DH 2018: or, what happens when elite SLACs are resistant to DH praxis.

This is a much longer version of the talk I gave at DH2018 in Mexico City; we had 5 minutes, and as always it is impossible for me to keep myself that short! So here are all the things I had wanted to say; the presentation itself is mostly drawn from Part II below. Thanks so much to everyone I met, and to everyone on the panel, particularly to Brandon Walsh and Lisa Marie Rhody for organizing.

Part I: Institutional History and the Eternal Class War of Theory v. Praxis

Institutional History: Since 2014, The Five College Digital Humanities and Blended Learning Initiative has been supported by a combination of Mellon and Teagle Foundation grants. Prior to the 17-18 academic year, the DH and BL components were separated both by local institutional philosophy and physical location. On the one hand: DH, focusing on research and theory, run by Dr. Marisa Parham, and based at Amherst College. On the other: BL, teaching, and praxis, run by Dr. TreAndrea Russworm and based at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. In Summer 2017, these separate initiatives were merged under Dr. Eric Poehler, associate professor of classics at UMass.

Problem 1: Even as DH and BL, theory and praxis, merge, 2017-2018 is the last year of external funding for the 5CollDH/BL program. Thus the program enters a resource-poor environment, even as praxis and theory are (at least in name) integrated. With grant money gone, faculty and staff interested in DH or BL have fewer monetary resources to support new and/or ongoing projects.

Problem 2: One particular challenge in a consortium of four small liberal arts colleges and one large public land-grant university is conflicting attitudes towards praxis across the Five Colleges. Faculty at Hampshire and Amherst in particular have been cautious about delving too deeply into praxis in order to mark a separation from career development programs; and most praxis-oriented classes in the humanities are either taught at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, or only with staff assistance. Yet many faculty at all five colleges have developed robust DH research projects. They embrace praxis in their research, but current structures leave fewer options for passing that portion of their research along to students

This is the crux of the problem: The typical inextricability of DH research and praxis runs counter to the traditional orientation of classically-modeled schools such as Amherst. They are open to the idea that DH tools can address complex theoretical questions, but for various institutional, historical, and personal reasons do not often bring those tools to their classrooms. In fact, they are actively outsourcing skills courses to the public school in the consortium, which creates and perpetuates an educational divide along classed lines. There is still a split between those who do (the public school) and those who think (the private liberal arts colleges).

But the founders of the DH/BL initiatives (as well as, importantly, administrators across the Consortium) want more investment in DH praxis for undergraduate students. Therefore, my official job this year was to develop modules that will help lay the groundwork for a 5 College DH undergraduate certificate. I sat in on a class called “Doing Digital” at UMass; professor Matthew Schilleman taught English majors Python as a way to understand both Python as a language and broader questions about reading and literature. to assist me in developing video assets for faculty across the consortium who might want to include technology in their classrooms. These modules are ultimately part of a larger effort to develop a DH certificate available to students across the consortium: my videos are meant to provide a low-level common ground for faculty teaching with blended techniques. These videos are very much basic introductions for people who have not taught with technology before. They include things like, plan ahead! And allow extra time for tech!

This leads me to my unofficial mandate: my presence was meant to show faculty and administration at Amherst (and the other liberal arts colleges in the consortium) that there are early career scholars who are theoretically sophisticated that also employ practical digital tools in their work, as a way of decreasing resistance to teaching undergrad students similar skills. In other words, I might open the door to praxis at prestigious SLACs.

Therefore, if the goal of this roundtable was to discuss the state of praxis-oriented DH education, I wanted to tweak the question a bit, and ask, “What happens when faculty say yes to DH praxis in their research, but not in their teaching? What are the ethical stakes when the praxis-oriented courses in the consortium fall on the public university?” This split is further widened by the fact that most faculty at these SLACs have the resources to hire support staff when/if they choose to teach DH tools.

As part of this unofficial mandate (spreading the good word of DH) I developed and presented a series of what I called “No-Tech Introductions to Digital Humanities” with the monetary and staff support of the Center for Humanistic Inquiry (a huge thanks to Heather Grimes for scheduling space, ordering lunches, and making the promotional materials; the events would not have happened without you!). The goal was simple: broaden exposure to common DH practices while avoiding resistances to practical education; to focus on the theory behind the praxis; above all, to avoid the utter nightmare of tutorial-style workshops. Framed as a faculty seminar, these sessions in fact drew students, faculty, staff, librarians, and community member from across the Pioneer Valley. Average attendance was 12, with peaks of 20. Recordings of each of these sessions are available on my Recorded Talks page.

Part of the goal for these sessions was also to debunk common fears of DH: the persistent resistance to technology itself, and related worries about the status of the humanities in the face of technosalvationism that are so often cited as reasons for resisting DH. But these are often strawman reasons, raised by what Roopika Risam calls the “clickbait du jour”; others including Ted Underwood have noted the tendency to paint DH with an overly broad brush.

Part I.b

In Risam’s post, she draws on the work of Schuyler Esprit to raise a version of my overall point: people who voice concerns about DH say they are worried about the disappearance of the humanities, of a corporate encroachment on the traditional goals of the liberal arts education, etc etc. But their hesitation to engage with the immense variety of queer, diasporic, Black, feminist, and international DH actually being done suggests that praxis resistance is code for classism, sexism, and racism, stemming from a fear of changing the shape of academia to reflect the new faces and voices who have begun to demand attention.

This sounds as if I am overstating my case; but looking at some of the more prominent DH critiques from the last five years immediately brings these specters into view.

For example, in 2012 Stephen Marche posed the problem of DH as a destruction of “the sacred” in literature. His elegy for the time when every scholar (you can almost hear the implied “real” before “scholar”) of Renaissance literature had to travel to the Bodleian for access to primary sources sounds like a joke.

Early English Books Online has existed for a decade. That wonderful database in its own way demonstrates how digitization leads to the decline of the sacred. Before EEBO arrived, every English scholar of the Renaissance had to spend time at the Bodleian library in Oxford; that’s where one found one’s material. But actually finding the material was only a part of the process of attending the Bodleian, where connections were made at the mother university in the land of the mother tongue. Professors were relics; they had snuffboxes and passed them to the right after dinner, because port is passed left. EEBO ended all that, because the merely practical reason for attending the Bodleian was no longer justifiable when the texts were all available online.”

(NB: emphases in all quotations are mine.)

This “merely practical reason for attending the Bodleian” is the incredible monetary cost justified because literature is sacred, literature is not data, because only in the bosom of England’s colonial project can academia function. In Marche’s world, DH destroys the ineffable something about literature through its emphasis on the “merely practical.” To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, what withers in the era of the digital humanities is literature’s aura. If many people can access a copy of Henry Peacham’s 1634 text of The Compleat Gentleman, then the auratic quality dwindles and the original loses its luster.

Despite immediate responses about the strawman nature of Marche’s argument (notably these by Holger Syme and Scott Selisker), this same argument has not gone away. Marche’s assumptions of class and/in academia are by no means an anomaly… and thrive inside the academy as much as they do in the liminal space of pop intellectualism Marche has smoothed out for himself.

In October of 2017 Timothy Brennan wrote a widely-circulated Chronicle article arguing that “DH is at least partly a revolt of the academically disenfranchised. With shrunken hopes for a tenure-track job, younger scholars set out to make necessity a virtue, and instead of protesting their disenfranchisement by attacking the neoliberal logic of the university, they join the corporate attack on a professoriate that has what they want. The academic divide between poor and rich is effaced in DH initiatives, which have thrived in smaller, less well-funded liberal-arts colleges or second-tier research universities.”

(The above article requires Premium Access: a response to Brennan does not, though, and it summarizes his main points clearly.)

In Brennan’s dystopian world, young academics use DH to help destroy the university; they also embrace praxis to the detriment of the auratic quality of literature (and other human art forms) that Marche worried about five years earlier. This seems to be a particularly pernicious form of the argument against digital humanities: because DH involves the use of tools, it is the province of “younger scholars” at “second-tier universities” who are implicitly too naïve or ignorant to “attack the neoliberal logic” that Brennan sees at work in DH scholarship; instead, they join in to erase “the academic divide between poor and rich” universities by promoting DH initiatives.

Surprise! I’m a sleeper agent taking down the system as revenge for not getting a tenure track job.

Brennan’s line of argument raised a question for me: Why not similar attacks on rhetoric and composition scholars? If the worry is that precious resources are going to a subdiscipline, or that jobs are disappearing, or that institutions are de-funding liberal arts programs in favor of instrumentalized degrees (new majors in technical writing spring to mind), where is the vitriol directed at rhet-comp? Looking at the MLA jobs list, as well as anecdotally speaking with colleagues, advertisements for DH jobs are far outnumbered by adverts for rhet-comp jobs. A search of the MLA JIL on June 11, 2018 (inclusive of jobs posted between September 2017 and June 2018) for “digital humanities” yielded 78 results; searching for “rhetoric and composition” returned 163. Allowing for duplicates or administrative positions, this is still about twice the number.

So where are the polemics against rhetoric and composition? Where are the screeds arguing that young rhet-comp scholars are pulling down the institution around them?

The answer, I think, is DH praxis, or the use of new tools as opposed to the study of new objects. Rhetoric and Composition remains safe because it does not propose a new methodology; close reading, writing, and interpretation remain at the heart of rhet-comp jobs. I do not assign a value-judgment to this; the point I want to make is that all these kinds of praxis have valuable, important, smart things to say about our world. But the crucial point of this is that critics like Brennan and Marche very much assign value to methods. Rhet-comp, I think, is safe because it is familiar, at least within the structures of port, snuff, prestigious schools and the halcyon days of tenure. DH is dangerous because it asks scholars to question their methods. Again, this is a strawman, but it is one that these critics have seemingly set up themselves.


Part II: Theory First, Praxis Second.

Now that I have rehashed some of the debates surrounding praxis, or doing things with digital tools, I’ll outline my own response as it played out in a very specific context: a series of five faculty seminars, held at Amherst College, over the 2017-2018 academic year.

While content varied widely, each session included:

  1. important terms
  2. research questions
  3. example projects
  4. historical/theoretical/intellectual context of the tool
  5. problems/pitfalls/things to avoid/challenges/questions

I’ll give you a brief overview of the most recent one, on computational image processing; again, the full talk, with lively discussion, is available here.

(While actually doing computational image processing necessitates technical skills, of course, understanding the logical construction of the tools does not. And by framing the tool as a methodology which is itself situated within a long history of other methodologies, some of the fear of technology is lessened.)

Ok, deep breath.

For the computer to process images, we have to tell it what counts as an image, which means understanding what an image is, which includes assumptions about how we as humans see, which further guides our attempts to teach computers how to look for things for us.

I began by briefly talking about the history of optics; in the past, we had different ideas about what it meant to see images; these include extramissive and intromissive theories of sight. This led to modern understandings of sight, which is what guides our attempts to train our computational tools. What emerged in this presentation was that many projects using computational image processing, particularly for apps like LOCcolors, in which you can search selected collections by the most common colors in that collection, is that color is taught to the computer as a mathematical value, called a HEX code.

This brought us to an even larger question surrounding the equivalency of signs: is a color the same as a number? Is the word blue the same as this color,


and is that the same as the HEX code? What do scholars assume when we assume that all those categories of information (colors, numbers, words) can be made equivalent? Do we gain anything? What do we lose?

You’ll notice, perhaps, that nothing here is specifically about teaching. While teaching came up at times, because of Amherst’s particular culture and emphasis on research, I extrapolated to the broadest levels of abstraction in an attempt to sidestep the same debates I outlined above. Because these questions persist, and because of Amherst’s unique culture around prestige in academic life that includes a wariness around potentially being asked to incorporate new technical tools in the classroom, it seemed important to frame these DH practices as theoretically as possible. The ultimate goal here was to expose as many people as possible to praxis without raising the specters of neoliberal threat or administrative interference. Even further down the road, I hope that more faculty will take on DH skills in their classroom. Individual experiments in BL/DH will no doubt continue to thrive in individual circles, thanks in no small part to the access to information provided by the kinds of archival projects of which even Brennan approves. Still, those that choose to experiment will find themselves with fewer sources of ready support and advice, considering the newly resource-poor 5CollBL/DH environment.

Yet the persistence of attitudes like Marche’s and Brennan’s threaten to keep DH praxis, in all its rich variety, relegated to the status of vocational education in the Five College Consortium. This does a disservice both to the rich variety of DH currently being done, as well as affecting how very talented undergraduate students are exposed to these practical technical skills.

So what next?

Part III: Now It’s Your Turn

In the practical spirit of the panel, I wanted to close with a set of concrete steps that might be of use. But I also give the immediate caveat that, because institutions vary tremendously according to history, financial resources, student populations, goals, relationships between administration and faculty, and so on, any, all, or none of these ideas might be useful depending on your particular institutional context.

For DH advocates that face faculty resistance or who might be interested in their own No-Tech Intros:

  • Say out loud, “You do not have to do this if it is not useful to you.” For faculty who are deeply suspicious about the instrumentalization of intellectual culture, even hearing that they themselves do not have to participate in DH is a way to lessen praxis resistance.
    1. Present DH as an option, rather than a mandate.
      • Places like Amherst (and, I would guess, every university ever) have some VERY independent, very stubborn, very smart people who do not want to be told (how) to do anything. If DH praxis is just a thing that other very smart and interesting people do, these independent stubborn faculty are more likely to take on praxis in service of a theoretical goal.
  • But what about those ethical stakes?! If faculty are told they don’t have to do praxis, this runs the risk of cordoning practical skills off in the public universities.
    1. This remains an open question, but my best baby step is:
  • Make the point that ALL methodologies are learned; I also had to learn to close read, even though it feels natural to me. This reincorporates DH praxis as just another method that faculty and their students might use to their advantage, if they want to.
  • Following Ryan Cordell, frame DH tools in their historical and intellectual context.


For those who might want to try teaching with technical tools:

  • Take baby steps. Have a good reason for praxis, whether you are deploying it or advocating for it. Only do as much as—but not more than— you need.
  • Consider the goals and aims of your own discipline. If you are a historian, consider whether 3D-printing a copy of an artifact might enhance student understanding of the importance of relics to medieval European religious thought. It might not. That is ok too. But it also might! You are the expert in your field.
  • Don’t depend on support staff to provide the technical instruction. If you can’t do it yourself, or make it a joint-taught class where both instructors are instructors, don’t teach it.
    1. This is both a kind response to the precarity of many staff (or grad students) who might have technical skills and be available to you as a resource; it will also make it easier for students, who can look to you as both an authority and as someone also experimenting with technology in the humanities.

These are all small steps, and as always, ymmv. But I think that they encourage a more deep-rooted adoption of praxis education that is responsible to various kinds of differences, including disciplinary, economic, and public/private distinctions.


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