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Boundary Work and Digital Humanities: An Interview with Julie Thompson Klein

Julie Thompson Klein is Professor of Humanities Emerita in the English Department and former Faculty Fellow for Interdisciplinary Development in the Division of Research at Wayne State University (USA). She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon, and is past president of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS), and is a former editor of the AIS journal.

Since her last HASTAC feature in 2012, Klein has continued to earn recognition as a leading thinker in interdisciplinary scholarship. She is the subject of an upcoming special feature of the AIS journal Issues in Interdisciplinary Studies, entitled “Engaging and Extending the Work of Julie Thompson Klein.” In 2017 she was the Distinguished Woman in Residence at the University of British Columbia, highlighting her work on interdisciplinarity and digital humanities. And, in the same year she received the Science of Team Science Recognition Award. In addition, she has been an Affiliate of TdLab at ETH-Zurich since 2015 advancing research projects that cross boundaries of the academy and stakeholders in society.

All the while Klein has continued to publish widely in the areas of interdisciplinarity and digital humanities. In 2015, she published Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emergent Field (University of Michigan Press), a book that examines the interdisciplinary nature of digital humanities and the boundary work of establishing and sustaining a new field of study; it won the UM Press/HASTAC Publication Prize for Notable Work in the Digital Humanities. Klein also co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 2017), and has published numerous articles, book forwards, and book chapters in this area over the past five years. Her current book project continues her investigation of boundary work, which she argues supplants the term “interdisciplinarity” by including the plurality and complexity of crossing boundaries of academic disciplines, interdisciplinary fields, and sectors of society including government, industry, and the public sphere.

Klein is invited to speak both nationally and internationally as an expert in interdisciplinarity. This past year, she delivered the opening keynote address at the University of Paris international colloquium, on the paradigm of interdisciplinary studies, the closing keynote at the International Network for Transdisciplinary Research (TD-NET) in Lüneburg, Germany, and the inaugural address for the new academic year at the University of Geneva’s Global Studies Institute. In 2015, she was also an invited expert at the Centennial Symposium of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and in 2014, was Distinguished Lecturer at the National Science Foundation. In 2012, as well, she gave a keynote address at the ATLAS Transdisciplinarity Conference at Asia University in Taiwan.

In addition to continuing to serve on the Executive Committee of HASTAC, Klein was an invited member of the National Research Council Task Force on Convergence, and continues to serve on committees of the Science of Team Science network. And, she was a founding member of the editorial board of the interactive Team Science Toolkit at the National Cancer Institute.

When you spoke with Conor Shaw-Draves in 2012, you discussed trends in both Digital Humanities (DH) and interdisciplinarity that are fostering collaborative modes of scholarly production. What additional changes have you seen in the five years since, and how do you see these two fields growing together?

In writing Interdisciplining Digital Humanities, my goal was to test the widespread claim that Digital Humanities (DH) is interdisciplinary by examining the boundary work of establishing, expanding, and sustaining a new field. Five years is a short time to gauge change despite the widespread rhetoric of “revolution” and “transformation.” Yet, digital tools, concepts, and environments have continued to expand. Dating from computational linguistics in the mid-twentieth century, the field of DH underwent a sea change with the advent of the internet. By 2017 it is encompassing new digital-born objects, forms of scholarship and publication, new areas such as gaming studies, critique of the impact of the computer on behavior and culture, and a new rhetoric and epistemology of Making highlighted in HASTAC Executive Committee member Jentery Sayers’ new book Making Things and Drawing Boundaries.

However, challenges to sustainability, infrastructure, and preservation of digital content persist. They stem from the weakened funding climate in humanities, conservative policies for publication as well as tenure and promotion, lack of common standards and evaluation criteria, resistance to interdisciplinary innovation, and uneven development across disciplines, fields, and institutions. Differing priorities also appear across instrumental work focused on producing tools and critiques of digital media and culture. A large part of my research, then, tracks trajectories, methodologies, theoretical positions, schools of thought, and institutional locations of inter- and trans-disciplinary fields. I also examine dynamics of integration and collaboration in trading zones of expertise and communities of practice.

Finally, in answer to the question of whether Digital Humanities is an interdisciplinary field, I suggest a triple efficacy is unfolding across disciplines, interdisciplinary fields, and professions; within and across their institutional locations; and within and across all organizations and fields that are grappling with implications of digital technologies and new media. DH has also evolved to include public humanities and larger cultural critique. At the same time “interdisciplinary” is no longer adequate to account for the plurality of forms and meanings that have emerged over the twentieth century. Researchers and educators are crossing boundaries of not only disciplines but also interdisciplinary fields, and sectors of society including government, industry, and the public sphere where academics and stakeholders are engaging in co-production of knowledge.

What role does mentoring play in fostering the complexity of this change?

A study of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program suggested graduate students are the glue between their professors and knowledge change. HASTAC has been a leader in this regard, advancing interdisciplinary work by creating a framework for mentoring in a home discipline or field. As the nature of knowledge is increasingly interdisciplinary, so is the nature of knowledge exchange. HASTAC and the successor to IGERT, the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) program, are bridging mechanisms for boundary crossing work and raise important questions about how we represent professions in education and training. Too much of what happens in interdisciplinary fields, however, is invisible labor, making empowerment of both students and scholars crucial. Whether seeking a job or tenure and promotion, they need to articulate the DH and Making as epistemology, process is equally if not more important. The challenge is to teach students how to articulate the nature and value of their work.

What excites you most about the future of the humanities and of scholarship in general?

HASTAC co-founder Cathy Davidson’s recent book, The New Education, highlights both challenges facing higher education and strategies for responding. The challenges parallel some of the impediments to interdisciplinary work I identify, including adjunctification of teaching labor accompanied by deprofessionalization of faculty, rising tuition costs and student debt, narrow prioritizing of STEM and reductive skills training, corporatization of the university, and (for DH especially) steering between extremes of technophobia and technophilia. Formidable though these challenges are, Davidson argues we are at a tipping point for change. The common denominator in models and strategies is moving beyond narrow skills training to help students navigate their futures by understanding the complexity of the world they live in, coping with change by learning how to learn, steering between extremes, and cultivating a new literacy grounded in skills of deep and critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and cross-cultural understanding. Having a “palpable impact” does not mean jettisoning everything but keeping what works well while shedding inherited features by “unbundling” and “rebundling” practices.

Two concepts -- “mobilizing networks” and “spatializing practices” -- illustrate how HASTAC has been fostering positive change. In The Future of Learning Institutions, Davidson and David Theo Goldberg proposed a definition of institutions as “mobilizing networks,” characterized by traits Davidson echoes in her book, including horizontal structures that flatten expert authority, a shift from predetermined expert authority to collective credibility, decentering pedagogy, networked learning through social engagement and cooperation, and a conception of learning based on connectivity and interactivity. HASTAC Executive Board member Anne Balsamo invoked the concept of “spatializing practices,” building on Michel de Certeau’s distinction between “place” from “space.” A place such as a university or school has stable boundaries and a fixed location. Space is “a practiced place” created by actions.

Finally, what challenges in both DH and interdisciplinarity do you imagine prioritizing in the future?

We need to bridge a continuing gap between the rhetoric of change and the reality of institutional structures. HASTAC is one of many indicators of a cumulative force for crossing boundaries across all divides of knowledge and culture. The shared goal for all of us is to move from beautiful pockets of change to a sustainable, system-wide shift in the framework of knowledge production. We are at a historical point where support for interdisciplinarity and innovative uses of technology HASTAC enables exist. We must, however, remain diligent in fostering forward-looking communities of practice. 

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