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Digital Humanities and the Erosion of Inquiry

 Published on February 12, 2016 /  Written by /  “The stars of the show 4” by Son of Groucho; CC BY 2.0 /  4

On February 12, 2016, Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris gave a talk as part of the University of Michigan’s Digital Currents initiative. The following is the Slideshare from that presentation as well as the transcript of Sean’s part of the talk.

There’s something die-hard about academics. When you think about it, there’s nothing more unlikely than leading a life devoted to knowledge, to discovery and inquiry, to curiosity. It’s not practical. Not many parents want their kids to grow up to be scholars. We’d rather our kids have security, stability — an education, yes, and a job and a house and a family, yes. But few of us say “I want you to spend the rest of your life in a library carrel, carrying on conversations arcane to other people.” Academics hoe a row that may or may not yield a crop. It’s risky, doing this work. And yet there’s nothing else we’d like to be doing.

There’s a lot of talk about the liberal arts and the humanities being in peril, or that scholarship itself is in profound crisis. To this, I have said that “If higher education is ailing, it is only because its many doctors have not applied themselves to its resuscitation.” There is no better solution to the problems scholarship faces than its professors, adjuncts, and students. The people in this room are the solution to whatever ails the profession. Each of us has agency we can apply — not only to create our own success, but to ensure the success of those who come after us.

Agency is tricky, though, especially within the reputational economy of higher education. Too often it seems that in order to enjoy reputational gains — cool publishing opportunities, speaking gigs, keynotes, better and better project opportunities, grants — agency must be set aside. The institution itself, as well as the bodies that fund it, delight in setting up obstacle courses, hoops for jumping through, rhetorics to echo, expectations which must be met that have nothing or little to do with our agency, with our passions and excitement. Projects that we love become dreams we must negotiate or defer until the system which holds purview is satisfied.

Or, as Simon Ensor writes, until we learn to speak dog.

In kindergarten we dream about the agency afforded the sixth grader. In the sixth grade, we dream of the agency of high schoolers to drive cars and eat lunch off campus. In high school, we dream — well, we dream about sex… but we also dream about the agency promised us in the offing: leaving home and going to college. And it goes on. We work for our PhD only to have to further graduate from being junior faculty, only to have to work for tenure and the title of professor. And even then — if we’re not exhausted — there are bodies that judge and govern and peer-review our work until it can seem like we never left kindergarten.

And it’s not a kind governance we encounter.

Shit My Reviewers Say.001

This is not what scholarship is for. This is not the risk we were meant to take. Scholarship should be expressive, experimental, and liberatory. And it should land within a community of support rather than a pit of critics.

If it’s not clear, what I’m saying is that the systems of rigor that we’ve created, and that we submit to, and which purport to elevate us —  in fact oppress. The academy, through some trick of mass hypnosis, makes us dependent upon its reputational economy. For marginalized people — women, people of color, queer, or trans people — this struggle is even more poignant. Women forego pregnancy to achieve tenure. Families are split in order to secure a “good” job. We strive harder and harder to meet the expectations of the academy, but rarely receive praise. The reputational economy is unforgiving. From kindergarten through the writing of a dissertation, we wait upon the satisfaction of others, a nod, permission to speak. Indeed, the final step in our long life of study is not to present a dissertation, but to defend one. A dissertation should be met with applause, not with a defense.

Years and years and years go by and the most consistent message we get from the academy is to sit down, and shut up.

And that’s why Hybrid Pedagogy was founded. To say instead, no. Stand up, and speak.

Both Jesse and I have watched teachers and students be silenced, cowed into conformity, broken by the need to please their peer reviewers, their instructors, their administrations. Hybrid Pedagogy is an effort — however small, however emergent — to provide a space where academic voices can be heard in important, authentic ways.

The journal’s collaborative peer review process provides authors with a supportive editorial team, partners in an effort to amplify their voices — amplify, rather than reduce — and to broadcast them to the widest possible audience. And the journal unabashedly promotes each of its articles in order to give authors a broad stage from which to address that audience.

Taking that stage isn’t always easy. The academic stage is most usually crowded with experts, collaborators, citations and references. Scholars aren’t used to an open spotlight, broad and bright, one that is specifically their own. Moreover, they aren’t accustomed to being told they are good writers. Some of them have a very hard time breaking free from the style of writing that’s been branded onto their skin — the peculiar rigor that requires more absence of the writer’s own voice and perspective and insists on the presence of the voices of esteemed others. The removal of the first person pronoun from our work is a violence that leaves us utterly unsure of our own expertise, our own genius.

What happens when we put the “I” back into our work is really nothing short of the return of the human to that work. We forget to oppress ourselves. And the next step after that is to begin to forget to oppress others. Because in truth, we are all always almost about to oppress.

So much of academic work aims at conformity. Even as we push against the oppression of the academy, we recycle and reuse that oppression in our relationships with others. As we work with one another, we frame relationships with expectations. We install and enforce — even unknowingly, even unwillingly — standards for participation in the community.

This is especially prevalent in the project of the Digital Humanities. Not only does funding require conformity, not only does prestige rely upon it, but we keep the gates of our relationships by those standards. We align ourselves with the “right” people, we collaborate on the “right” projects. We do not spend our sabbaticals breaking molds, but building them up. Risking otherwise leads to criticism at best, excommunication from our communities at worst. We don’t just peer review the work of the field, we peer review its people.

For example, can we look at Adeline’s Koh’s Sabbatical Beauty project as DH? Well known for her work as a Digital Humanist, Adeline has spent this year’s sabbatical developing a line of beauty products aimed specifically at the academic who has little time for self-care. It’s a decidedly feminist project, not at all divorced from the politics of identity, and a project for which she has had to rely on the skills she’s developed as a humanities and technology scholar. But are we tempted to look down our nose at her inventiveness? Are we tempted to peer review her life as we would a research article from her? She says that

academic culture asks you to champion some ways of thinking over others (in the humanities: capitalism/neoliberalism = bad!, not getting a tenure-track job at a research institution=failure), in ways which are often completely uncritical, but imperative for one to fit into the culture.

The institutionalization of the Digital Humanities has made it largely inaccessible to those who remain outliers to the institution. As DH has grown in prominence, as it’s become what William Pannapacker once called “the first ‘next big thing’”; it’s also become all too discriminating about what and whom the field may include. And as the academy is wont, it has forgotten those upon whose backs the Digital Humanities was built. Twitter activist @so_treu, responding to “Hybrid Pedagogy, Digital Humanities, and the Future of Academic Publishing”, an article by Jesse and me, wrote:

academia with this digital humanities push is rushing to catch up with centuries old practices of marginalized wmn / & really, academia made itself via the exclusion/delegitimizing of these kinda open grassroots scholarship practices. / now its ready to acknowledge them, but only via the approved bodies & positionalities.

The perfect unfairness of this is that when we limit another’s voice, we create an ecosystem reliant upon limitation. And that’s the ecosystem in which we now swim. We can’t ask for freedom to take risks, to follow our own curiosity — to be scholars — if we don’t offer that freedom to others.

Where DH grew out of positions of deep and necessary inquiry — deep and necessary especially in that its early advocates had to form communities of practice, interest, and support beyond the pale of traditional academic communities — today that inquiry has eroded into gratuitous and massively-funded career-building projects. Not only has Digital Humanities exhaled its sense of urgency, but in doing so it has lost its soul, its spirit, its ecstatic necessariness.

Interestingly, it’s actually the shackles of rigor and rules of participation — the burdened infrastructure that we build — out of which can come something vital. When people are oppressed, expression rises up. Sometimes violently, sometimes rudely, sometimes in quiet ways that catch us by surprise. When they are unrepresented, when they are oppressed and voiceless, humans find new ways to speak, new forms, new words. Few of us think about scholarship as expression created under duress, but the best of it is. The best of scholarship rises from our need to speak, and to have our observations heard.

Just as a journal run by teachers is — or should necessarily be — a classroom, so must scholarly fields be rich with dialogue. We must open our infrastructure to let in the unexpected and the curious if we want our own curiosity to thrive. The digital humanities will not survive without its collaborators.

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4 Responses
  1. Sherri Spelic

    “We forget to oppress ourselves. And the next step after that is to begin to forget to oppress others. Because in truth, we are all always almost about to oppress.”
    These sentences are the ones I want to meditate on especially. This is a golden post and pulls together so much of what makes this collective an incredibly rich and valuable resource for the work I do and dream of doing. Thank you!

  2. Dorian Gray

    How is Sabbatical Beauty a “decidedly feminist project?” I admire Koh’s work, in particular her criticism of imperialist and racist assumptions in DH and in literary criticism, so am struggling with whether to assign it again, because I know students will google her and find Sabbatical Beauty and claims like the ones above. How will I answer these questions when they come up in my classroom:

    Do “academics” need an “anti-aging serum” that costs $95?
    If you can’t afford it, are you not a real “academic?”
    How can adjuncts pay for it? How can students with 3 jobs? Can I use my professional development funding?
    If I dye my gray away, am I now a “feminist?”
    If I buy this serum and give it to everyone in my department over 40, am I a feminist?

    1. I’ve been thinking about Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” (1842) this evening, and it occurs to me an apt place to begin to respond to this comment. How is Sabbatical Beauty a feminist project? In *Death and the Maiden: The Lady of Shalott and the Pre-Raphaelites*, Poulson contends that the Lady’s escape from the tower is a defiant feminist act. Perhaps that is what I see when I look at Adeline Koh’s endeavor: it is precisely a move away from the “tower” — the ivory one, if you will, or the way in which (as I say above) the academy holds us all under its sway — and a claiming of something that combines the skills she’s developed as an academic with a deeply personal interest. It is also a move — so politicized (in your comment and broadly) — to embody herself, to raise the awkward question of why aesthetics and intellectualism cannot exist side-by-side.

      The questions you fear your class will ask are, I think, rather tongue-in-cheek, and a bit antagonistic of Koh’s entrepreneurialism. They are not serious questions, but rather the provocations of a troll. You don’t expect them to be addressed, and so I won’t.

      I will say, however, that Adeline Koh is at least courageous enough to openly market her products and her company to an audience that can be as unforgiving as you are here — and she does so without hiding behind a pseudonym.

    2. “Dorian Gray,” fear not. As someone who has been involved in the Sabbatical Beauty project from the beginning — in fact I came up with the name — I can assure you that though out the development, testing stage up through now, Adeline has offered people like me (adjuncts), graduate students and others in precarious financial positions significant discounts and giveaways. Some of her clients who can afford to do so donate so that someone else who can’t can get products for free.

      As to what makes it a feminist project? Let’s see. It’s a company begun by an immigrant woman of color, supported from the start by a collective of (primarily) women that pays its employees (women) a living wage. Sounds feminist to me.

      To your tired canard about hair dye, whether you dye your hair or not is no one’s business but yours. But using a pseudonym to undermine the work of a feminist academic, whose work you claim to admire isn’t feminist. At least I hope it isn’t.

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