In her excellent statement of digital humanities values, Lisa Spiro identifies “collegiality and connectedness” and “diversity” as two of the core values of digital humanities. I agree with Lisa that digital humanists value both things—I certainly do—but it can be hard to *do* both things at the same time. The first value stresses the things have in common. The second stresses the ways we are different. When we focus on the first, we sometimes neglect the second.
This is something that has been driven home to me in recent months through the efforts of #dhpoco (post colonial digital humanities). Adeline and Roopika have shown us that sometimes our striving for and celebration of a collegial and connected (or as I have called it, a “nice”) digital humanities can, however unintentionally, serve to elide important differences for the sake of consensus and solidarity. #dhpoco has made us aware that a collegiality and connectedness that papers over differences can be problematic, especially for underrepresented groups such as women and minorities, especially in a discipline that is still dominated by white men. A “big tent” that hides difference is no big tent at all.
As these critiques have soaked in, they have led me to wonder whether the eliding of differences to advance a more collegial and connected digital humanities may be problematic in other ways. Here I’m thinking particularly of disciplinary differences. Certainly, the sublimation of our individual disciplines for a broader digital humanities has led to definitional problems: the difficulty the field has faced in defining “digital humanities” stems in the first place from people’s confusion about the term “humanities.” Folks seem to get what history, philosophy, and literary criticism are, but humanities is harder to pin down. Just as certainly, calling our work “digital humanities” has made it more difficult for us to make it understandable and creditable in disciplinary context: the unified interdisciplinary message may be useful with funding agencies or the Dean of Arts and Sciences, but it may be less so with one’s departmental colleagues.
But what else is lost when we iron out our disciplinary differences? Our histories, for one.
Most of us working in digital humanities know well the dominant narrative of the pre-2000s history of digital humanities. It is a narrative that begins with the work of Father Busa in the 1950s and 1960s, proceeds through the foundation of the Association for Computers in the Humanities (ACH) in the 1970s and the establishment of the Humanist listserv in the 1980s, and culminates with foundation of the Text Encoding Initiative in the 1990s. Indeed, it is in the very context of the telling of this story that the term itself was born. “Digital Humanities” first came to widespread usage with the publication of A Companion to Digital Humanities, which proposed the term as a replacement for “humanities computing” in large part to broaden the tent beyond the literary disciplines that had grown up under that earlier term. The Companion contains important essays about digital work in history, anthropology, geography, and other disciplines. But it is Father Busa who provides the Foreword, and the introductory history told by Susan Hockey is told as the history of digital textual analysis. Indeed, even Will Thomas’s chapter on digital history is presented against the backdrop of this dominant narrative, depicting history in large part as having failed in its first attempts at digital work, as a discipline that was, in digital terms, passed by in the controversies over “cliometrics” in the 1960s and 1970s.
Let me be clear: I’m not slagging Susan, Will, or the other authors and editors of A Companion to Digital Humanities. Their volume went a long way toward consolidating the community of practice in which I’m now such a grateful participant. If it aimed to broaden the tent, it succeeded, and brought me with it. Nevertheless, as an historian, the story of Father Busa, of Humanist, and even of cliometrics is not my story. It is an important story. It is a story I do not refute. It is a story that should be told. But as a digital historian who isn’t much involved in textual analysis, it isn’t a story I can much identify with. Nor is it the only story we can tell.
My story, one I expect will resonate with many of my digital history colleagues, is a story that considers today’s rich landscape of digital history as a natural outgrowth of longstanding public and cultural historical activities rather than a belated inheritance of the quantitative history experiments of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a story that begins with people like Allan Nevins of the Columbia Oral History Office and Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk-Song, especially with the man on the street interviews Lomax coordinated in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attacks. From these oral history and folklife collecting movements of the 1940s and 1950s we can draw a relatively straight line to the public, social, cultural, and radical history movements of the 1960s and 1970s. These later movements directly spawned organizations like the American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning at the CUNY Grad Center, which was founded in the 1980s—not coincidentally, I might add, by Herb Gutman who was the historical profession’s foremost critic of cliometrics—and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media (my former institution), which was founded in the 1990s.
Importantly, these roots in oral history and folklife collecting are not simply institutional and personal. They are deeply methodological. Like today’s digital history, both the oral history and folklife collecting of the 1940s and 1950s and the public and radical history of the 1960s and 1970s were highly:
Digital humanists often say that particular tools and languages are less important than mindset and method. Our tools are different, but digital historians learned their mindset and methods from the likes of Alan Lomax.
Thus, from my perspective, the digital humanities family tree has two main trunks, one literary and one historical, that developed largely independently into the 1990s and then came together in the late-1990s and early-2000s with the emergence of the World Wide Web. That said, I recognize and welcome the likely possibility that this is not the whole story. I would love to see this family tree expanded to describe three or more trunks (I’m looking at you anthropology and geography). We should continue to bring our different disciplinary histories out and then tie the various strains together.
In my view, it’s time for a reorientation, for another swing of the pendulum. Having made so much progress together in recent years, having explored so much of what we have in common, I believe the time has come to re-engage with what make us different. One potentially profitable step in this direction would be a continued exploration of our very different genealogies, both for the practical purposes of working within our departments and for the scholarly purposes of making the most of our methodological and intellectual inheritances. In the end, I believe an examination of our different disciplinary histories will advance even our interdisciplinary purposes: understanding what makes us distinctive will help us better see what in our practices may be of use to our colleagues in other disciplines and to see more clearly what they have to offer us.
I’m extremely uneasy about startups like Uber and Airbnb whose business models are grounded in sidestepping regulations that were originally intended as consumer- and labor-protection measures. People—both the service providers and their customers—love Uber and Airbnb because they offer greater flexibility and efficiency than traditional taxi and hotel services. Some of that flexibility is afforded by new communications technologies that offer a more direct connection between the service provider and the consumer. But a lot of that flexibility stems from the fact that these services are unregulated. Uber and Airbnb get closer to consumers not only by using information technology to ditch the middleman of the dispatcher (in Uber’s case) or travel agent and hotel chain (in Airbnb’s), but also by ditching the middleman of the government.
We can imagine lots of markets that could be streamlined by using information technology to sidestep middlemen to place service providers in more direct communication with consumers. But the middlemen are often the people who comply with government regulations that are intended to protect us from fraud and abuse. Middlemen often create friction and inefficiencies in the system. But sometimes a little friction is good.
In this episode, Amanda, Stephen, Mills, and guest Joan Troyano were joined by Digital History Fellows Spencer Roberts and Anne Ladyem McDivitt. The first topic of discussion was the announcement of the American Historical Association’s $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, through which four history departments will restructure their doctoral programs to promote diverse career options for history PhDs. The conversation then moved to the lawsuit between Duke University Press and the Social Science History Association regarding ownership of the Social Science History journal. Finally, on a completely different note, we discussed wearable computing and the implications for digital humanities, which raised lots of questions, excitement, and confusion amongst the participants.
To conclude the episode, Joan provided an update from the PressForward project at CHNM, including the upcoming release of their new WordPress plugin.Related Links:
History PhD being Redesigned?
Duke UP and Social Science History association lawsuit over ownership of journal
Advances in Wearable Computing
Recently published book, Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology – http://www.press.umich.edu/6025015/pastplay
Bill Turkel’s Humanities Fabrication and Physical Computing: http://williamjturkel.net/
Report from the Center
Running time: 52:28
Download the .mp3
Last week I had the opportunity to take part in a private meeting chaired by Jeff Selingo, the purpose of which was to provide him (and his colleagues at Georgetown and Arizona State) with feedback on a (soon to be) new executive education program designed to prepare the next generation of higher ed leaders. The meeting, that followed a very interesting panel discussion, included a mix of university presidents, deans and other senior leaders, foundation executives, search consultants, and others working in and around senior leadership in higher ed.
The facilitator for the session was a former member of George Mason‘s Board of Visitors, Kathleen deLaski, who started us off with the following question: “What keeps you up at night when you think about the future of higher education?”
As you might expect from such a large (30 or so participants) and diverse group, there were many answers to this question, but at the top of the list were concerns about access and the growing inequality that restricted access to higher education is causing. Other big concerns included finding sustainable financial models, issues around teaching and learning, a perception that the pool of potential senior leaders has gotten too shallow, and worries that the internal systems in higher ed are not up to making the changes that will be needed in the coming decade. But only a few of the participants didn’t mention access in some way, shape, or form.
Not convinced that access to higher education is a problem? As Selingo points out in his recent book, College Unbound, a young person’s odds of obtaining a bachelors degree are closely tied to his/her family income. Children coming from homes with a family income above $90,000 per year have a 1:2 chance of obtaining a BA/BS degree by age 24. If the family income is between $60,000 – $90,000, those odds drop to 1:4, and if the family income is below $35,000, the odds fall all the way down to 1:17. Not surprisingly, the odds of someone from a lower income family getting into a highly selective institution are also terrible compared to students from upper income families. (168)
That’s an access problem that should be keeping us all up at night, especially when you realize that 21 percent of children aged 5-17 in the United States are living in poverty, which is a 24% increase over 1990. In other words, the likelihood that any American high school senior is going to graduate with a bachelors degree is just going to keep falling until (a) we figure out a way to get more kids out of poverty and (b) we figure out how to provide greater access to those kids. Otherwise, frankly, we’re in serious trouble as an industry, not to mention as a country.
The solutions to getting kids out of poverty are well above my pay grade, but solutions to access are something I know a little bit about. And what I know is that it is not enough to throw money at the problem — greater funding opportunities for students help, and help a lot, but scholarships and other forms of financial aid are not the only answer. Just as important is creating the circumstances in which students who do enroll can graduate in a reasonable amount of time, i.e., four to six years.
Many colleges and universities devote an incredible amount of energy to student retention programs, and proactive administrative efforts do help. But what also helps, and this is where historians have a role to play, is faculty members who think carefully about student success and design courses and curricula that will facilitate success and learning simultaneously.
This is a complicated problem for history, because when it comes to our majors, too often we don’t see them at all until they are sophomores, because future history majors very often have taken an AP history course in high school and so have placed out of our freshman courses. And those freshman courses all too often exist just to serve the demands of a general education curriculum, not the history major.
Given this reality on so many college campuses, it seems to me that history departments can play their own small role in the larger access/retention problem by rethinking the sequence of courses from the first semester of a freshman’s college experience right through to graduation. And, we need to reach out to our campus retention specialists and ask — what is it that makes it more difficult for our students to graduate? And what can we do to help change that, especially for the students who are at most risk?
Changing the reality of student access and success in higher education is a big issue — far too big for any one discipline to fix. But as historians, we also know that grassroots efforts across a broad population often aggregate into something bigger than one has any reason to expect. In the historical literature we often call those “popular movements” or “change from below.”
It’s high time we started our own popular movement or joined someone else’s.
On 9 April 9, the international art laboratory Hotel Pro Forma organizes a seminar discussing the connections between science and artistic process in collaboration with Medical Musieon, the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of Copenhagen, and the research project Robot Culture and Aesthetics (University of Copenhagen).
The point of departure for the discussion is the Japanese visual artist and performer Ayaka Okutsu’s current art installation Meating Ghost that combines art and scientific research. Ayaka Okutsu is artist-in-residence with Hotel Pro Forma from January to April 2014. See more below.
When: 9. April 2014, from 13.00 to 14.00.
Where: Medical Museion, The Auditorium, Bredgade 62, 1260 Copenhagen
Admission is free, but registration for this event is necessary, as there are limited seats.
The presentations will be in English.
7 April 2014 to Martin Rørtoft, *protected email*
In Meating Ghost Japanese visual artist Ayaka Okutsu investigates the manipulation of different senses as a way of making the audience aware of their perception. The work is a video installation with binaurally recorded sound, which gives 360-degree perception through hearing. It creates an uncanny sense of dimension and physicality, offering artificial impairment in hearing and seeing.
Meating Ghost will be exhibited Saturday 5 April, 5.30-9 pm at Atelier Hotel Pro Forma, Strandlodsvej 6b, 3rd floor, 2300 Copenhagen S. There is free admission.
Regular readers of this blog will know already that over the years I’ve leveled more than my fair share of criticism at the American Historical Association on a whole variety of issues, some big, some small. And, along the way, I’ve had some nice things to say as well. The latest news from AHA central, about a $1.6 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to expand on the Association’s “career diversity initiative,” is both great news, but also a good reason to step back and take stock of all that the Association has accomplished in the past two years to help historians think about career trajectories other than the standard “tenure track job at a research university” track.
First there are a couple of facts worth remembering. At the top of my list is the fact that the vast majority of PhD trained historians with full time jobs work either as faculty at non-tenure granting institutions or in various “altac“positions ranging from museum professionals to academic administrative positions to archive management to work in the corporate sector. The second fact is that the number of tenure track jobs in history is almost surely going to remain stable (or decline) in the coming decade or so for the simple reason that the share of faculty jobs that are tenure track jobs is declining. On top of this reality is the fact that all across the country we are being told (especially by legislators) that funding should shift from non-STEM to STEM disciplines.
Labor market issues for those with advanced training, especially in the humanities, are acute and not to be minimized. Institutions of higher education all across the United States, but especially public institutions, are under tremendous financial pressure and far too many have chosen to (at least partially) try solve their financial problems by shifting to the use of more and more contingent faculty labor. This shift is bad both because it is bad for the people who are forced to labor in a kind of never never land of constant uncertainty and it is bad for the institutions because it makes it increasingly difficult for them to build consistent strength in their academic departments. I know that never never land because I spent three years there, one of which included teaching one class while waiting tables full time while my wife mucked stalls at a pony farm. It can be a very difficult place to live.
I spend a fair amount of time doing various and sundry jobs for our senior administration, so I’m privy to discussions at that level about finances and I read the academic press pretty carefully. There just isn’t much evidence that colleges and universities are going to break their addiction to contingent faculty labor in the short term.
These facts I’ve just cited are why I’m so proud of the work that AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman has done to partly pivot an organization that for its entire life has been, in my view, overly focused on the needs and desires of the most prestigious history departments, to a more capacious view of who “historians” are and what their career trajectories can look like. In my 20-plus years as an AHA member, I can’t remember a time when the Association put this much effort into work that will reach well beyond the confines of those most prestigious departments (if the work done under the grant takes hold, which is no sure thing).
This grant is not going to solve the labor market issues I’ve just mentioned. Not at all. But I’m hopeful that it will help graduate students in history find their way to fulfilling careers that are not predicated on contingency.
Anyone who has spent any significant time writing large grants like this Mellon grant knows just how much work they are. Months of effort and countless hours of staff time are required to bring off a success like this one. Shifting academic cultures is like trying to turn a battleship, but $1.6 million is the kind of figure that gets almost anyone’s attention. We won’t know for five to ten years whether this particular effort has borne fruit or not, but in the meantime, my hat is off to the AHA for getting serious about an initiative that is well outside the historical comfort zone of the Association.
Next week is #MuseumWeek on Twitter. We’ll be joining hundreds of museums around Europe and the rest of the world in taking over Twitter using a new museum-related hashtag everyday. Here’s what to expect from us at MM:
So start following #museumweek today already and discover what other museums have planned. You can see which museums are participating in the UK, France, Spain and Italy here. I’ve also created a list of museums participating from other countries here.
Enjoy and get tweeting!
On April 5th, I will take part in an exciting one-day seminar at Sorø Kunstmuseum. The occasion for the seminar is the third exhibition in a three-part series on materiality curated by Birgitte Kirkhoff Eriksen. The series is intellectually spurred by new materialism in philosophy, such as speculative realism and object-oriented ontology, and features artworks that respond to these thoughts from artists such as Troels Sandegård and Lea Porsager. If you read Danish, there is a review of the exhibition here and an in-depth review of the series here. Here is a description of the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue in English.
You can also see the full program for the seminar here.
The program features a lovely mess of researchers, artists, musicians and performers engaging with the topic of consciousness and the relationship between materiality and immaterial. I wrote a piece for the (beautiful) catalogue on gut bacteria and consciousness, and at the seminar I will expand that topic with some ruminations about epigenetics and the rise of a new understanding of the body as embedded in a sort of unheimlich holism.
Below is the poster from the exhibition opening which feature the same artwork as the catalogue:
In the recent issue of Curator there is an interesting and empirically well-founded paper on visitor experience of exhibitions, entitled IPOP: A Theory of Experience Preference. It lays out a typology called IPOP of what draws people to exhibitions – Ideas, People, Objects and Physical. The authors claim that
an individual’s relative attraction to the four IPOP dimensions influences 1) what that individual pays attention to, 2) what s/he does, and 3) how that person responds.
One of the interesting things the authors point out is that people often rate their experiences the highest when they have what is called a ‘flip’ experience, meaning that they are normally drawn by, say, Ideas, but are then ‘flipped’ by the strength of eg the object experience in the exhibition:
We believe that when an individual has the kind of experience that s/he is generally drawn to, that person is likely to feel a sense of satisfaction, since expectations will have been met. But when that person has an additional unexpected experience in a dimension that s/he is not generally drawn to, that experience will seem particularly meaningful and memorable.
I think this effect is something we have been more or less consciously experimenting with in past exhibitions, and might be part of the reason for the success of eg Split and Splice. It might be a useful tool for understanding visitor experiences and what makes particular exhibitions tick.
Anecdotally, I find that this sort of unexpected museum experience can be quite profound – when, say, finding encountering aesthetic qualities of scientific objects or deep ideas in seemingly mundane artifacts. And trying to give visitor something to flip out about seem like a worthy goal.
We are (very!) happy to announce that Canadian researcher/artist Francois-Joseph Lapointe will be in residence at the Museion and the CBMR Section for Science Communication for three weeks during May and one week during October. Francois-Joseph is head of the laboratory of Molecular Ecology and Evolution at Université de Montréal and full professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. He has more than 100 scientific publications in the areas of metagenomics, bioinformatics and population genetics. Alongside his scientific work, he also completed a PhD in dance in 2012 with a thesis entitled ‘Choreogenetics, or the art of making DNA dance’ (see examples of his work here). His recent bioart work involves sequencing his wife and his microbiome in order to generate changing metagenomic self-portraits.
While at the Museion Francois-Joseph will stage a two-part performance called ‘A 1000 handshakes’. In his own words:
“This project proposes a scientific representation of my own metagenomic portrait (‘microbiome selfie’) and its combinatorial transformation in time through different types of interactions with other people. I will modify my own microbiome by performing specific actions (i.e., shaking hands with the public), which will modify the microbial communities of my body. I will sequence my skin, gut and oral microbiomes before AND after these experiments to assess the complex combinatorial process of metagenomics. The series of portraits (original + contaminated) will be displayed alongside each other at the exhibition, during which a re-enactment of the ‘1000 handshakes’ experiment will be presented to transform my microbiome in real time.”The project will run in two parts – an early version in late May and a full version at the Culture Night on 10th of October, where the portraits generated by the first run will be shown, alongside the performance itself. Francois-Joseph will also give a public lecture on the relationship between art and science from his unique perspective at the Art Academy on May 15th (details to follow). We will be looking for Copenhagen-based students or researcher to participate in a workshop in May and the final event at Culture Night – from both the arts and the sciences. More details to follow, but if you’re already interested you can email us (*protected email* or *protected email*).
The March 2014 issue of Perspectives includes a very clear analysis of the most recent IPEDS data on history BAs by Allen Mikaelian. Everyone currently teaching college history or planning to do so should read this article.
Why? A quick glance at this graph should at least given one pause.
What is shows is a five year decline in history’s share of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States. In the data analysis business, we call this a trend. In an era of stagnant or declining funding for colleges and universities, this is a particularly bad moment for history departments to be smaller players on the enrollment stage. While the overall number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in history is actually up slightly, deans, provosts, and campus accounting types all take note of a discipline’s relative share of resources provided and consumed and so graph results like this one are a real (not imagined) problem.
As I have written previously, one reason for history’s relative decline as a share of overall degrees awarded is the inescapable fact that, at the undergraduate level, our discipline has a gender problem. The 2011-12 IPEDS data (the most recent available) show that 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in the United States were awarded to women, but only 40 percent of degrees in our field went to women. That’s a problem. And it’s not getting better. The IPEDS data show that history is also getting whiter by the year, even as higher education as a whole is becoming more diverse by the year.
What’s new to me in Mikaelian’s article is that the share of bachelor’s degrees in history awarded by our most research intensive universities (the “very high” category in the Carnegie classification) has fallen substantially over the past 25 years. In 1989, 38 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in history were awarded at these universities, almost all of which have very large history departments with substantial doctoral enrollments. But in 2012, only 31 percent of bachelor’s degrees in our field came from these departments. And, as Mikaelian points out, those same institutions experienced only an overall drop in bachelor’s degrees of three percent, so there has been a real drop in history degrees at our most research intensive departments.
I’ve spent a lot of time in university administration over the past five years and one thing I know for sure is that a measurable decline in degrees awarded is something that gets noticed, even if that decline took 25 years. There just aren’t enough resources to go around any more and so those fields that are generating more tuition revenue are blessed with more resources, while those generating less revenue see their budgets declining. That’s the inescapable reality of higher education in 2014.
What does this mean for the future of our discipline? It means that in the near term we shouldn’t be surprised to see tenure lines at the most research intensive universities being shifted away from history. Unless those faculty who remain agree to teach more undergraduates (unlikely in most cases), those large departments will either become smaller still, or will begin relying on ever more contingent labor for their undergraduate teaching.
More worrisome than any possible decline of the biggest and most research intensive history departments is the on-going gender problem we have at the undergraduate level. If we don’t start coming up with new ways of thinking about that long standing problem, we’re all in the same boat — a boat that has sprouted more than a few leaks.