Response to ‘Making the Digital Human’

This post has been prompted by a thoughtful, interesting, and provocative post by Andrew Prescott (hereafter AP) on his blog Digital Riffs.

While I agree with AP’s wish to see DH having greater freedom to set its own agenda, I think he paints a distorted/exaggerated picture of the co-optation that he believes currently prevents it from doing so. For example, after giving the period focus breakdown of projects at King’s College Department of Digital Humanities, he writes “While Oxford seems a little more willing to countenance modernity than King’s College”. Many readers will reasonably see in this the assertion: King’s College DDH is largely unwilling to countenance modernity. But that is only one of several possible explanations for the way the period focus figures divide. Now personally I happen to think the idea that DDH (or any of the other DH organizations that do a lot of project work) is somehow biased against modernity quite wrong, and that there is another explanation altogether for the way the figures break down, but at the very least it is rhetorically a bit sneaky to simply hang that implication by itself on the fact. Given that there *are* alternative explanations, he should at least offer concrete evidence of decisions made, choices forgone, etc. that persuasively show DDH consciously and deliberately refusing to countenance modernity.

By itself that instance of rhetorically punching below the belt would not be so noticeable, but it cannot help but resonate when further on we read “the digital humanities as formally constituted has been party to a concerted attempt to reinstate an outmoded and conservative view of the humanities”. The noun phrase “concerted attempt” cries out for a following “by xxxxxxx”, where the despicable agents of this Cranian backlash are named. But he doesn’t name them – instead he just states the concerted attempt as a fact but assign no agents to it. How are we possibly to assess the truth of this assertion if we cannot go to the work of those supposedly carrying it out, read their public statements, or chart their influence on review panels and funding bodies?

If we are speaking of biases, AP surely reveals one of his own when he says, with respect to the period-foci of projects at Oxford “the figures are still not impressive”. I don’t understand why the mere period focus alone of projects would be impressive. For me, the period focus of a project is simply a fact – it is the quality of the project that will or will not impress me. I’ll take one well-done project on Shakespeare over a dozen poorly-done projects on Coronation Street, and vice-versa. I don’t care what period the project content happens to be from, I care about what the project has done with the content.

I share many of AP’s feelings about the restrictive nature of project work as it currently tends to be structured, but I think he locates the problem wrongly. He says “[b]ut our academic collaborators in classics or history or even literature will want to keep us close to hand and prevent us wandering away down such paths.” The word he uses – correctly – is “collaborators”. Our academic partners are not gaolers, or enemies, they are people who come to us with projects. Why do we at DDH have projects on Ben Jonson, on ancient Greek epigraphy, and on medieval boundary clauses? Because scholars interested in those topics came to us and proposed collaboration. Why do we have so many projects focusing on the medieval period? Because having collaborated with us once and being happy with the outcome, scholars have come back to us with further proposals. Why do we have no projects on Coronation Street or Shrek? Because, as far as I’m aware, nobody has come to us with a proposal to collaborate on such a project.

Call me naive, but in my experience of working in several different DH groups, what gets done always boils down to two factors: who comes forward with project proposals? and where does the money come from to make those proposals a reality? That, in my opinion, and as far as the predilections of DH groups are concerned, is it. Nothing else. No inherent bias against modernity, and no ideological agenda to turn back the clock to some pre-“post-human” humanities. And here I will offer some evidence: slightly anecdotal, I grant, but at least evidence. I used to spend part of my time working for the Scholarly Technology Group at Brown University. At that time STG lived (as did most other DH groups – although there weren’t many others of our size around) rather precariously. Brown supported STG financially, but made it increasingly clear that STG needed to bring in outside funding and move towards self-sufficiency. Generally, therefore, the projects that got made were those that came to us with funding already in hand from external sources. One such project involved the archives of famous Providence dressmakers A and L Tirocchi; another involved collaboration with a local high school in producing an oral history of 1968 – hardly representative of traditional humanities. Later on, there was a major reorganization in the way STG functioned with respect to the university as a whole. A Faculty Grant program was set up whereby STG was given a sum of money to disburse, which it did by putting out a Brown-wide call for project proposals: if you are an academic at Brown, you brought in your project proposal, and if we it was well-thought out and doable, we allocated a portion of our time to working on it. From this program came not only a site based around Pico de la Mirandola’s 900 theses, but also sites based on Mark Tribe’s Port Huron Project, and on Jewish vacationing in the Catskill Mountains in the second-half of the 20th century. My all-time favourite STG project remains a site based on a structuralist analytical approach to traditional Romanian love charms. (You can get information about these and a host of other fascinating projects at http://library.brown.edu/cds/projects )

My point here is simple: when someone comes up with a good project proposal, and money is available to do it, then generally it will get done and will *not* be blocked by a DH group’s refusal to countenance modernity. I have met a great many people in the DH world and I have never, ever come across a person that I thought would deliberately privilege ‘old stuff’ over new when it came to realising a project. On the contrary, most people I know in DH are interested in culture in its widest sense, are keen to embrace new topics and approaches, and enjoy the challenges of new kinds of primary material. So if there is any “concerted attempt to reinstate an outmoded and conservative view of the humanities” it certainly does not come from within DH and neither, I believe, does it come from our colleagues in other disciplines. I fully accept the potential for it to be present elsewhere – say, for example, at the level of funding bodies – and given the public pronouncements of politicians like Michael Gove I think it quite likely that such an effort might come from that direction, though I am not in a position to know whether this is currently the case. If it turns out that an equal number of Shakespeare and Coronation Street project proposals are submitted to, say, the AHRC, and they receive equally positive reviews, but consistently a significantly higher percentage of Shakespeare proposals are funded, then I think we can start to talk about institutional bias at that level. Until I see some evidence for AP’s claims, however, I remain unconvinced.

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