my previous blog post, Academe 2.0 - Prouder, Stuffier, More Disappointed, I claimed that the digital humanities had achieved critical velocity but that:

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.

From which I received a number of thoughtful and exciting responses which, in true blog-padding fashion, I decided to address in a new post rather than individually in response to each comment.  My focus here is not to dismiss these projects, but the orient ourselves toward the traditional role of the humanities scholar: producing original research.

The motivation for this line of thought came from a conversation with Ruth Mostern, also at UC Merced, about the creation of new analytical tools and datasets in the hard sciences and how it was not the creation of a new series of data or spectroscopic technique that garnered scholarly credit, but rather the article written about the results of using such tools or data or techniques.  We follow the same paradigm, wherein peer-reviewed articles, theses and monographs give us the opportunity to present the results of using our digital resources and therefore march toward tenure or PhD.

Many of the examples given in response to my post are traditional articles or are journals dedicated to presenting such pieces of linear scholarship.  They are also tools, such as Zotero, which make the process of creating such linear works more efficient, or they are massive digitized archives (Note that the NEH no longer considers these to be an acceptable use of Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants) or pedagogical aids (Like the websites reviewed at the Public History Resource Center).  All of which are valuable, but none of which are the expected product--read original scholarship--of humanities scholars, at least as far as your tenure and PhD committees are concerned.  As Kirschenbaum points out in "Done: Finishing Projects in the Digital Humanities":

But we cannot escape the pressure of milestones, deadlines, deliverables, and products (as opposed to projects) as the measure of academic success and the currency of professional promotion and reward. They are also what allow our work to escape a small circle of developers and enthusiasts and become part of a larger scholarly community, where it can be used in the consequential manner presumably always intended.

To this I would add the clarifier that our current system demands that the scholarly product must be original scholarship and not a reference work, archive, tool or pedagogical aid.

It's ultimately quite exciting, because the digital medium allows us to create new types of documents, that can be more interactive, dynamic and (I know this word sounds terribly un-hip to us all by now) multimedia.  And yet, the majority of formal digital humanities scholarship continues to be presented in a linear, text-dominated format, with static visualizations (Often screenshots of the dynamic tools we use or the dynamic media we explore).  There are a few dynamic presentations of humanities knowledge out there, but they tend to be constrained by the lack of availability and familiarity with the specialized skillsets and tools used to create them (In my own area of study, I'm forced to export static images of maps created dynamically in ArcGIS, both because I cannot have a reasonable expectation that ArcGIS will be available to reviewers, but also because there are no standards for presentation of claims and data in dynamic maps).

We should be comfortable enough with working in a digital environment to be able to create and peer-review dynamic presentations of original scholarship, something that may have a strong text narrative component but dwells beyond that and makes explicit its connection to the database, code, visualization and audio-visual components that make up modern, complex digital documents.  My inspiration for such a document is the modern computer game (A topic I'll be presenting on at DAC in December), which presents a wide variety of claims (Often terribly ignorant or grossly oversimplified) and does so with little or no linear text component.

Currently, the digital components act as the backend of much of our research (Spatial analysis, statistical analysis, text analysis, creation of visualizations, collation of sources, et cetera) and our delivery method (I can't even tell you if journal stacks still exist in the library), but the actual scholarship itself sits in the middle, an archaic piece of linearity surrounded by a Tronscape of flashing digital dynamism.  We should work to change that.



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