[-empyre-] Engineering the University : Week 03 : Bettivia and Flanders

Julia Flanders j.flanders at neu.edu
Wed Mar 18 13:27:15 AEDT 2015

Dear Rhiannon,

Following up as promised with a few more thoughts...

I wanted to come back to the second part of your question, concerning the way digital humanities (and specifically its role in the evolution of labor prospects) might look different from the perspective of those inside or outside the academy. 

It seems to me that one important role digital humanities is playing (and could play even more fully) is in strengthening certain aspects of the training job candidates receive. I say "certain aspects" because I think there is no substitute for on-the-job training and acculturation, but I do also see an important role for the kinds of theoretical and critical context that formal digital humanities training provides (in the form of courses, workshops, and participation in conferences and other forms of public discourse). As the field has matured and developed a strong research literature, people emerging into all different professional roles are coming at these positions with a shared intellectual history and a sense of grounding their work on a body of theory and practice. For those seeking traditional academic jobs, that intellectual history is the foundation for a personal research agenda. For those seeking jobs in para-academic roles  (librarians, IT staff, digital project managers, etc.) that intellectual history is the basis for a strong understanding of best practices and hence also for viable collaboration that starts from a position of shared knowledge. For those seeking jobs outside the academy entirely (museums, non-profits, publishing, public media, etc.) that intellectual history provides a thoughtful critical perspective ("fresh eyes") on established practices and professional configurations, and also a kind of powerful meta-knowledge that helps provide a rationale for changes to established industry practices. Being able to identify and name the domain from which this expertise comes ("digital humanities") seems useful at least partly as a way of saying "here's where you could look for the origins and full expression of this intellectual history." I think this is true even though I acknowledge that we are talking here about a very broad and internally diverse domain. From the inside it's easy and common to treat the question of "what is digital humanities?" as essentially unanswerable, but I think from the outside it's no more problematic than saying "what is the humanities?" or "what is social science?" Even if the domain turns out to be a set of shared debates (rather than shared beliefs), there's still something holding it together.

I've digressed here a bit--what I'm getting at is that I think the digital humanities has a useful role to play in establishing the coherence of a certain set of competencies and expertise domains, and showing why they are professionally significant and useful, why they make a valuable intervention in the world. And I think that demonstrating that coherence also makes it possible for the world of professional roles (whether academic, alt-academic, or non-academic) to make space for those competences and discover how to use them. A museum might feel a need, without any prompting, for a "web master" or a "metadata specialist"--but once we have a pool of professionals who understand how the well-formalized intellectual capital of metadata can serve as the basis for a dynamic online presence that engages the public in exploring the museum's collections, that's the basis for an entirely different kind of professional niche. I think digital humanities is helping to create those niches, by demonstrating their necessity and their value.

I also wanted to offer a side note on collaboration--I've always found it interesting how convinced we all are that humanists don't collaborate. When I look around me, what I see is people collaborating all the time (on conference programs, committees, reports, research seminars, editorial boards, journals, dissertation committees, curriculum development, policy development, administration...). Co-authorship as a very specialized form of collaboration is indeed discouraged by the particular shape of our tenure/promotion process, but I don't think we can draw the conclusion that humanists are somehow collaboratively stunted. What digital humanities brings into visibility, I think, is something different: forms of collaboration that involve unfamiliar roles and types of expertise, and hence require explicit awareness of collaborative mechanisms that are typically less perceptible because they are so familiar. Everyone who has participated in an academic committee knows how they work; everyone who has served on the editorial board of a journal understands what the different roles and responsibilities are. But when humanists work as part of a digital project team, they are in unfamiliar territory, particularly with respect to the kinds of power and responsibility (within the project ecology) that different forms of expertise confer. 

Anyway--I don't know whether I've really gotten at the heart of your very interesting questions, so let me know if there are aspects of this issue I'm failing to consider.

Best wishes, Julia

> On Mar 16, 2015, at 11:53 PM, Bettivia, Rhiannon Stephanie <rbettivi at illinois.edu> wrote:
> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------First, I will start with thanks all around.
> Thank you, Kevin, for the most generous introduction and thank you,
> Julia, for offering up your thoughts and time for this endeavor.
> I want to begin by asking Julia a question
> regarding the digital humanities.  Despite having worked along side, and
> sometimes in it, I am never quite sure what Œdigital humanities¹ means,
> and I
> often employ a quote from Julia¹s paper with collaborator Trevor Muñoz to
> describe
> how I feel about this term.  In their paper, An Introduction to Humanities
> Data Curation, they say:
> "The term and the idea of
> "curation" is experiencing a moment of cultural cachet that simultaneously
> threatens to empty it of meaning.²
> Substituting the term digital humanities for
> curation seems apt to me‹ this term is so often and broadly used that it
> is hard to find meaning in it.  It is offered as both the death knell of
> traditional humanities as well as it¹s inevitable savior.  For some, it is
> seen as the process of making humanities disciplines into something more
> akin
> to hard science‹ and this is meant as a positive appraisal.
> For others, this shift is part and parcel of changes and responses
> to the crisis that higher education is currently facing, regardless of
> whether said crisis is manufactured or caused by something a little
> more difficult to pin down.  In a recent panel discussion at Columbia
> University, as part of the Research without Borders lecture series, a
> variety
> of faculty and journalists spoke of removing humanists from the silo and
> encouraging/forcing collaborative enterprises in the humanities, citing
> this
> change as necessary and desirable.  I have often seen this label used in
> ways that I would describe as wholly pragmatic: in searching out DH
> projects, the goal of some lab and maker space endeavors seemed to be
> nothing
> more than purposeful harnessing of the current cachet of the term to fund
> humanities doctoral students to engage in research that, if not entirely
> productive for desired academic careers, funded them to do their work.
> It is perhaps a sign of the times that I find such programs entirely
> laudable.
> Julia, in your piece for the Literary Anthology
> in the Digital Age, you speak as both caution and champion of the digital
> humanities, and situate this field of study within the current changes
> taking
> place in higher education.  This article in particular made me think of
> your work in the context of the empyre listserv and the Engineering the
> University project being undertaken by the Seeing Systems Cohort at the
> University of Illinois.  My first question to you is to ask for your
> opinions on tying these threads together.  What role do you see the
> digital humanities playing in the evolution of labor prospects for
> researchers
> who are trained in university settings?  How does this role look different
> those those inside, including those with alternative academic positions
> (I.e. Not professors) and those outside academia altogether?
> Rhiannon Bettivia
> Doctoral Candidate
> Graduate School of Library and Information Science
> University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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