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Start Calling it Digital Liberal Arts - The Transducer

Start Calling it Digital Liberal Arts

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.

8 responses to “Start Calling it Digital Liberal Arts”

  1. Hi Rafael,

    Dr. Pan­na­pack­er recent­ly vis­it­ed Hen­drix Col­lege where he engaged us in a live­ly dis­cus­sion of the dig­i­tal lib­er­al arts. You are right on with the focus on pedagogy. 

    Some ques­tions I think about are: how can DLA be used to sup­port teach­ing objec­tives? And, how will skills devel­oped through DLA trans­late after graduation?

  2. These must be ele­ments of a con­ver­sa­tion about a col­lege’s edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence, viewed com­pre­hen­sive­ly. Stake­hold­ers need to place them on the table along side issues like class­room design, the role of the library, course design, etc.

  3. […] in DHnow’s editor’s choice sec­tion. It refers to Rafael Alvarado’s post enti­tled “Start Call­ing it Dig­i­tal Lib­er­al Arts.” In this arti­cle Alvara­do responds to William Pannapacker’s Feb­ru­ary 18th arti­cle from The […]

  4. Very inter­est­ing piece, Rafael. Just one mar­gin­al remark: what strikes me is that when­ev­er peo­ple in the Anglo-amer­i­can con­text speak about dig­i­tal human­i­ties (and not just about that) they tend to uni­ver­sal­ize their geopo­lit­i­cal point of view: “[DH] clos­est ties are to depart­ments of Eng­lish and his­tory.” Is like DH is made in USA-UK-etc. and that’s it. Only when it becomes use­ful (usu­al­ly to attract exter­nal fund­ing) DH becomes “inter­na­tion­al”. In gen­er­al I am not a fan of genealo­gies, but I think a more care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion and respect for par­al­lel (both in time and space) DH cul­tures, expe­ri­ences and his­to­ries with be a good idea.

  5. Domeni­co — Yes, this is true, and I am guilty of it. Thanks for point­ing it out. In the future, I’ll try to qual­i­fy such claims.

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