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Whither the Digital Humanities?

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Reviewed by Chris Friend and Daniel Lynds
Sudden Prosperity” by Pulpolux !!!; CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Digital Humanities (DH) can be viewed in two ways: as emerging and as emergent.

  • Emerging: Over the last two decades, as it grew from humanities computing into digital humanities, it spawned a range of analytics, journals, conferences, institutes, books, anthologies, courses, programs, and projects that carry its imprimatur with a degree of confidence signifying growth.
  • Emergent: Responding to new and rapid changes in technology; generating flexible, for-the-moment modes to appropriate the digital to study technological complexity in humanistic contexts; infusing new practices, forms, and tools of communication, learning, entertainment, and pleasure into social lives; negotiating the global flow of economic power and culture through digital systems and networks.

The tension between them is a central force animating DH today.

There are two areas — Writing and the University — in which this tension is especially apparent, as digital technologies are upending, questioning, or reframing traditional or cherished assumptions. I make three arguments­: one, we should closely examine how the digital is affecting reading and writing practices in order to emphasize the value of deliberative thinking and discourse to democracy; two, we must ameliorate conditions of inequality created by the disruptive effects of digital technologies in higher education; and three, we ought to counter — through creative uses of the digital — online cultures that promote genocidal violence to justify theocratic ideologies. These three arguments add up to this central claim: because digital technologies are extensively interwoven in the fabric of existing systems and emerging social relations, digital humanities scholars, artists, and activists should rigorously analyze the role of human agency, the power of ideology, and the culture of institutions in the digitalization of everyday life.

Writing and Reading in the Digital Age

“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” asks Nicholas Carr, and he answers in the affirmative. The inability to read long sections of prose, the tendency to flit from hyperlink to hyperlink, the difficulty in focusing for extended time, the need to digest information in small chunks — all these mark a disturbing development in the age of Google. Carr contends: “The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations these words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.”

Countering Carr, Chad Wellmon in “Google is Not Making Us Stupid, or Smart” points out that such arguments echo fears about print technology starting in the mid-fifteenth century. Many complained that the populace was becoming misinformed, misleading information was getting published and circulated in large numbers, traditional ideas and institutions of family, religion, and community were being questioned, and refined languages were yielding to unrefined ones. Drawing a historical parallel, Wellmon points to “Enlightenment reading technologies” that led to the rise of “dictionaries, bibliographies, reviews, note-taking, encyclopedias, marginalia, commonplace books, footnotes,” which helped people make sense of and manage the dramatic increase of information.

But Wellmon’s point is misplaced, because it does not fully address the key issues Carr points out — the social consequences of the decline in deep reading, and the neurological impact of digital immersion. Wellmon does allude to “extensive or consultative forms of reading” and “more intensive forms of reading” that Carr highlights, but goes on to explain how new technologies of reading are emerging today to help us sort information. He cites Google’s Page Rank, as an example of a sophisticated program that uses a citational model of references to sift millions of information bytes to prioritize them. Yet, for all of Page Rank’s sophisticated valuation of data, when we do access it on our screens, we are struggling to focus and read closely. When we find it difficult to read Wellmon’s entire essay, then we have a problem, whether or not Google ranks it as the first, fifty-first, or five hundredth link. The attentional and cognitive impact of digital screens is also becoming manifest in student writing and citational references, as one study strongly indicates.

In The Citation Project, Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard examine citation practices in papers written in introductory writing courses. In their essay “Sentence-Mining: Uncovering the Amount of Reading and Writing Comprehension in College Writers’ Researched Writing,” the research data set includes papers from 174 students from 16 colleges across the U.S., which contain 17,600 written lines or 800 pages, 930 sources, and 1,911 references. Its key finding is worth noting: “The majority, 46 percent of the students’ 1,911 citations, come from page 1 of the source.” At first glance, these figures may cause dismay; however, this dismay can be qualified: students are consulting sources and not making up things out of thin air; by reading pages one, two, three, and four, and not much beyond, they are probably picking up the central ideas or arguments of the source text in the first few pages. And it makes sense: usually, these pages have keywords, abstracts, theses, forecasting statements. But what cannot be glossed over is that they are reading on the prowl, looking eagerly for specific things to use; they want to find a polished idea, a gem of a thought, a ready made argument, a neatly framed issue, a syntactically effective sentence, a stylistically rendered idea. In short, a utilitarian approach shapes reading on the prowl: search, find, use. What they don’t seem to be doing is “radial reading,” which Jerome J. McGann in The Textual Condition explains as a kind of immersive reading that “involves decoding one or more of the contexts that interpenetrate the scripted and physical text. It necessitates some kind of abstraction from the text.” He notes, “The elementary sign of radial reading is probably illustrated by a person who rises from reading a book in order to look up the meaning of a word in a dictionary or to check some historical or geographical reference.”

However, it is important to bear in mind that this reading strategy is intimately connected to the task of developing the skills of literary and textual discernment; that is, radial reading is not just a reading practice so much as it is also a cultural act, wherein we develop the ability to distinguish among texts that lend themselves well to radial reading (Pound’s Cantos) and those that do not (Harlequin narratives), since the latter “do not positively call out to the critical and self-conscious reader — on the contrary, in fact.”

Unlike radial reading, prowl reading seeks a direct correspondence between intention (finding appropriate source) and use (citing it) — this is its seductive power. Online, it encourages the activity of flitting from source to source, screen to screen, link to link. What this model of goals and outcomes cannot produce is a deep awareness of the process by which those ideas were conceived; what it cannot grasp is the hard work of developing inferences, testing and weighing ideas, assessing counter perspectives, honing a point, finding alternate perspectives, contextualizing and historicizing textual production; what it cannot demonstrate is an understanding of radial reading, the manifold variations of language and the complex modulations of expression that inform the writer’s search for ideas and arguments over time.

While we may not be getting stupider in a digital environment, the propensity to mistake mediocrity for excellence, fragments for wholeness, shallowness for depth, is powerful. We risk educating ourselves into asininity while becoming awed by its sophistication, its compellingly attractive, addictive, inviting digital sheen. To what extent we yield to it and with what consequences is an issue that takes us back where we began: what is the nature of reading, and why does writing matter for education, knowledge, and civic life?

The pedagogical implications of reading in print and digital contexts are clearly addressed by Naomi S. Baron in Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital Age, in which she points out that the variety of reading practices — skimming, scanning, continuous reading, prowl reading, and deep reading — mean that there are different readers whose reading is informed by motivation, desire, profession, background, and purpose. She cites Katherine Hayles’s How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis to explain why accommodating various types of reading can benefit students, instead of assuming deep reading as the only reading that matters. Hayles goes so far as to suggest teaching how to skim, prowl, and scan, while also doing deep, continuous, immersive reading. She is right; moreover, this has enormous implications for pedagogy, because it reorients our focus on close reading not as the preferred form of reading, but as one important reading practice among many that can be taught and learnt fairly systematically. We can develop an innovative curriculum and pedagogy that approaches reading and writing as differentiated activities that can be practiced in a variety of contexts and for diverse purposes.

The stakes are high in the digital age, because “the relevance of the embodied human agent has to be argued for today.” When our lives are saturated with digitally mediated cultures, the desire to forego deep reading in favor of skimming, scanning, and prowling can be viewed less as a unique aberration in the history of reading and more as a cultural register of the contemporary moment. We cannot naively dismiss the cultural impact of the digital on reading and writing without compromising our ability to cultivate a reflective, critical sensibility to both appreciate and nourish, while questioning and containing, the power of tradition, common sense, and authority to govern our lives. Put simply, public literacy — the cornerstone of a democracy — is at stake.

If I can extend this insight, at the risk of compressing a complex issue, let me say this: we can bemoan the rise of surface reading all we want, but unless we understand it as a phenomenon of culture, of the digital moment also as a cultural moment, we will end up abstracting technology from society, and hence, ultimately, abstracting human beings from the cultures they produce and live in. This leads not to cultural knowledge but to technological determinism, an ideology that supports a technocratic worldview that values efficiency, speed, connectivity, and process at the expense of ambivalence, tolerance, ambiguity, and growth. When we downplay the latter in favor of the former, we undermine the core of our being: our humanity, our daily living marked by passions, emotions, desires, anxieties, dreams, and longings that cannot be quantified, processed, and evaluated by the technocratic world. This is why we should re-think the digital as technology and as culture. This moves us beyond computational humanities into a humanities centered study of digital culture, which brings me to the second field of emphasis: the digital humanities and higher education.

Reimagining the University in the Digital Age

Limiting the nature and scope of the digital humanities to academic disciplinary shifts is misguided for this simple reason: the technology of the digital potentially impacts all fields and forms of knowledge, learning, and communication. Kevin Carey makes this point pungently in The End of College: Creating the Future and the University of Everywhere: “traditional universities that move quickly and adapt to the opportunities of information technology will become centers of learning in the networked University of Everywhere. Those that cannot change will disappear.” He goes on to add, “The higher-learning places of the future will be portals as much as meeting places, connected to the global University of Everywhere and beyond.” This new frontier of education is contrasted with the current hybrid university model that has become the norm in America; in this model the pragmatic orientation towards education (1862 Morrill Act’s focus on engineering and agriculture), the research orientation adopted from German universities (Humboldtian approach), and the liberal arts orientation (John Cardinal Newman’s focus) coalesce unevenly.

Carey contends that the university of the future will need to pervasively use information technologies and develop educational models in which scalability will be linked to affordability, learning experiences will become immersive and interactive, credentialing will be fully or partially open sourced, and the calculation of learning according to credit hours, semesters, and weeks will undergo significant alternations in favor of flexible, on-demand, personalized and paced learning processes. However, the conditions of possibility for this University of Everywhere to emerge include two troubling developments: the rise of adjunct academic labor, and the use of business models to evaluate education.

Adjunct labor: the digital humanities’ current cache, observes Moira Weigel, obscures its unacknowledged dependence on traditional structures that organize research labor into two groups: research faculty surrounded by large contingents of adjuncts, and graduate assistants who build digital databases, systems, and networks to facilitate this research. She writes, “The Information Revolution may do to academic labor what it has already done to many other forms of work: render workers increasingly precarious and distribute rewards on increasingly unequal terms among them.” More than 50% of full time faculty members are adjuncts in America, according to the American Association of University Professors. Although Carey underscores this trend, unlike Weigel he does not adequately examine the inequalities of work and social life generated through a wholesale embrace of the digital.

Business models: without a doubt, universities need sound fiscal policies to function. Drawing from business models to develop stable and reliable financial plans and strategies is necessary. But with the rise of the digital, when business models that view the value of higher education solely or primarily in terms of employment returns are adopted, the results can be sobering, as Sebastian Thrun, a posterboy of the digital revolution in education, discovered. Thrun gained national fame for founding Udacity to provide quality education to the masses at low or no cost. Later, he publicly admitted his miscalculation: for all the hype of thousands of students enrolling in these courses, retention and completion rates were abysmal. Admitting that the Udacity model is better suited to meet the needs of businesses and other professions, Thrun said, “At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment. . . . If you focus on the single question of who knows best what students need in the workforce, it’s the people already in the workforce. Why not give industry a voice?”

But what kind of employment? Whose interests does employment serve? When a municipality spends thousands of dollars training its residents for manufacturing jobs, it can lead to employment. But when those jobs are offshored by the thousands to Thailand, Brazil, India, or China, the true value of education here is not employment but the ability to understand why jobs are being outsourced in a global world, how thousands of people and families can lose their livelihoods with little recourse to other employment sectors, and how we should prepare ourselves economically and politically to negotiate such disruptive dynamics by developing and implementing social and economic policies in the democratic commons. This is also what gives value to education.

To better understand the university in a digital age, a more helpful approach would be to historicize higher education’s role in society, and contextualize the societal transformations wrought by digital technology, as does David M. Berry in “The Computational Turn: Thinking About the Digital Humanities.” He identifies three shifts in higher education: the Kantian University organized according to Reason and Science; the national university harnessed to the rise of industrialization; and the contemporary immersed in media saturated environments. Berry says that “we are beginning to see instead the cultural importance of the digital as the unifying idea of the university,” and adds: “In short, Bildung is still a key idea in the digital university, not as a subject trained in a vocational fashion to perform instrumental labor, nor as a subject skilled in a national literary culture, but rather as a subject which can unify the information that society is now producing at increasing rates, and which understands new methods and practices of critical reading (code, data visualization, patterns, narrative) and is open to new methods of pedagogy to facilitate it.”

Berry’s contemporary university in which the digital becomes “the unifying idea” needs to be examined in the context of twentieth century nationalism. Indeed, where Berry sees a shift beyond the national into a post-national era of the digital, the twentieth century witnessed the dramatic growth of nation-states all over the world: in 1920, there were 69 states; in 1950, there were 89; and in 1995, the number was 192. The US Department of State lists 195 nation-states.

Far from disappearing into the hazy mists of world historical time, nationalism has exerted a powerful hold all the way into the twenty-first century. The intersection of digital technology with international migration and global modernity has also led to a disturbing phenomenon of genocidal radicalism grounded in religious belief, best exemplified in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS): it dreams of a Caliphate that brings into violent submission any diverse expression and practice that is not in harmony with its global ambition. Its Twitter feeds, glossy pamphlets, technically finessed videos, Facebook pages, audio releases, digital newsletters, and hacker culture are thoroughly digital. Here, the digital becomes the means to unify the entire world, whereas the digital unifies the university in Berry’s account of higher education.

The point is that all universities are deeply embedded in specific cultures and societies, which are also interconnected with other societies and cultures: this is the condition of globality today. The digital slips and slides across national and international borders, and changes or re-infuses national cultures with pan-global aspirations. The national mission of education has not become redundant but is in constant interplay and tension with the reach and impact of the digitally global. Studying such contradictions and developing the intellectual and cultural wherewithal to engage them in the pursuit of equality, justice, and peace can be a promising undertaking for the digital humanities within and beyond the university.

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