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4Humanities Talk: Advocating for the Humanities with Alan Liu

4Humanities Talk: Advocating for the Humanities with Alan Liu

On October 24, Alan Liu gave a talk at UCLA titled “Advocating for the Humanities Today: and 4Humanities@UCLA.” The event was organized by the fabulous Miriam Posner, UCLA Digital Humanities Program Coordinator, Anne Cong-Huyen, HASTAC Scholar alum and current Mellon Postdoc Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor at UCLA, and Todd Presner, Chair of the Digital Humanities Program.

Liu is one of the co-founders and coordinators of 4Humanities (of which HASTAC is an affiliate), an initiative that advocates for the humanities by drawing from the technologies and talents of local as well as international digital humanities communities. He was also joined by Kristin Cornelius, one of the 4Humanities CSU-Northridge leaders, who presented the 4Hum MiniDocs initiative. 

I was fortunate to speak with Alan Liu before the event -- below, you’ll find a transcript of the conversation I had with Liu, as well as a brief overview of his talk. Be sure to check out the Storify of tweets from the talk, which includes a photo of the really cool 4Humanities Infographic! 


What can HASTAC Scholars do to participate in and contribute to 4Humanities? Are there projects that Scholars can collaborate on?

The obvious place or niche for HASTAC Scholars around the country would be to pitch in on some of the projects; we'll just need to organize and coordinate it. In the #WhatEvery1Says project, for example, we’re collecting a corpus of public discourses and statements about the humanities – and I think that project has legs, if we just show the know-how and person power behind it. We need to find a workflow to scrape the taxonomy, we need to do topic modeling, as well as some social network discourse analysis -- there are a lot of things I’d like to do with the corpus that we’re developing. The hypothesis there is that we may not actually know the common means or talking points about the humanities, either pro or against. We know what the critics of the humanities say -- for instance, politicians in some occasions, university administrators, and so on. We know the kinds of things that humanities profs and grad students say, but we don’t know that we actually understand the sub-themes we’re developing, and what the connections between these themes are. We also don't know whether we talk about the humanities differently in the US East, the US West, Latin America, Europe, England, the Commonwealth countries, France, and so on. There’s a lot to be discovered. It’s partly research and it’s partly to help us strategize how we reach the public. I’m especially interested in the generational divide or generational bridge between younger people and older scholars, so I’d like to find out how students talk about the humanities, if they do at all – I think that would be a particularly rich resource to tap. Besides working technically on topic modeling and text analysis with us, HASTAC Scholars would be ideal liaison with younger people, both at the graduate and undergraduate student levels. One example is a documentary project that we’re doing, where we’re trying to show humanities scholars with young people in the classroom, all the way from K-12 up to graduate students. If we can get HASTAC Scholars involved in interviewing local community members, local young people, as well as professors at the their institutions, that would be a wonderful pipeline of content.

It sounds like there are a lot of possibilities and spaces for collaborations, including non-digital or low-tech work.

That’s right. It's a fallacy to think that a project like 4Humanities can concentrate just on digital media. The real mystery is how to intermix the new media with old media. Not many of us are very well accomplished or experienced at, for example, writing opinion pieces via newspapers, writing letters to the editor, writing to politicians, etc. I think the future belongs to people who can strategize ways of creating a medley of publicity and ublic engagement and awareness for the humanities that crosses all those media forms. I’m very jealous, in some ways, of the British intellectuals -- people like Stefan Collini, for example, are well-versed at writing columns and opinion pieces in, for example, the Guardian newspaper that reach a large audience, both the academics and the public. We don’t have the same kinds of traditions or talent pool in the US of people who do that kind of public engagement and public humanities. Sitting here in the Los Angeles area, Maybe there is a way that we can create a mix of Hollywood talent, new media Silicon Valley talent, and old-school newspaper talent as well. Places like USC, for example, has programs like Media Arts and Practice and the Annenberg School of Communication, so there is a lot of concentration of talents right now at the convergence of different media forms, and if we can tap into that, that’s something we’d like to do.

How can we have more cross-campus collaborations and engagement with the local humanities communities? 

4Humanities works best when there is a local presence as well as the international initiative. The obvious form for that right now is starting up an “embedded local chapter" at one’s institution or among a collective of local institutions. For example, there is a collective of six of the smaller liberal arts schools in New York who have started a local chapter. The ideal scenario would be for HASTAC Scholars to grow such a local initiative on top of whatever else they are doing for HASTAC: maybe they’re affiliated with the digital humanities lab or center, or maybe they’re affiliated with an information studies school or new media studies program -- these are the natural kinds of home bases for an extra layer of activity. It can be as simple as holding a few meetings each year, trying to involve the local humanities community and the digital humanists in the area, and pitching in on some projects. 

We’ve got an interesting new project that’s about to start. Alex Gil and some others are going to dedicate the DHMakerBus trip to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) this year to interviewing and creating a video for 4Humanities – they’re going to stop all along the way, and we’re going to plan out people for them to interview, so by the time they get to Victoria, BC, they’ll have the materials for actually making the product which will then be screened. 

I was in Indonesia over the summer as part of my research in transpacific studies, and have been thinking about the lack of a digital humanities community there, understandably so due to a number of complicated factors. It made me think about what we can do to make connections and foster relationships with humanists in other countries and places?

There are several layers to the answer I want to give. My local chapter of 4Humanities this year is planning to have a research discussion session on the topic of Global Humanities, and that’s a really rich and interesting topic. The more I travel to other countries, the more I realize that notions of the humanities are different in different regions of the world, if for no other reason than because the sector relations between disciplines and the funding arrangements are different. The US is quite unique in siloing the humanities and the arts in separate funding agencies, for example, whereas in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere, they are part of the social sciences under the same umbrella. Right away, that introduces a different understanding of the situation of the humanities in the academy and the society at large. Beyond that, we do have scholars like Geoffrey Harpham, director of the National Humanities Center, whose thesis is that our understanding of the humanities, especially as it’s aligned to the notion of the liberal arts, is a uniquely American tradition. We have to expand and make the notion of the humanities more elastic, and change it a little bit to make it apply to other regions of the world. So, to start with, I think we need a worldwide conversation about what the humanities actually are in its affiliations with the social sciences or the arts, and so on. Secondly, I think it would be brilliant, tactically, to stage that worldwide conversation about the humanities by means of a network of digital humanities programs and initiatives, especially those in regions of the world that are just beginning to concentrate [on digital humanities]. In particular, I have in mind the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities, where I gave a keynote in 2012 at their inaugural conference in 2012. I’ve just been in Australia and New Zealand for about a month and a half, and I’m very conscious of the fact that they are always aggressively looking there for outreach to the Far Eastern nations, especially the Southeast Asian nations, and Indonesia is an obvious player in that theatre. So, I think there’s a real potential there to use the local DH beachheads, as it were, in that area to mount conferences about the digital humanities as a staging ground for talking about what the humanities might be in the 21st century.

In honor of Open Access week, what do you think is the relationship between open access and humanities graduate student work? How can humanities graduate students approach a more open access approach to their scholarship? 

To begin with, we need a collective education session for faculty, graduate students, and staff about open access in the past, present, and future. We know that different disciplines have different feelings about it, and there’s been quite a bit of controversy about that. So, first of all, I think we simply need a collective education – that means discussion sessions, examples, best practices, etc. I think we have to open people’s eyes to the opportunities there, especially for younger, beginning scholars to make their work more visible. One thing I encourage in my graduate classes is for students to begin making visible in their professional communities the entire cycle of research, and that doesn’t mean just the final essay or journal article – it means your initial syllabus, your initial talk notes, the initial grant proposal. All those parts are part of the cycle of the evolution of a project. The World Wide Web really makes available a window of professional exposure for graduate students that simply was not there before. As you know, there are quite a few graduate students, postdocs, and early scholars in the digital humanities who are world-famous because of blog posts that drop on some aspect of that cycle of their research, or some syllabus, or something that they contributed. Here at UCLA, it’s amazing how much airtime, as it were, David Kim has gotten for collaborating with Johanna Drucker on the Digital Humanities 101 course, and all of its wonderful materials are online. I’m encouraging our graduate students to write blog posts for professional research in that community, hang out on Twitter, and become more visible professionally. That’s not open access officially, but that’s part of the open access mindset. It’s not the case anymore, especially with the new media that are available, that we can allow ourselves to be quarantined off doing our research and teaching in our universities without constantly propagating outwards from that, in a natural workflow, materials that are exposed in public view. In some English or Humanities department websites, for instance, we see an organization chart, brief information about faculty, etc., but we don’t see any of the real juice and guts of what’s going on there – we don’t see the actual content of talks, courses, segments from books, and so on. One of the problems is that no one has the mythical 25th hour each day to do that work, and I really think that there’s a place for digital humanists to invent a next generation of workflow technologies that automatically prepare for the work we do anyway – writing in word processes, and so on -- pre-packaged material that we can fairly easily expose to public view, so we can all see what we’re doing.

In "Advocating for the Humanities Today: and 4Humanities@UCLA," Liu begins with an overview of the 4Humanities initiative's beginnings and goals, citing “The Heart of the Matter,” a report published by The American Academy of Arts & Sciences Commission on the Humanities & Social Sciences, as a document that speaks to the mission of 4Humanities. Liu then discusses the four principles that guide the initiative:

  1. The interconnectedness of the humanities and digital humanities.
  2. Research and practice.
  3. Near term and long term focus.
  4. Global initiatives and local chapters.

4Hum is also invested in three research topics: Global Humanities, Humanists as Makers, Humanities in the Sciences/Sciences in the Humanities -- these are topics that, I think, have a clear transformative potential in how we can re-envision and engage the humanities as vital in the world. 

Here a few of the 4Hum projects and initatives that are currently underway:

What I find really powerful about 4Humanities is how publicly, locally, and globally engaged it is. And, as Liu points out, 4Humanities is not just a specifically DH-focus group -- DH acts an instrument and catalyst in branching out to the larger humanities communities. 4Hum is about the importance of public engagement in the humanities; it is about creating a "lingua franca to express what we do in words that others will get"; it is about "reaching out to the public in the wild."


1 comment

Hi Viola,
Thank you for sharing this interview with Alan Liu.  He makes excellent points about how we, as humanists, need to rethink our roles within the university system, both in the U.S. and abroad. 
I’m also drawn to his comments about open access. Getting on board with the open access movement is one of the most important things humanists can do right now.  It’s our chance to re-envision the role and reach of our scholarship and to think about not only what we want to write, but also how we want to write it. Making our work public isn’t just about publishing in OA venues, it’s also about writing in a way that’s accessible to academics and non-academics alike.
Thank you again for sharing.
Lori Beth