Blog Post

Digital Humanities, Counting, And Form


[NOTE: I'm anxious to post this while still (somewhat) fresh in my mind despite it being prior to the formal start of the HASTAC Scholar program.]

On August 1st Laura Mandell from Miami University, Ohio visited myhome institution, Dartmouth College, on the invitation of ResearchComputing to present on NINES(Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century ElectronicScholarship) and her experiences both as an architect of?cyber-infrastructure? and a user, through the Poetess Archiveproject. She described NINES as an intervention in what she, and manyothers, have described as a crisis in academic publishing. Through asuite of tools, primarily one called COLLEXusers of NINES ?curate? digital exhibits or projects across the rangeof affiliated NINES projects. In this way NINES appears to function asboth a federation and a repository. As described, NINES has evolvedthrough several of the major stumbling blocks for projects in thedigital humanities, and for data repositories in general. These includelicensing (COLLEX users select from Creative Commons Licenses),standardized data/information submission (XML-based projectsubmission), and peer-review (through the creation of review boards).

The larger issue at hand, as always, is in finding ways to makescholarly projects ?count.? By count, I mean in the various ways BillBrown uses the termcounting, as in, for example, his mise en scène of a dean examining astack of materials as evidence of scholarly output in her decision ofwhether to grant a promotion. Laura, and NINES?s, solution to thisproblem (can we call it a lack of physicality?) is to print paperversions of digital projects on demand. Rice University Press, inparticular, has made progress in promoting themselves as digitalpublishers and through a partnership with NINES can turn the virtualinto that highly valued physical ?thing,? the single-author monograph.While this transformation from the hyper to the printed, fixed, andlinear will surely assist our deans and tenure committees in locatingobjects, it leaves open other questions of counting. For example, howare we to understand the disciplinary nature of a curated exhibit? Onecan easily imagine the first steps to producing such a project would beto select a series of objects, say photographs of furniture orpaintings, from digital archives and then constructing a narrativearound them. Do we place these projects within the domain of arthistory or are we somewhere else? Another question to be asked in this,what I presume to be temporary, scenario of printing on demand theseprojects fundamentally different from any number of journal articlesmaking use of material culture studies? Perhaps not so in the printedform, but we have introduced a great change in flattening out a web ofconnections and in removing viewer interaction.

Finally, another important form of academic accumulation is in thesocial capital gained in the public display of scholarship. TheDivision of Humanities at The University of Chicago has an annual partyfor faculty members who have published books during the previous year.Among copious amounts of the best wine and cheese served all yearfaculty circulate around a large table viewing the spread of colorfulbooks. The occasional CD appears, but the primary fetish object is themonograph. I imagine in the near future events such as these mayfeature a computer, or perhaps one per digital project, but thequestion will now be: what sort of digital project is the equivalent toa book? Will we have a division dean measuring the size (in megabytes,bandwidth, number of clicks?) of a project? Or perhaps we should countthe time spent writing code, encoding text, searching archives, andformulating an interpretation.

Despite a number of reservations regarding the digital humanities,I?m excited about the infusion of energy into the humanities fromprojects such as NINES. Issues around peer-review and evaluation willeventually be worked out as more scholars become familiar withtechnology and with the promotion of scholars already working withthese media. One of the greatest benefits, which will eventually come,might be in the transformation of this form of scholarship from thecuratorial to the argumentative.


No comments