William Pannapacker’s recent post in the Chronicle, “Stop Calling it ‘Digital Humanities’,” makes a point that I tend to agree with. The social category “digital humanities” does not meaningfully connect with many of those it would presumably include. In particular, it turns out that the reception of the digital humanities at liberal arts colleges has been inflected by a set of concerns not unlike those expressed at the recent MLA conference, such as that DH — even the acronym! — is perceived to be elitist, research oriented, and infrastructure intensive. This is a profile out of line with the culture of smaller colleges and out of sync with the field’s generous self perception as a big tent. I think it is an unfair characterization, but it contains a hard kernel of truth.
This perception is perhaps to be expected. DH, having become recognized (anointed?) by the New York Times and Harvard, is emerging from the liminal mists of world building and is entering the daylight of world maintenance. No longer a mystery, DH has become more or less defined, at least by outsiders, which is where such definitions come from, especially when a field refuses to define itself: we are those who do text analytics with Google’s data to talk about genre and influence, we do topic modeling with MALLET, we think you should learn R, etc. The list is longer than this, but it is a list, and the items in the list are not as diverse as we may imagine. They involve a lot of textual analytics with complicated tools and they argue for the application of data science (itself a new field) to answer traditional humanities questions, even as humanists try to place a hermeneutic spin on these practices (a laudable proposition, although at this point hermeneutics needs R more than R needs hermeneutics). Out of the wide range of activities that once characterized DH and humanities computing, the selective pressures of recognition and funding are producing an institutional form characterized by an increasingly narrow set of methodological choices and theoretical concerns. And, in addition to being weighted towards departments of English and history, these commitments favor the larger, Research I universities.
A reinforcing development is the particular way in which DH has evolved from a healthily rebranded version of humanities computing, a version that reflected the energizing and democratizing influence of Web 2.0 sensibilities, into something that appears to be filling the cultural-studies-shaped-hole that has haunted the humanities since the demise of Theory. The biggest indicator of this trend is the increasing number of people seeking to encompass DH within discursive frameworks DH once blissfully could afford to ignore. No longer an innocent place for the playful encounter between technology and interpretation, DH is now being interrogated for evidence of participation in an exclusivist technoscientific imaginary, and there are many willing to save the field by theorizing what has remained for too long undertheorized. I welcome this development — it is a necessary part of the maturation of the field — but it signifies the potential transformation of DH into something other than what attracted me to it. If it means that a small number of well-positioned scholars will claim it and shape it as they once did Theory, then I think the field will have lost its eros.
This is one reason I favor the category of the “digital liberal arts” (DLA), proposed by Pannapacker and used by my organization, SHANTI, to describe a series of curricular courses that I have been teaching at UVa since 2010 (MDST 3703/7703 and MDST 3705/7705). Not so much a replacement as a supplement to digital humanities, DLA broadens the scope and relocates the center of gravity of what I have referred to as the digital humanities situation, the recurring, playful encounter of humanists with technology. Instead of focusing on what may better be described as the computational humanities (a useful term recently proposed by Lev Manovich), the digital liberal arts seeks to locate digital media squarely within the frame of the liberal arts, broadly conceived as a curriculum, not a discipline or even set of disciplines, and as a distinctive mode of educational experience, not a set of received theoretical concerns. It is a framing particularly suited to liberal arts colleges — America’s great contribution to higher learning — but also to universities, such as UVa, whose souls are in the liberal arts as well.
What are the distinctive features of the digital liberal arts? I can think of three.
First, DLA is inclusive of the entire arts and sciences spectrum, from the humanities and performing arts to the social sciences and the natural sciences. When I first taught Introduction to the Digital Liberal Arts, I named it so in order to include projects going on in biochemistry and the performing arts as well as those that fit the more traditional profile of DH, such as thematic research collections of writers and historical periods. All of these fields are experiencing changes due to the innovative use of technology in both teaching and research, and all of them are participating in a common movement that cannot be described as DH, even though the latter is intimately connected with much of it.
Second, DLA is explicitly residential and dialogical. The main question that DLA asks of technology is, how can it enhance the dialogical process of education that takes place in the classroom, lab, and studio? This is in contrast to the digital humanities, and indeed digital scholarship as a whole, which has its heart in the edition and the archive. DLA is from the outset concerned with the integration of technology into the everyday life — the situated action — of teaching, learning, and research in a residential setting. Thus the idea of Coursera-style MOOCs being part of the DLA is a non-starter, although distributed and mediated forms of education can, and I think must, become part of the liberal arts experience.
Third, DLA is as concerned with pedagogy as it is with research, pursuing models of research and service based teaching that characterize small liberal arts colleges today. One of the problems of DH, to the extent that it inherits the culture of the Research I university, is that it carries along with it the two-tiered model that separates tenured faculty from non-tenured faculty, as we see in departments of language, where the former study literature and the latter teach language. While this may be a useful model for larger universities, it is anathema to the liberal arts model that balances teaching and research and which encourages undergraduates to be involved in research. Granted that DH has a large and vocal segment of those interested in pedagogy — ProfHacker comes to mind — I think it is fair to say that the hard core of DH has always been aloof to teaching.
Let me conclude with one example of a DLA development that really cannot be captured within the category of DH, although, again, the latter may be receptive to it. It is in the sciences and not in the humanities that a great rethinking of teaching models has taken place, in which learning spaces, software design, and curricular structures have been simultaneously reshaped to produce new models of learning and research. The powerful combination of active learning spaces, such as the TEAL model at MIT, and flipped curricula (never mind classrooms), such as Minnesota’s undergraduate biology program, originated from the sciences, and it is a model that humanists are just beginning to explore. I wish
they we would explore it more, focusing on the real use of digital collections (for example) as much as on their creation and publication.
The current reality is that many new ideas and practices are emerging from the collective participation of disciplines in the current digital moment, and these developments cannot be circumscribed by the concerns of humanists, although I am partial to the latter. DH has its roots in the interpretive, text based disciplines, and its closest ties are to departments of English and history. I think this is a good thing — for these departments, along with philosophy, define, in my view, the heart of the liberal arts. But DLA involves more than a cluster of disciplines can encompass; it involves rethinking the curriculum as a whole, the spaces within which education happens, and the careers of students who pass through them both. Its horizon is the educational experience itself, and its major concern is the effective integration of digital media and networked knowledge into the traditional values of an eduction formed around the artes liberales.