February 16, 2010

Expanding digital humanities through diversification

Alex Reid's discussion of how to tip digital humanities practices into "early majority" status (hat tip) pushed a few ideas into alignment in my head, and while he has a pretty standard institutional perspective, it's headed in the wrong direction for a variety of reasons. The best and most productive way to expand the world of digital humanities is to diversify it.

Reid's idea: pick one or two tools that are on the frontier of current use among academics who think of themselves as "digital humanists" and create both investment in and buzz around the development of those tools. "Mobile computing" was the idea he focused on (as an example, not as a serious argument that it's the best focus for all institutions). There are two central problems with that narrow approach: it assumes that an institution can accurately predict the best investment opportunity in a burgeoning field, and it assumes that the best approach to evangelizing is intensification within the people who already define themselves as within the field as opposed to recruiting people who are doing very similar things but don't think of themselves (yet) as digital humanists. I think both assumptions are wrong.

If you read my blog, you'll know that I think the latest Horizon report on cutting-edge IT is likely to be mistaken in several regards. But even if you think the Horizon group can get a lot of things right, the approach Reid suggests essentially puts all of an institution's eggs in one basket. Has your college or university spent money on Second Life in the last few years? Yeah, mine too. Do you think in retrospect that was a wise investment, given the current funding situation in higher ed? Me, neither. Maybe Layar will prove me wrong on augmented reality. But if I were a provost or dean, I'd be hesitant to spend the equivalent of several faculty members' annual salaries (or more) on something that a very small number of faculty say is the latest thing and a sure bet. I'd be much more inclined to put money into a more general resource or a competition on campus and let a broad group of faculty tell me what's the most meritorious on balance (factoring in faculty strengths and records, among other things).

More troublesome than the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket approach is the almost guaranteed insularity of Alex Reid's idea. I loved going to THATCamp last summer, but one very troubling aspect of the attendees' demography is that we were almost all white, and I don't think there was a single African-American or Latino scholar attending. Oops. More than oops: it's a tremendous missed opportunity, or maybe best framed as an opportunity that self-identified digital humanists have not yet grasped. You think only white and Asian American humanists use computers? Yeah, sure. You think only non-Hispanic whites and Asian Americans are interested in exploring cultural heritage? Those who knew Roy Rosenzweig, just guess what he'd say about that. Maybe you're not aware of all the middle-aged or newly-retired professional African Americans who have started to fix up sites of formerly all-Black schools or engage in other acts of cultural preservation, a few decades after this guy named Alex Haley remade genealogy as a popular field. And professional humanists? Hint: the Association of African American Museums has a website. Really. So where are the representatives from those museums at digital-humanities get-togethers? 

I don't mean to be as accusatory as you might read the tone of the last few sentences. I know it's tough when you're starting at the edge of a self-defined frontier and trying to figure out how to climb the learning curve of JavaScript... oops, ActionScript... uh, Python,... let alone work in the collaborative groups who are putting together fantastic tools such as Omeka. That's serious hard work, and it's work that is functionally separate from engaging in deliberate outreach to expand the group of self-defined digital humanists to include people who are doing that stuff but not calling it digital humanities. So I'm not seriously criticizing today's group of digital humanists... yet.

However, those who push for the continued development of digital humanities in the current population of self-identified DHers need to look outside the window of the house they're currently building. If you're a non-Hispanic white self-identified DHer (or would that be DHist?), contact community museums and national and state parks with cultural resources when you plan your regional THATCamp. Talk to a variety of colleagues in local institutions and see what they're doing. Talk to librarians at HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions and see what's going on in their collections. Talk to a broad range of secondary-school teachers in nearby school districts, who are often great targets of recruiting for graduate programs. If this really is a great new world you're exploring, you want people with different experiences to show you what you don't know.

And if you're reading this and haven't gone to a THATCamp and don't identify as a digital humanist, but you know, you're reading this on a computer and wondering if the world of digital humanities is destined to remain a mostly-white enclave of academics, librarians, and museum staff? Nah... these are good folks. It'll just take a little nagging to bust the gates open permanently. (Addendum 2/17/10: case in point of "good folks:" Timothy Powell of the Penn Archaeology/Anthropology Museum, who is speaking this afternoon on Digital Ethnography at Georgetown and on Negotiating the Cultural Turn(s) at the Center for New Media and History (along with Bethany Nowviskie.)

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Posted in Higher education on February 16, 2010 9:51 PM | Submit