Week 6: Shared Ideals

By now, six weeks into my new position, I’ve read a lot of arguments both in favor and opposed to the digital humanities, and beneath the surface of almost every single one of these arguments, I’ve seen the same underlying theme: anti-capitalism or anti-corporatization. Most of the articles I have read have in one way or another made the case that the academy should not be run as a business. The most interesting thing about this is the way that it plays out in opposing arguments. Let’s take a look at some of the (oversimplified) arguments that have been made about digital scholarship. 

  • We should all publish on open access platforms because knowledge should be shared.
  • If we all publish only on open access platforms, there will be no peer review, and there will be a death of expertise, making it easier for the general public to be manipulated by propaganda.
  • Libraries shouldn’t be just houses for information, they should be centers for generating new knowledge.
  • Digital humanities will save the humanities from its crisis.
  • Digital humanities will not save the humanities from its crisis.
  • We need more cross-disciplinary research and research centers.
  • Digital work is rarely counted toward tenure and often not recognized as research.
  • The higher ups in higher education only like DH because it brings in funding and it’s something they can sell to incoming students.
  • Teaching students to use computers is exactly what the corporations want you to do!
  • Using blogs or other more creative forms of assessment instead of papers is better for student learning than asking students to write essays and dissertations.

The disagreements here are not about whether digital scholarship is the best way to make money for the academy and continue its expansion. They’re about whether digital scholarship is capable of dismantling capitalist practices and systems within the academy or whether digital scholarship will further corporatize the academy. It’s not about whether the scholars think it is good or bad that there is a paywall to access scholarship. It’s about whether the paywall is necessary in order to maintain the level of scholarship taking place in the academy right now. It’s not about whether the humanities should be saved (regardless of how realistic this outlook is). It’s about how best to do it. It’s not about whether there should be more tenured positions for faculty. It’s about whether junior faculty members are doing an unfair amount of labor in order to gain tenure. (Again, I’m well aware that these are oversimplifications, but go with me).

The point that I’m making is that for all of this contention around digital scholarship and digital humanities, what everyone actually seems to be concerned about, is the seemingly inevitable corporatization and cannibalization of the university as we know it. We don’t fear computers and their ability to make graphs out of word counts (at least most of us don’t). We fear that using a tool created by a warmongering, exploitative, power-hungry corporation will open the floodgates for even more exploitation and warmongering practices in our university.

I’m going to take a deeper dive into one of the major arguments that has been ongoing in the DH community. That is, should we involve digital scholarship in our curriculum?

Some professors are torn between on the one hand, giving their students a unique, but possibly untested learning experience using digital tools, and on the other hand, making sure that the work students do in class is valued by future employers. Professors care about their students’ futures. That’s why they teach. To ignore the necessity of creating an environment that produces capable workers is to do their students a disservice. They have to prepare their students for the working world, even if it doesn’t operate the same way they wish they could operate their classrooms.

Other professors argue that this innovative, digital work and assessment is valuable to employers, that as the world becomes increasingly digital, it is relevant to give students non-traditional assignments that involve aspects of digital scholarship. This argument is similarly centered around what will best prepare students for getting jobs, but it also argues that this isn’t the only function of digital scholarship, that it is fulfilling and fun and that it inspires a passion for learning in their students more so than lectures and papers.

Still other professors believe that the digital work and unique assessment practices are not productive at all, that they not only fail teach students the skills and learning outcomes necessary for the basic understanding of the field of study, but are also not skills that are marketable to employers.

As a recent undergraduate student, I would say that all of this is missing the point. I really enjoyed my college experience. I enjoyed writing papers and making videos and blog entries. I enjoyed classes where we had lectures and classes where we had discussions. I also enjoyed writing poetry using tweets from Twitter bots and making pottery and giving presentations and running social media platforms for our creative writing lecture series (the Beck Lecture Series). I liked having a mix of all of these kinds of work. It’s not about the type of work I did as a student, so much as it was about feeling I could engage in learning in new ways, which sometimes meant writing a fifteen page paper. What mattered was that these different types of learning were valued for their difference and their breadth. There is no reason why the liberal arts shouldn’t embrace digital scholarship. It embodies everything the liberal arts is about. It’s cross-disciplinary. Making a video is as much about camera angles as it is about storytelling. Understanding poetic meter is as important as understanding algorithms. Knowing how to teach yourself new skills is not just about where to find information but also about how to interpret it. To exclude print or digital information from these endeavors would be a huge mistake. The liberal arts needs the digital and the “traditional” forms of learning.

Whether the work is digital or not, is not the point. The point is that no matter what we do or how we structure our curriculums, ultimately, students have to be able to point to the work they did as undergraduates in order to get a job or get into grad school and that is the problem with education. What we all really want, not just for ourselves but for students as well, is the ability to learn for learning’s sake alone. We want to pursue our passions because that’s what the liberal arts is really about–inspiring a life-long love of learning (a phrase I heard 5,000 times at Denison). The problem is that the current system doesn’t allow everyone to pursue what they love.

I’m not arguing that I have a solution, nor am I arguing that I expect every single one of the articles and books I read to reference the Communist Manifesto when talking about ideal learning, teaching, and researching conditions. What I’m arguing is that I see a great amount of agreement beneath the contention in the DH community, and that it gives me hope because if all of these smart people are working on these problems, we might actually get somewhere.

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