Week 1 and 2: Myths and Revelations about the “Dark Side” of DH

When I first encountered the “Dark Side of Digital Humanities” and “Digital Humanities Bust” arguments online, it was my 3rd day on the job as a Digital Humanities Post-Bac, and I was concerned. Was digital humanities just a “neoliberal conspiracy” to get colleges and universities to act more like businesses? As Richard Grusen put it in his section of the Dark Side of Digital Humanities section in Debates in the Digital Humanities (2016), “academics on the left (which is pretty much everyone doing theory and cultural studies) blame the crisis in the humanities on the corporatization of the academy and the neoliberal insistence that the value of higher education must be understood instrumentally in economic terms.” Though I read dozens of responses to this idea, I was unconvinced, and I didn’t want to take part in anything labelled “neoliberal.” Had I left a job in marketing consulting – a position I often questioned due to its unending neoliberal promises about “helping” people access Medicaid by taking part in the further privatization of healthcare – just so I could help colleges become increasingly neoliberal in their research and pedagogy?

My concerns were partially informed by an article I recently read in the Guardian, Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success – it’s about cutting wages. The author, Ben Tarnoff, argues that teaching coding isn’t about making high schoolers more competitive in the job market, it’s about making middle class jobs cheaper so Silicon Valley CEOs can take home a bigger paycheck. Tarnoff explains, “teaching millions of kids to code won’t make them all middle-class. Rather, it will proletarianize the profession by flooding the market and forcing wages down – and that’s precisely the point.” The link to my new job was clear. Tarnoff explains, “The far-fetched premise of neoliberal school reform is that education can mend our disintegrating social fabric. That if we teach students the right skills, we can solve poverty, inequality and stagnation. The school becomes an engine of economic transformation, catapulting young people from challenging circumstances into dignified, comfortable lives.” If this is true of coding, it must certainly be true of the humanities. Isn’t it the premise of DH pedagogy that if we teach students the right digital, technological skills in the humanities, they will be able to get middle-income jobs? Furthermore, are we attempting to milk “usefulness” (profit) from faculty and staff who apply for grants in digital humanities? From all of these online arguments, it sounded to me like perhaps the end goal of digital humanities is to make humanities “relevant again,” which implies that the humanities are not or were not relevant to the real (read: corporate) world because they did not involve data analysis and computer programming.

The thing is though, I know the logic behind that assumption is faulty at best. I know that the humanities are relevant, that they were always relevant and that the idea of relevance in this context is a ridiculous measurement anyway. Why should we measure the value of the humanities by how much profit it can generate

Two years ago, I was the research assistant for a digital humanities project where the goal was to prove that the value of the humanities and a liberal arts education extended far beyond the simple measuring stick of whether they help students land a middle income job. At the end of the project, that premise was essentially confirmed. The Literature and Professional Life Digital Life Stories Archive is an oral history project directed by Dr. Regina Martin at Denison University. For this project, I interviewed English alumni about their careers and found that for the most part, it doesn’t matter what you major in. The value of a liberal arts education is being able to teach yourself new skills, to continue learning after graduation and for the rest of your life. More importantly, the value of a degree isn’t purely its ability to get you a high paying job, though I, a recent grad, am definitely not disputing that this is an important piece of the puzzle.

I think this fear about the effect of DH on universities as a whole emerges because Digital Humanities is such a hard concept to understand due to its broad nature. It’s at once self-defining – humanities that are digital – and still something else altogether. As Jeffrey Schnapp puts it in his article, A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities, “Digital Humanities is defined by the opportunities and challenges that arise from the conjunction of the term digital with the term humanities to form a new collective singular.” DH is not just a study of the digital from a humanities perspective, nor is it using digital tools to study traditional print/tangible humanities pieces; it’s both of these things and neither. So when you want to know whether the thing you’re about to spend a year dedicating eight hours a day to is a neoliberal conspiracy, it can be hard to parse out the truth if you’re struggling to define the thing you’re studying in the first place. After my first two weeks, here’s what I know:

  1. DH is a huge, multidisciplinary field/not-field that a lot of scholars define differently. (Though I like Schnapp’s definition above the best.)
  2. No matter what we – as scholars, professors, librarians, and humans – do, the world is becoming increasingly digital.
  3. You and I have the responsibility to ensure that at least in the humanities, this mass migration to the digital scholarship isn’t a bad thing, that it doesn’t result in the capitalization and proletarianization of the thing we love – that is – human culture.

You like me, might wonder how we accomplish number three on that list. At this point, I turn to Miriam Posner’s essay in Digital Humanities Debates about restructuring our understanding of data to better decentralize structures of power in DH, What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities. In this chapter, Posner argues the work of DH is to challenge power structures like patriarchy and racism. She states,

“I would like us to start understanding markers like gender and race not as givens but as constructions that are actively created from time to time and place to place. In other words, I want us to stop acting as though the data models for identity are containers to be filled in order to produce meaning and recognize instead that these structures themselves constitute data. That is where the work of DH should begin. What I am getting at here is a comment on our ambitions for digital humanities going forward. I want us to be more ambitious, to hold ourselves to much higher standards when we are claiming to develop data-based work that depicts people’s lives.”

As digital humanists, we need to find ways to resist the hierarchical molds developed by the corporations that have established much of the technology we use to conduct our research. Posner gives a few examples of ways to do this:

  1. Break out of the gender binary
  2. Resist the urge to visualize time as linear
  3. Create new understandings of race that are not checkboxes
  4. Be conscious of the perspective from which you display your data

In other words, we need to stop treating social constructs like they are the truth and in this way, we can positively impact the concept of data and the digital.

It would be easy for all of this DH work to slip into the neoliberal mold of producing bodies capable of reducing labor costs for CEOs who want a greater profit, but it doesn’t have to take this form, or not only this form. Even those skills which might ultimately reduce the average middle income are not inherently bad to learn or even market to employers. The dark side of the humanities is the lack of agency that comes from capitalism overtaking the university. I believe that by following Posner’s examples, I will be able to maintain some agency over my work. DH is what you make of it. In the words of Hogarth Hughes from Iron Giant, “You are who you choose to be. Now choose.”

Throughout my time as the DH Post-Bac for the Ohio5 Colleges, I will strive to meet Posner’s standards, to resist the simple answers that reinforce dominant power structures, and to create a new ways of thinking about DH that break the established neoliberal forms.

References

  1. Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong, et al. “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2016, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/89. Accessed 25 January 2018.
  2. Brennan, Timothy. “The Digital-Humanities Bust.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 Oct. 2017, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Digital-Humanities-Bust/241424. Accessed 24 January 2018.
  3. Tarnoff, Ben. “Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success – it’s about cutting wages.” The Guardian, 21 September 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/21/coding-education-teaching-silicon-valley-wages. Accessed 24 January 2018.
  4. Martin, Regina. “What can you do with an English Degree?: Oral History and the Crisis in the Humanities.” Oral History in the Liberal Arts, http://ohla.info/what-can-you-do-with-an-english-degree-oral-history-and-the-crisis-in-the-humanities/. Accessed 24 January 2018.
  5. Schnapp, Jeffrey. “A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities.” Digital_Humanities, 2012, pp. 121-136. http://jeffreyschnapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/D_H_ShortGuide.pdf. Accessed 25 January 2018.
  6. Posner, Miriam. “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2016, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/54. Accessed 25 January 2018.
  7. Bird, Brad, director. Iron Giant. Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc, 1999.