Are MOOCs Part of the Digital Humanities?

I’ve always found it inter­est­ing and reward­ing to fol­low the twit­ter feeds from fel­low dig­i­tal human­ists attend­ing talks at the annu­al con­ven­tion of the MLA (which I, trained as an anthro­pol­o­gist, have nev­er attend­ed). Not only is it a joy to get a real­time tick­er tape feed of col­leagues’ respons­es to an event as it unfolds, it is also like receiv­ing intel­li­gence from the front lines of a cul­tur­al cam­paign that affects all of our pro­fes­sion­al lives. For it is at the MLA, and not at the annu­al Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties con­fer­ence, that the field gets its annu­al surge of ener­gy and direc­tion, as its mem­bers become pumped or annoyed or both by the respons­es the sub­field receives from the peo­ple who mat­ter — the wider group of estab­lished but unini­ti­at­ed fac­ul­ty who still run depart­ments and jour­nals and oth­er pres­tige grant­i­ng insti­tu­tions. Unlike the DH con­fer­ences, which are in-group rites of sol­i­dar­i­ty where we learn about new projects and tools and speak to the choir, or THAT­Camp events, which are like Methodist revivals for the recruit­ment of new souls (or, for the ini­ti­at­ed, like Dead shows), it is at the MLA that we dig­i­tal human­ists expe­ri­ence the kind of cul­tur­al encounter with the Oth­er that defines our iden­ti­ty as a field. At the MLA we learn where we stand and where we need to move, as we posi­tion our­selves in the con­test­ed ter­ri­to­ries of our pro­fes­sion­al milieux. This makes sense: the dig­i­tal human­i­ties is essen­tial­ly a move­ment whose cen­ter of grav­i­ty lies with­in depart­ments of Eng­lish, even if the long tail of DH com­pris­es mem­bers from oth­er dis­ci­plines, most notably his­to­ri­ans (who, how­ev­er, just as often are con­tent to describe them­selves as dig­i­tal his­to­ri­ans), and even if DH seeks to occu­py much of the ter­ri­to­ry already occu­pied by Media Studies.

A cou­ple of years ago the in-con­fer­ence twit­ter and post-con­fer­ence blog buzz reflect­ed the thrill and anx­i­ety of a field new­ly rec­og­nized but still mis­un­der­stood by out­siders. Where­as once dig­i­tal human­ists rep­re­sent­ed a rel­a­tive­ly obscure spe­cial­iza­tion, now their pan­els were sud­den­ly stand­ing room only. When mar­gin­al groups sud­den­ly gain recog­ni­tion like this, a num­ber of things pre­dictably hap­pen. For one, out­siders fear that the ground rules for suc­cess have changed under their feet and either put up resis­tance or jump on the band wag­on. Among these cul­tur­al noobs there emerge both crit­ics and spokes­peo­ple for the field, nei­ther of whom pos­sess an under­stand­ing of its his­to­ry or ethos. This trig­gers a response from insid­ers, the locals, who begin to push back and assert iden­ti­ty claims and empha­size hard-to-copy signs of authen­tic­i­ty. Some­thing like this has hap­pened in DH. On the one hand, fears of a cul­tur­al takeover were expressed by those who feared DH would repeat the his­to­ry of how “the­o­ry” took over depart­ments in the 1980s. As William Pan­na­pack­er put it in the Chron­i­cle, “the dig­i­tal human­i­ties seem more exclu­sive, more cliquish, than they did even one year ago” and “the grass­roots days seem to be end­ing.” On the oth­er hand, the buzz pro­duced a num­ber of posts by insid­ers attempt­ing to define the dig­i­tal human­i­ties or to oth­er­wise sat­is­fy the desire of out­siders to learn more about DH. I con­fess that my own post on the sub­ject was inspired by this out­pour­ing. To his eter­nal cred­it, Matt Gold cap­tured this impor­tant his­tor­i­cal moment in Debates in the Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties. But although the theme of inclu­sive­ness and open­ness runs through these efforts at, and as often resis­tances to, defin­ing the dig­i­tal human­i­ties, a deep­er theme runs through near­ly all of them — that the dig­i­tal human­i­ties is, above all, an expe­ri­ence, an inter­sec­tion, an umbrel­la, a prac­tice, a “way,” which can­not be defined eas­i­ly, if at all. Iron­i­cal­ly, noth­ing is more for­bid­ding to an out­sider. For clear­ly there are many dis­tinc­tive and indeed obvi­ous traits that define what dig­i­tal human­ists do and believe and how they are fund­ed and orga­nized that are not being men­tioned and which, by their very tac­it­ness, have the unin­tend­ed effect of form­ing the pro­tec­tive bor­der of an in-group. In the end, these sorts of anti-def­i­n­i­tions func­tion as claims of authen­tic­i­ty by those who make them, much as aris­to­crats pro­tect them­selves by a wall of inar­tic­u­la­ble taste or sci­en­tists by invok­ing the cat­e­go­ry of genius. Which takes me to this year’s MLA.

This year the buzz has shift­ed a bit. No longer is the con­cern about the absence of recog­ni­tion and the fear of an insid­er group tak­ing over. The con­cern now is about the excess of recog­ni­tion and the prospects of mis­recog­ni­tion, as large num­bers of new mem­bers (inspired in large part, no doubt, by Gold’s anthol­o­gy) fill the ranks of the field. And this time there are fears of a hos­tile takeover from an out­sider group — that of MOOCs and their admin­is­tra­tive fan­boys. These two trends were most evi­dent in the twit­ter feed asso­ci­at­ed with the ses­sion, “The Dark Side of the Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties.” William Pan­na­pack­er gives an excel­lent sum­ma­ry of the event (see also Alex Loth­i­an’s sum­ma­ry):

Like all the DH ses­sions I’ve attend­ed this year, it was packed. Amid the surge of Twit­ter con­ver­sa­tions (like drink­ing from a bun­dle of fire­hoses), I was able to absorb some points in the larg­er bill of indict­ment: That DH is insuf­fi­cient­ly diverse. That it false­ly presents itself as a fast-track to aca­d­e­m­ic jobs (when most of the posi­tions are fund­ed on soft mon­ey). That it suf­fers from “tech­no-utopi­anism” and “claims to be the solu­tion for every prob­lem.” That DH is “a blind and vapid embrace of the dig­i­tal”; it insists upon cod­ing and gam­i­fi­ca­tion to the exclu­sion of more human­is­tic prac­tices. That it detach­es itself from the rest of the human­i­ties (regard­ing itself as not just “the next big thing,” but “the only thing”). That it allows every­one else in the human­i­ties to sink as long as the DH’ers stay afloat. That DH is com­plic­it with the neolib­er­al trans­for­ma­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion; it “capit­u­lates to bureau­crat­ic and tech­no­crat­ic log­ic”; and its strongest sup­port comes from admin­is­tra­tors who see DH’ers as suc­cess­ful fundrais­ers and allies in the “cre­ative destruc­tion” of human­i­ties edu­ca­tion. And—most damning—that DH’ers are affil­i­at­ed with a specter that is haunt­ing the humanities—the specter of MOOCs.

By all accounts, the pan­el pro­voked hor­ri­fied, angered, and per­plexed respons­es from the dig­i­tal human­ists in atten­dance, the twit­ter feed of which ought to be com­piled and nar­rat­ed because, appar­ent­ly, this was pan­el of pan­els, the one to attend if you attend­ed any at all, the one peo­ple will be talk­ing about all year . Notably, the response went beyond that expect­ed of an intel­lec­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty sub­ject to a cri­tique by peers — some cor­rec­tions of details, a few ruf­fled feath­ers, and the gra­cious admis­sion of points tak­en — the pan­el clear­ly hit a nerve. What is inter­est­ing is the par­tic­u­lar nerve that was hit: among all of the charges against DH lev­eled by the pan­el — many of them pret­ty seri­ous in my view — it was the con­fla­tion of MOOCs with DH that was regard­ed, at least in the event, by dig­i­tal human­ists as most damning.

Now, as an insid­er, I can under­stand the response. Dig­i­tal human­ists had noth­ing to do with the rise of MOOCs and, con­sis­tent with Aman­da French’s com­ment after the pan­el, I too know no dig­i­tal human­ists who have embraced the MOOC as a vehi­cle for pur­su­ing either the gen­er­al goals of high­er edu­ca­tion or the spe­cif­ic goals of DH. But, from an out­side per­pec­tive, even from that of some­one knowl­edgable of the field (though not con­nect­ed with its par­tic­i­pants), the mis­take is not only under­stand­able, but inevitable. For one thing, the Amer­i­can-style MOOCs grew out of the Cana­di­an exper­i­ments of the con­nec­tivists, who, by our Big Tent self-defin­i­ti0n, are clear­ly one of us, and, if not, are at least sym­pa­ti­co. But more impor­tant, our def­i­n­i­tion of DH, as the inter­sec­tion between dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy and human­i­ties inquiry, or as an umbrel­la term for a vari­ety of spe­cif­ic endeav­ors with­in this inter­sec­tion, is not only con­sis­tent with the inclu­sion of MOOCs, it requires it. For what are MOOCs, at least those focused on sub­ject domains in the human­i­ties, but exem­plary efforts at push­ing the syn­the­sis we claim to be at the heart of DH? If we insist that MOOCs are not part of DH, then we have a scan­dal on our hands. For we can­not have it both ways. We can­not insist that we are open to all com­ers who have an inter­est in forg­ing a syn­the­sis between dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies and the human­i­ties and then exclude those efforts to which we have an instinc­tive aver­sion. At some point, we need to unpack this col­lec­tive aver­sion and make it part of our dis­course. We can remain open in our self def­i­n­i­tion, and avoid the ossi­fy­ing effects of a dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion, or a char­ter, or — God help us all — a mis­sion state­ment. But we need to artic­u­late the spe­cif­ic cul­tur­al premis­es and insti­tu­tion­al con­di­tions that under­lie and frame our prin­ci­pled oppo­si­tion to MOOCs, as well as our under­stand­ing of what a good MOOC might be.

Some of these premis­es are obvi­ous, such as the aver­sion to the neolib­er­al trans­for­ma­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion that has become asso­ci­at­ed with MOOCs ever since the failed coup that took place at UVA this sum­mer. But oth­ers are not, and there is a great deal to be gained by our col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly map­ping out the ter­rain on which we stand. So let’s take this oppor­tu­ni­ty to define a strate­gic direc­tion of the field in the com­ing year. To echo Bethany Nowviskie’s talk at the MLA — which appears to have been the antithe­sis of the Dark Side pan­el — let’s “make acces­si­ble the unspo­ken in DH.”

One response to “Are MOOCs Part of the Digital Humanities?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *