Moving Into the Center: Can Digital Humanities Find Credence in Other Disciplines?

It was late 2004 and I was sitting in The Tam, a dive bar on Tremont Street in Boston, talking with a group of literary friends. There may or may not have been trivia involved. The subject of our conversation was the state of publishing and what it meant for new authors; for authors of color, for authors who focused on women’s issues, for those who were women, for authors writing about the LGBTQ community. We were authors ourselves, regularly sending out manuscripts to literary journals all over the country and, just as regularly, receiving the two-sentence rejections (if we received anything at all). It seemed that print journals were publishing less, were closing down, were opting to print those authors who would draw a crowd. They weren’t interested in taking a chance on a newbie. And it seemed the same was true for the book industry, as well.

What was to befall authors like us?

That was how Fringe Magazine was born. Our little group decided it was going to create a space for the type of work we wanted to read, regardless of who wrote it. In a lot of ways, we wanted to conjure an audience for the type of work we wanted to create ourselves. Everything we did was in service to our manifesto: to “diversify the existing literary community, both aesthetically and demographically… to publish styles and genres that other journals eschew and [to] take particular pleasure in publishing voices that are not often included in the canon.” And we made an important decision on Day One: We would publish solely online, and we would be free.

When we began the planning process, though, we ran into many of the same problems talked about by Roopika Risam and Kathleen Fitzpatrick. We worried about whether or not Fringe would carry the same gravitas as, say, Ploughshares or Agni or The Beacon Street Review (which, incidentally, closed doors shortly thereafter). Would people takes the work seriously and, conversely, would writers want to publish in an online medium, particularly one that did not charge? How would we handle review?

These questions were particularly important for those authors who contributed to our Criticism department because it was, intentionally, a virtual version of what would appear in a scholarly journal. Would it be seen as credible to the outside community? Would people build on this work as they do from papers published in print journals? (I now know that the answer to these questions is decidedly “no,” having been told that my critical publications in the magazine would hurt my academic career more than they would help me.)

And so, here I am ten years later, asking these same questions about the digital humanities as I did about our literary journal.

I am heartened by Risam and Fitzpatrick’s calls to action, however, in explicitly addressing the biases that exist in academia surrounding digital work – particularly in the need to evaluate them in a manner that is not a replica of the way we value the traditional (print) forms of scholarship: “We cannot assume that the standards of traditional scholarship can be easily translated for digital scholarship” (Risam).

What I feel is needed, honestly, is more information and education about what DH is and is not. (I’m aware that is a can of worms to open.) But, if we want tenure committees and other academics to understand the value that these projects hold for our current and future scholarship, then we have to help them see what power DH holds.

  • That means transparency without erudition.
  • It means publishing in traditional forums on the DH methods that have opened up our scholarship.
  • It means helping non-DH academics parse the “look what I can build” projects from those that are built with methodology and purpose, and contribute to the disciplinary literature.
  • It means experimenting with peer review in new ways that fit the medium, but at the same time have rigor and value.

It means a lot of things that I haven’t quite worked out, yet, but as a community hope we will.

I know that I have appeared skeptic of the digital humanities on many occasions, but that skepticism is rooted not in wondering whether DH has something to offer humanities scholarship. Rather, it has been a direct fear of what Risam calls “fetishizing the digital.” That is what makes me start looking for exits in case I need to run – and I suspect that is the same thing that raises hackles on tenure committees and others when confronted with DH projects they don’t understand.

The worst thing for DH is if it gets in its own way.

I don’t believe that the “Master’s house” requires dismantling just yet. Just a remodel. And there is nothing wrong with using the “Master’s tools” to do just that. DH needs a grassroots, work-from-within approach that doesn’t view the non-believers as enemies, but as potential converts. At the same time, we need to recognize that this isn’t a field for everyone. I personally find many of the tools interesting, but only a few useful for my own scholarly pursuits. There are many scholars who just will not find any of the approaches as useful in informing their work. And that is okay. But if we help shed light on the value of such projects and a schema for evaluation, then maybe, just maybe, DH will find itself being given more credence.

 


 

Risam, R. (2014) Rethinking Peer Review in the Age of Digital Humanities. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.4.doi:10.7264/N3WQ0220

Fitzpatrick, K. (2009/2011) Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York University Press

One thought on “Moving Into the Center: Can Digital Humanities Find Credence in Other Disciplines?

  1. Thank you for your post, Heather! I really appreciate your honesty and skepticism in the future of DH and scholarly publication. When reading your post, I wanted to bring up the idea of funding. More than one of the pieces we read for class predicted the worst for print publication – the money isn’t there for university presses to print nor is it available for university libraries to buy. I think this sense of urgency for new methods is breathing down our necks more than universities show.

    With this in mind, I see a place for the Digital Humanities, starting out with its power to work the flawed system. You worry about the field getting in its own way, but I don’t think we can have fully integrated digital literacy education in our current disciplinary programs without an initial shake-up. By shifting funding over to DH, disciplinary programs can really think about about how to best cover non-digital AND digital methods.

    When you say that the tools we have used don’t necessarily fit your research pursuits, I hope that they can offer you different ways in assessing your research topics. In researching for our final project, my group and I consistently struggled with applying a tool to our research questions. However, screwing around in my research and approaching search queries and databases differently showed me the way to new approaches.

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