The Promise of the Digital Humanities and the Future of the Liberal Arts

These remarks were presented October 25, 2013 at the Michigan State University Cyberinfrastructure Days conference. I have removed and modified some comments which were relevant to the local context of the conference, and I have removed some of the explanatory footnotes.

“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again, after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was . . . ”
Talking Heads, 1980

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to the Cyberinfrastructure Days at Michigan State. Shelton Waggener’s fascinating keynote this morning hits on some of the same themes I have this afternoon: just as he suggested that IT needs to change its culture in higher education, I suggest that we need a change of practice in the liberal arts; and just as he has suggested that higher education IT should move toward iterative releases, perhaps most controversially, I will suggest that in the humanities especially we need to shift our expectations about the fixity of scholarship, and move to a similar model–continuously releasing our scholarship.

Based on the sessions at Cyberinfrastructure Days, I have been struck by how many of the questions and concerns of scientists match those of humanists. Fred Dyer’s presentation on computational biology emphasized the lack of adequate training for current students in the computational, statistical, and mathematical techniques that will be absolutely necessary for future research. We face a similar problem in the humanities. Dyer also discussed the vast increase in the number and size of digital images for research in the biological sciences, a problem that humanities scholars now face as well. Imaging, he noted, “freezes the phenotype,” and the processing, analyzing, and archiving of digital imaging has presented new challenges and opportunities. While humanities scholars use images differently, we have a similar problem of scale–hundreds of thousands, even millions, of newspaper page images, for example, capture a complex mixture of temporal and locational information, yet we have few ways of freely accessing and analyzing these images. I think this conference has been extremely helpful in exposing many of these commonly shared issues. It’s time for the liberal arts disciplines to come together on common solutions.

In 2011 we started an experimental class called The History Harvest. The main objective of this undergraduate course was to digitize, collect, curate, and interpret family and community history, and we had selected North Omaha for the project, birthplace of Malcolm X, a jazz hub in the twenties, and a vibrant community ever since the Great Migration. The students had organized a public “history harvest” day and invited anyone to bring their family records for discussion and digitization. They did not know what to expect and neither did their we.

Dozens of North Omaha residents showed up and the buzz filled the room. Church records, military records, jazz records, photographs, and homestead titles were shared, discussed, documented, and digitized.

But one man, Mr. Warren Taylor, brought his great-great-grandmother’s pewter folding cup that she carried as a slave in the fields.

He also brought her penny, an 1840 “Liberty” penny that she carried with her as a talisman, a symbol of eventual freedom. Both had been passed down for generations in the family.

From the collection of Warren Taylor.

From the collection of Warren Taylor.

Families, like the Taylors, hold the stories of our national experience, more than we might realize; they have what we might call “the people’s history”–it’s not archived, it’s not accessible, yet its potential to deepen and widen our historical understanding is undeniable. As Mr. Taylor talked about the cup and the penny, the material evidence of enslavement and freedom, and what these meant in his family, we saw a history unfold (literally) that was multigenerational, experiential, nationally significant, and relevant to our students. In The History Harvest we are asking how do we enlist the help of those with these stories and materials, how do we involve our undergraduates in collecting this history, how do we build a cyberinfrastructure to support, interpret, and make accessible these contributions not only in Omaha but also in Lansing, Ann Arbor, Atlanta, and Richmond? How do we scale the History Harvest, moving from a craft model, to use Waggener’s metaphor from the keynote this morning, to a cloud model of history? What happens if we have simultaneous History Harvest classes running in fifty or seventy locations around the U.S.? What cyberinfrastructure would we need?

Our current History Harvest class, set to run in spring 2014, will feature simultaneous classes at Lincoln, Chadron State College, and a non-research campus in the Nebraska system. The class at Lincoln will include half Computer Science majors and half humanities majors, and will be jointly taught by a CSE faculty member and me. Students will work together in cross-disciplinary teams on developing software artifacts and corresponding historical analysis of harvested materials. With guidance and support from the instructors, project teams will pitch ideas for special projects, such as rendering and visualizing data, mining and analyzing data, and enhancing the existing platform to support the History Harvest (mobile apps, plug ins, exhibits, etc. . .). Throughout the course we will emphasize the combination of computational thinking–problem decomposition, absraction and generalization, pattern recognition, and algorithm design–and historical thinking–contingency, causation, evidence analysis, corroboration, contextualization.

With Internet 2, we are more able to collaborate across institution size and to focus research in local settings more intensively. The History Harvest is our principal effort to explore the possiblities of this network for teaching and public engagement.

But as the title of this talk indicates, we are concerned with a larger question as well: how do we reinvent the humanities for the digital age?

Despite appearances, we are in a propitious period for the liberal arts broadly and for the humanities generally. When dozens of citizens bring their family history to contribute, we get a sense of the enormous reservoir of goodwill and interest in our cultural heritage and in understanding and contributing to its meaning.

You might not know it if you read the newspapers. The New York Times has recently published editorials with titles such as “The Decline and Fall of the English Major.” Columnist David Brooks has weighed in with an oped piece lamenting what he sees as a loss of a sense of purpose or vocation in humanities professors (444 comments). There is much handwringing.

In the last year several reports have attempted to defend the humanities and the social sciences, including one from Harvard, “The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future” and one from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ “The Heart of the Matter: Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.” Each of these reports has made extensive recommendations.

As well meaning as the American Academy’s report may be, the subtitle suggests something of the bind in which the humanities, as well as the liberal arts, finds itself. The premise of the report suggests that the humanities are competing against the sciences (STEM) for precious funding dollars and cultural authority. The Commission argued that its recommendations were intended to insure a democratic society, foster its innovative spirit, and equip the nation for an interconnected world. These goals, the report argued, “cannot be achieved by science alone.”

Part of the problem we face is certainly that the sciences and the humanities have been driven apart, seen as two cultures perhaps ever since C. P. Snow’s 1959 lecture, and The Heart of the Matter report seemed to accept this state-of-affairs as a given. The Heart of the Matter report attempted to bolster the humanities and, to a lesser degree the social sciences, by treating it as a separate but equal domain to the sciences, one that plays an equally significant role in supporting our national security.

So, rather than defending the liberal arts and sciences as a whole, rather than seeing the liberal arts as a common set of disciplines that freely and rigorously test what we know and that take risks to imagine alternatives to what we know, the report perpetuated the separation. Such positioning, perhaps unintentionally, only adds to the suspicion that the liberal arts and sciences as we have know it is no longer a viable intellectual organization.

For those of us working in the digital humanities, the recent debate has proved troubling for another reason. The digital humanities are seen as contributing, if at all, only in the broadest sense or on the edges of the research and teaching enterprise in the liberal arts. And this exposes one of our field’s weaknesses after twenty years. Neither the Harvard report nor The Heart of the Matter report explored in detail the impact of the digital humanities on the modes of scholarly research and communication today. The world appeared the same as it ever was–it seemed as if the digital revolution in society had little impact on the academic structures of the humanities. Harvard’s report is telling–it included just a single reference to digital humanities in one footnote in its 53-page document. The Heart of the Matter report directly acknowledged “the digital age” but mostly focused on two developments: the rise of open online learning environments, aka MOOCs, and the opportunities that digital projects create for lifelong learning and the preservation of cultural texts and documents.

Paradoxically, it appears that the twenty-year surge in the digital humanities–from 1993 to 2013–has simultaneously proceeded alongside an erosion of support for, and faith in, the liberal arts and sciences. The explanation for this state of affairs is complex and the correlation equally complicated. But I have three points I’d like to make today regarding the promise of the digital humanities and the future of the liberal arts.

1. The first is that in the view of many digital humanists, the vision of the digital age offered in The Heart of the Matter report falls far short of our ambitions. I’ll try to explain why.

2. The second is that The Heart of the Matter report, on the other hand, suggests that we undertake grand challenges, and this indeed is what digital humanities scholars think they have been doing. But it’s time to renew our grand challenge and explain it better to our colleagues. I’ll try to do that.

3. The third is that we should consider ways that the sciences (STEM) and the human sciences might work together, restoring and renewing our common ground in the liberal arts, collapsing the boundaries that have kept these domains apart, and resisting the forces that today seem to be driving a wedge between us. In short, what we need to do is consider ways to reorganize our curriculum and our research with cyberinfrastructure designed to support liberal arts institutions for the digital age.

Let’s start with the first point: what is the digital humanities doing? The digital humanities has been concerned with reshaping our scholarly activity and our institutional structures for a natively digital world. It is open to multiple forms of analysis, to sharing of sources and materials (data), and to adopting large-scale, distributed models of scholarship. It has proceeded from the recognition that we are now in an era of capaciousness, of ubiquitous storage, of networked information, and of unprecedented access. Rather than orienting our scholarship around a model of scarce materials, limited access, and expert gate-keeping, the digital humanities at its most vibrant has been about the democratization of history, the democratization of access, and the democratization of scholarly activity.

Often referred to as interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, or transdisciplinary, the digital humanities undertakes the creation and transmission of knowledge in a world no longer defined primarily by print.

In this way the promise of the digital humanities is that it may be formulating the strongest basis for the future of the liberal arts in higher education today. It has undertaken one of the most important grand challenges we face: the migration of the entire cultural record to digital form and the transformation of scholarly practices for the digital medium.

The work of digital scholars, then, would not be a simple operation of migration, or merely a transfer of data from analog to digital (as envisioned in The Heart of the Matter report). This effort would be a humanistic scholarly endeavor, a process of encoding, editing, interpreting, and curating. It would entail knowledge representation and require newly trained scholars and practitioners. Edward Ayers wrote in 1999, “A major goal of mature hypertextual history will be to embody complexity as well as to describe it.” The Web held alluring and magnificent possibilities.

Many of us began to see ourselves as, and to act as, an open community of practice, including anyone whose energy, expertise, and enthusiasm aligned with ours. Rather than to conceive of our project as necessitating a separate discipline or field, digital humanists, then, worked within disciplines from a loosely defined set of common methods, all concerned with the “grand challenge” before us then, and before us still today:

  • to reassemble the human record in digital form,
  • to shape its interpretive affordances,
  • and to create discipline-based scholarship in digital form.

Nearly twenty years later, we might ask how far we have come on each of these three steps. And we might ask, given what has been accomplished (or hasn’t), where are we to go next–in essence, what are the best opportunities for significant gains going forward.

By some measures we have not come very far, especially toward the last step. A recent overview of digital innovation in scholarly publication in the humanities found that there were few hypertextual works that embodied complexity or altered the mode of scholarly communication in ways uniquely suited to the online space. Ayers’ vision, however appealing, was unfulfilled. Innovation in humanities scholarship, Alan Gross and Joseph Harmon concluded, “has been confined, for the most part to sidestream venues; mainstream publication has yet to be seriously affected.” The authors found it “disturbing” that after two decades they had found “so little” Internet-based scholarship in the humanities. And even “more disturbing” the innovative scholarship they did find was mostly marginal to the careers of the scholars who produced it, funded nearly entirely through outside agencies, and produced as special projects “not routine activities.”

It’s no wonder that The Heart of the Matter report did not cite or recognize the emergence of digital scholarship.

But several other explanations for the dearth of digital scholarship in the humanities deserve consideration. I will mention just a few. The first is that to some degree the mass digitization projects undertaken by Google Books on the one hand and by Jstor on the other (there are others) have slowed rather than quickened scholarly engagement with the digital grand challenge. Historians took the message that others (companies, libraries) would convert print to digital, and that access to these old copies was sufficient for their present purposes, not realizing or perhaps not caring that these materials could not be downloaded, aggregated, mixed, or used in more ambitious digital scholarship without permission, if at all (except the HathiTrust).

And just as innovative forms of scholarship were emerging on the web, the mass digitization projects filled the web with the old forms of scholarship (now accessible in pdf). Scholars unfamiliar with the experimental works in digital humanities can be forgiven for concluding that the network might only be used for storage and retrieval of traditional work. The world after all appeared the same as it ever was.

Worse, the first step in our grand challenge–to reassemble the human record in digital form–seemed again and again to have been taken not by historians but by private entities. We would have little opportunity to shape the interpretive affordances of these mass digitization projects, nor would we be able to create new forms for our scholarship with them.

In a similar way the rise of MOOCs has given humanities faculty pause about whether the digital future held any real promise. Faculty deeply committed to the highest ideals of the liberal arts and to the formation of their students saw universities making huge investments in a technology that appeared only to undermine, if not directly threaten, those ideals.

Rather than offering the opportunity to integrate research, teaching, and public engagement, rather than creating new knowledge, rather than making possible new forms of scholarship, digital technology in the form of MOOCs was being used in the most traditional way possible–to broadcast lecture-based discipline-specific instruction and possibly to routinize mass assessment.

For these reasons and others, experimentation in the humanities has been slow. We have not developed digital genres suitable to our disciplines and tailored for the digital age. Working together we might imagine the genre conventions for something we would call digital historical scholarship, in other words we might imagine forms of communication so robust and well-established that a digital work could become an essential “text” in the field of history.

In fact, exciting signs of vitality are coursing through our disciplines and through digital humanities. Graduate students have founded leading blogs, such as The Junto, and the methods and practices of digital humanities have become more widely available through ThatCamps, the Digital Humanities Summer Institutes, the Nebraska Forum on Digital Humanities, the Chicago Colloquium, and through Twitter. The “Perma_cc” project, for example, has started to address link rot in legal history texts, providing an essential service to scholars who wish to create digital scholarship in that field. Given encouragement and institutional support, it seems clear, scholars have sought out allies and begun to build digital research projects.

One way to proceed is involve our students as collaborators. Greg Crane has recently drawn attention to the need for “a new culture of learning” not only for the field of classics, but also more broadly for the humanities. According to Crane, “we need to engage our students and our fellow citizens as collaborators. We need a laboratory culture where student researchers make tangible contributions and conduct significant research.” Crane argues, “the crush of data challenges us to realize higher ideals and to create a global, decentralized intellectual community where experts serve the common understanding of humanity.” Ayers also recently called for students to participate in a cycle of “generative scholarship.” He suggested that students build their work alongside ongoing research projects so that their contributions are assessed, validated, and preserved.

At Nebraska we are undertaking one effort to address the grand challenge and at the same time to create a new model of undergraduate learning in the humanities integrated through digital technologies.

From the collection of Dave and Terri Mabon.

From the collection of Dave and Terri Mabon. The History Harvest.

The History Harvest project ( is an open, digital archive of historical artifacts gathered from communities across the United States, curated and prepared for interpretive scholarship. Each year, we partner with local institutions and community members within a highlighted community to collect, preserve, and share their rich, but often hidden, family histories. Advanced undergraduates, working as a team and with the guidance of faculty members and graduate students, “harvest,” digitize, and curate the artifacts and stories they collect. The History Harvest project is rooted in the belief that our collective history is more diverse and multi-faceted than most people give credit for and that most of this history is not found in archives, historical societies, museums or libraries, but rather in the stories that ordinary people have to tell from their own experience and in the things – the objects and artifacts – that they keep and collect to tell the story of their lives. The History Harvest, then, affirms the importance of local people, individual experience, family networks, local communities and everyday experience in the broader narrative of American history by providing an innovative opportunity for ordinary people to share their historical artifacts, and their stories. This new public resource is then available for educators, students and anyone else interested in engaging U.S. history from this more democratic, or grassroots, perspective. As a foundation for new scholarship, the History Harvest materials will be available through the Digital Public Library of America and encoded in ways that support interpretive argument or new forms of digital scholarship.

As History Harvest classes around the country contribute, the possibilities for scholarship are limitless and the need for robust cyberinfrastructure more pressing. The History Harvest will have succeeded when the larger community takes advantage of the specifically digital nature of the collection in order to create new kinds of historical knowledge.

The implications are significant. What will we learn, what can we do with all the material currently held by our families, with “the people’s archive”? Can we recreate family networks and histories of their experiences in ways impossible at present?

We might ask what other grand challenges do we have?

For historians this is a question of imagination. We have created sophisticated works of scholarship in print, richly textured, nuanced, and dynamic. Can we do so in the digital medium as well?

Voices outside our field and some within it are already suggesting that we might use big data to not only answer large-scale historical questions but also examine history more scientifically, with an explicitly predictive orientation addressing our present circumstances.(see “cliodynamics” for example)

But to offer a different approach, historians and scientists might create better ways to trace and to represent the individual in history. Recovering the full dimensions of past lives, providing a unique identifier for every historical individual, and mapping his/her networks, landscapes, and experiences might be one of our grand challenges. If we focus on the individual, and build our systems to reveal these interconnections, we might come closer to a form of what we might call ‘quantum history,’ to borrow a phrase from Jerome McGann–experiential, dynamic, multi-dimensional.

Finally, we might also address important new grand challenges that enable us to collaborate across STEM and humanities fields. Working together scholars might explore the causality between historic changes in diet and the development of complex diseases, attempt to reconstitute historical sensory experiences in ways impossible in print, and work together to document, model, analyze, and interpret the exchanges between human and environmental systems.

If we attempt “a new culture of learning,” if we take up these grand challenges, then we might also find that we have rebuilt the liberal arts for the digital age.

We need to talk about the grand challenges as worthy of our attention and resources and vital to the future of the liberal arts broadly and to our disciplines. We need to change our institutional priorities and practices at the departmental level and indeed at the scholar level. We also need to work across the cultural divide between the sciences and the humanities on common research and teaching, and as this conference makes clear, on the common cyberinfrastructure we will need for future research breakthroughs.

Doing so, we may be called on to play a more purposeful role in our disciplines, to engage with people outside of our own institutions, to deal more forcefully and deliberately with the digital divide both in academe and society, and to become impassioned advocates for open source and open access.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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