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Deep Impact: a short overview and response to Bethany Nowviskie's "it starts on day one"

Deep Impact: a short overview and response to Bethany Nowviskie's "it starts on day one"

This overview and response was orginated in a recent Digital Humanities course #dh666 and I thought it also speaks to a lot of the conversations many scholars are having here, so I thought I would post this for further converstation.

On her blogBethany Nowviskie lays out "a modest proposal for reforming higher education in the humanities."  She argues that the current model of teaching grad-level methods courses should be abolished; "Kill them" she argues because methods courses no longer effectively prepare "knowledge workers" for the task of communicating/researching/teaching in "21st-century modes", nor do they prepare these "knowledge workers" to "govern 21st-century institutions."  The extinction event Nowviskie presents, "Think: asteroids clobbering dinosaurs," is a witty satirical critique (Swift anyone?) of the humanities institutions that continue to produce PhDs who are not ready to face the institutional structures that have been engrained in their training as humanities scholars, but it is a critique that is important and a critique that can precipitate a rather deep impact on graduate education within the humanities, and can significantly impact how humanities institutions view and implement graduate training by promoting courses that engage critical conversations that go beyond discipline specific methodologies.

Nowviskie provides several ways of beginning this extinction event.  "It starts on day one," as the title of her posts presents," by fostering:

"a generation of faculty and alternative-academic scholar-practitioners who have been trained to work in interdisciplinary contexts and who can not only take advantage of computation approaches to their own research, but who have been instilled with enough of a can-do, maker's ethos that they feel empowered to build and re-build the systems in which they and future students will operate".

This is an important shift in current humanities models of hiring, tenure, and promotion.  Instead of hiring faculty based on disciplinary models of scholarly communication, she urges institutions to foster faculty and alternative-academic scholars who produce original research, but who also have the ability to produce and collaborate within interdisciplinary practices and who feel comfortable building systems for fostering further research and education.

This is a significant paradigm shift that would enable humanities institutions to redefine the boundaries of their current methodological foci and it would also initiate reforms to graduate education.  Since, as Nowviskie also points out, the old methods courses are "shaped almost wholly by the individual faculty who teach them (often as they themselves were taught a generation or two before)," the emergence of new faculty and atl-ac scholar-practitioners would shift the foci of grad-level methods courses to include research practices and methods that go beyond "jargon" specific disciplinary methods courses and introductions to library research; instead courses could be designed to include "current humanities research skills, corpora, and trends - both digital and archival or material" and,

"address issues like: intellectual property and open access; the intersection of scholarship with the public humanities; publishing, preservation, and scholarly communication; funding and material support for research and teaching; interdisciplinary collaboration; matters of credentialing and assessment (peer review, tenure, and promotion), faculty self-governance; and the under-interrogated policies that cover and shape the humanities in the modern college and university."

Nowviskie is presenting a graduate level education reform that would broaden the scope of humanities research and practice to include more than what's happening within the university, department specific, but to what's happening in the university in terms of promotion, tenure, administration, and public policy making.  As Nowviskie points out, "we can no longer afford to produce humanities PhDs who have only a foggy notion of how universities work, and how they are impacted by external technological and social forces."  This is an important argument because it provides a pathway to encouraging interdisciplinary work that goes beyond the work of individual scholars, but includes librarians, university administrators, public professionals, IT and support staff; it decentralized the humanities from the College of Liberal Arts and makes it a stuffy of the system of the human condition that builds the institutional university practitioner.  This is revolutionary.  It is an extinction event.  It means the end of practices that no longer communicate with the forces that institutional current research practices.

But is it enough?  I give Nowviskie an incredible amount of credit for courageously proposing such a reform on higher education.  Still, I wonder if graduate education is the right place to begin.  I agree that the training of humanities PhDs does not stand in accordance with competing technologies and interdisciplinary research practices being fostered within such areas as digital humanities, but I'm not sure killing grad-level methods courses will initiate the impact needed to reform universities policies and traditional institutional practices within the humanities.  To continue with Nowviskie's extinction metaphor, I would point out that an extinction event (asteroids or weed ripping) is a combination of initial force momentum and momentum displacement (a large force alters the regular forces that govern a large body, the ripples of the initial force produces larger ripples that continue until the old practice can no longer survive because the initial space has been altered dramatically).  The point here is that killing grad-level methods courses, I believe, will not initiate enough force to initiate an extinction event.  The incorporation of private and public funding sources and humanities organizations, as Nowviskie notes, would help, but it's not only grad-level methods courses, which fail to properly prepare graduate students (though Nowviskie only directly mentions PhDs, i take her reform to effect those at the Masters level as well), rather it is undergraduate education that needs reform in order to encourage further ripples.  This is not a critique of Nowviskie's position, but rather I would like to go a bit deeper.

I would argue that these old models are already in place before graduate students enter into grad school.  There are a number of these methods courses in undergraduate humanities education.  A brief glimpse at the undergraduate catalogue of any research university will show that methods courses dominate undergraduate education (here are the course offerings for the Department of English at Texas A&M).  To take a further cue from Nowviskie, is it any wonder then that graduate education is such a mess?  If humanities education at the undergraduate level fails to incorporate the important reforms Nowviskie highlights, it will be nearly impossible to enact these reforms at the graduate level because by the time students enter graduate school it is most likely that they have already been trained within traditional disciplinary models.  Katherine Harris has been vocal about this lack of training for undergraduate education.  Her focus on digital pedagogy in the undergraduate classroom highlights a number of important connections between Nowviskie's reforms, (bringing students into the conversation of methodological training, of ways in which technology and digital research practices are re-shaping the landscape of the humanities), and the importance of undergraduate education to the development of graduate and alt-ac scholars-practitioners.

When we begin to restructure this education from the bottom-up, from the undergraduate to the graduate level, then we can begin to see the impact that this new event will have on the future of the humanities.  Nowviskie is absolutely right, "it begins on day one," but that first day must start at the undergraduate level (not to say that it shouldn't also be at the graduate level), but that we must begin to reform how we train undergraduate to think about humanities scholarship before we can reform graduate level practices that have already been institutionalized at the undergraduate level.

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2 comments

I appreciate this emphasis on undergraduate educational reform as an important site for DH. I would like to add that Matthew Gold's discussion of equity in digital humanities is relevant here, and in particular his comment that "community colleges . . . appear to have had a limited involvement in the digital humanities “revolution.”: http://bit.ly/zzCUpT

What would digital humanities really look like on a community college campus? I already know from experience what digital media looks like here on our campus: our community college has worked hard to bring relevant technology and design to our campus, perhaps because such updates fit the American notion of progress. Less visible (read: absent) is a developing critical lens through which to comprehend or critique digital technologies and culture. That would seem too "esoteric" I think--I suspect that most administrators wouldn't even understand what Joanna Drucker says when she writes that "graphical tools" can be "a kind of intellectual Trojan horse, a vehicle through which assumptions about what constitutes information swarm with potent force" ("Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display").

DH critical methods, pedagogies and practices must filter into the community college now.  And educators who have already been through graduate programs and are teaching need to begin this now. In other words, we can't wait for a 10 year reform at the graduate level so that some trickle-down effect will occur that will benefit the CC student. Many current  CC practitioners are armed with critical theory that emerged pre-DH (the 90s?) but (from what I'm reading) is nevertheless entirely serviceable in the DH context. The problem is that on the CC campus, "technology" is seen as something you call IT about. Or maybe Media Studies. But you don't call up a Shakespeare scholar. And that's too bad for our current Shakespeare students. Some of them may never make it to the undergraduate levels that we think of when we think of seminars in DH.

What will that look like? How can it translate? We'll only know by building it here in the CCs at the same time that the other reforms are taking place.

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Anne,

Thank you for the thoughtful response.  Matthew Gold's discussion is important for this conversation, especially if, like you mentioned, we want to do this now (which we need to do) and not wait for a decade long reform process (though that is important overall for larger institutionalization issues), but that change needs to be initiated now by practitioners and by community activists (something Nowviskie is careful to point out). 

Community Colleges are important locations to begin this reform.  As someone who began at a community college, I know that “technology” was something left to the technicians (I worked part-time as one in our writing center) and almost never crossed to the classroom or to discussions with CC scholars about teaching, or working with technology.  Methods courses at this level, at least for me, were literary methods of reading and writing, and theoretical methods.  By the time I transferred to a university, I was already prepared (old school style) to do the type of literary work I understood to be the norm at that level.  It wasn’t until grad school that I learned about humanities computing and digital rhetorics and I wonder what my undergraduate education would have been like if either my CC or my university had worked to construct methods courses that engaged questions about technologies, or had taught us how to practice digital research at that level.  It sometimes happens that CCs don’t get the funding for these types of reforms, but I can think of no better place to start. 

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