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 of a cultural campaign that affects 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 response 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 in which 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.”