Why the Digital? Why the Digital Liberal Arts?
December 8, 2014
William G. Thomas III
Abstract: This lecture for the Digital Liberal Arts initiative at Middlebury College assessed the current state of “the digital” in higher education, including the digital humanities, and makes the case for integrating digital research practices and pedagogies into the liberal arts more fully and broadly than has yet been realized. This talk examined commonalities across the disciplines in their engagement with the digital and offered some models of collaboration and integration of research and teaching that can be applied across the liberal arts.
I would like first of all to thank Anne Knowles for inviting me to visit and to talk with you. You have some outstanding, leading digital scholars here at Middlebury College. Michael Roy has written widely on cyberinfrastructure for the liberal arts and Anne Knowles has singlehandedly created one of the leading methodologies in the digital humanities: HGIS. I am not sure here at Middlebury you can know how much she has influenced the field and how well respected her work is in historical geography. Her work is widely cited in the digital humanities as a leading example of digital research and scholarship. You are also producing wonderful, imaginative examples of collaborative student digital work. 11 Paper Place is brilliant example of what Lev Manovich has called a “new species” of hybrid media object. You have organized interdisciplinary resources around MiddLab and the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research, and you have an exciting roster of digital projects underway.
I am not at all sure what I can add today to the conversations about the digital liberal arts going on here at Middlebury, but I will try to outline some ways in which we might think broadly about how our institutions organize and engage with the digital. And why we should be taking appropriate measures, scaled and organized in ways suitable for our respective institutions, to do so.
This semester I am teaching a graduate interdisciplinary seminar on digital humanities with students from Modern Languages, English, Anthropology, Art History, and History. We’ve spent this semester trying to define what is digital humanities and considering how we might broaden the digital across and into the disciplines, across and into our communities, and across and into our diverse world.
It seems clear that we have a historic opportunity, and an obligation. We are the inheritors of the cultural print record, and of the knowledge domains and practices we associate with our disciplines. We are participating in a global communication revolution, in which economic, cultural, and technological changes raise basic questions about the production, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge.
As Ian McNeeley and Lisa Wolverton have written, “The ways in which we organize intellectual activity remain crucial to how we create new knowledge and draw on it for moral and practical guidance in daily life.” Studying the organizational history of knowledge from the library, to the monastery, the university, the disciplines, and the laboratory, they warn that “innovation in technology does little in itself to guarrantee the progress of knowledge as a whole. We risk committing a serious error by thinking that cheap information made universally available through electronic media fulfills the requirements of a democratic society for organized knowledge.” (Reinventing Knowledge, from Alexandria to the Internet, xx)
Historians of information, media and communication, and the book have shown repeatedly that the “ruptures” we sometimes take for granted are instead processes with specific forces and conditions. Specificity is required for understanding “the book” “the Internet” “the telegraph” “the railroad” “the digital.” To speak in “big culture” terms about any of these media is to lose our bearing on the conditions under which they came into being and operate.
One thing we need to do is to consider what is rendered less visible through the digital–what is elided, lost, missing, or no longer available despite the unprecedented circulation of information and knowledge. We have a responsibility in fact to address these losses. Gabrielle Hecht and Paul Edwards in a recent AHR Roundtable on this subject asked, “What knowledge in this period of supposedly free circulation of ideas fails to circulate?” We might extend this question: what does the digital form of knowledge production and circulation privilege? And what should we do about these exclusions and invisibilities? (American Historical Review, December 2011, 1398-1402)
When we ask these questions we begin to see that knowledge systems and infrastructures are living, changing, human systems. Knowledge systems require maintenance and regeneration in altered conditions. Brian Larkin in the same AHR Roundtable pointed out that the forms of knowledge exchange and circulation–media–“are not neutral vehicles simply transmitting data, but they actively shape the information they traffic.”
Rather than seeing the digital as a disruption, to be resisted or deflected, we might instead find ways to renew the liberal arts, to synchronize the powerful forces of technological change with our highest values and aspirations. The emergence of the digital medium has altered the means of communication, the form of communication, and the formulation and transmission of knowledge. Our task, it seems to me, is to reconstitute the liberal arts for the digital age, to construct new forms of scholarly communication suitable for the digital medium, and to lower barriers to the preservation and exchange of knowledge wherever we might find them.
The digital humanities manifesto 2.0 summarizes the problem we face and the goals we share:
“Digital Humanities is not a unified field but an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which: a) print is no longer the exclusive or the normative medium in which knowledge is produced and/or disseminated; instead, print finds itself absorbed into new, multimedia configurations; and b) digital tools, techniques, and media have altered the production and dissemination of knowledge in the arts, human and social sciences.”
Furthermore, the Digital Humanities manifesto recognizes that we are presently in a world in which universities are “no longer the sole producers, stewards, and disseminators of knowledge or culture.” McNeely and Wolverton in Reinventing Knowledge make a similar point, concluding, “It merely remains to be seen whether the Internet will continue to embody the laboratory’s most powerful technological contribution to the knowledge society or enable online communities to become the germ of an entirely new institution of knowledge.” (270)
This is our historic opportunity. We are called in the words of the Digital Humanities Manifesto, “to shape natively digital models of scholarly discourse for the newly emergent public spheres of the present era (the www, the blogosphere, digital libraries, etc.), to model excellence and innovation in these domains, and to facilitate the formation of networks of knowledge production, exchange, and dissemination that are, at once, global and local.”
The good news is that this opportunity extends across the disciplines, enlivens our latent commonalities, and marshals our intellectual and organizational capacities in ways consistent with our mission.
So, the digital engagement of our disciplines possesses some common properties and characteristics, which we will try to define today and to which we should pay attention. I’m going to speak mainly about the digital humanities broadly construed in the expectation that whatever your discipline might be you can find some of the practices and ideas compatible. Digital scholars across a number of disciplines have begun to adopt similar methods of computationally enhanced inquiry and similar approaches to the construction and dissemination of knowledge. There are for commonalities I would like to discuss.
1. digital scholars are engaged in modeling and knowledge representation
2. digital scholars are engaged in defining the properties of the digital medium
3. digital scholars are engaged in iterative scholarship
4. digital scholars are engaged critical pedagogy
#1 Commonality: Emphasis on Modeling and Knowledge Representation
Rather than seeing the digital as a means for quantification or a singular type of computational procedure, these scholars have emphasized the digital as a space or terrain for knowledge modeling. At the Stanford Literary Lab, Franco Moretti, who has developed “distant reading” as a method to undertake a new literary history, or what he calls “a specific form of knowledge,” describes his maps, graphs, and trees as “artificial constructs,” as “abstract” “forms” or “models” that “show us how little we still know about it [literary history].”
Similarly, Jerome McGann, editor of the Rossetti Archive, has suggested that the digital “critical representation” of any work “does not accurately (so to speak) mirror its object; it consciously (so to speak) deforms its object.” The important critical maneuver, then for McGann, is to dislocate and deform dominant patterns and open “the doors of perception toward new opportunities and points of view.” (Radiant Textuality, 173)
McGann suggests that we should be considering, what will become of our disciplines in 5 years in 10 years? How do we insure that further inquiry into and interaction with Shakespeare’s or Rossetti’s or Lincoln’s texts remain not only possible but flourishes in the dominant medium?
As an example of how digital scholars are modeling knowledge, we will look at a project I am currently leading, the “O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C. Law and Family Project.” I should mention at the outset that this project is just underway and what I will show you has not been fully elaborated or encoded.
The goal of this project among other things is to restore the life stories or “life histories,” as I am calling them, of enslaved people, to go to the quantum level if you will, and make visible what has been invisible in the history of slavery, including the networks of relationships of the enslaved and free. Scholars have written accounts of slavery based on models that have been quantitative (economic), microhistorical, institutional, political, and cultural. Many of these works have treated slavery as a system, and more recently as a particularly exploitative feature of the process of capitalist development in the early modern and modern world. It was certainly. It was also experienced in individual actions and individual movements through space and time, the traces of these largely invisible in the historical record. However sensitively and beautifully rendered in the aggregate, individual enslaved histories disappear even as they are introduced and interpreted.
In the digital space, using the D.C. Circuit Court case files, we are attempting to model a multidimensional “life history” approach to documenting the lived experience of individual enslaved and free African Americans in the early republic. Each individual has a record where their status, color, and other attributes might change over time, presented in one way at one time, in another way at another time. As important, every relationship every person had (enslaved by, father of, daughter of, neighbor of, witness for, client of, . . .) will be encoded.
Here’s an example of the TEI encoding of the “life history.”–>
Our encoding of the relationships in these legal cases begins to suggest the extraordinary range of contacts and connections in the social world of the early republic. In just 69 cases–all petitions for freedom–we have found the names of 589 individuals, and these 589 individuals had 2,452 different relationships. Here is a brief breakdown of these individuals and relationships:
220 enslaved by
159 client of
94 parent of / child of
If we were to extrapolate on the basis of the encoding so far, we have 35 relationships contained in each case. With over 4,000 cases we might have 142,144 relationships.
I think it is important to point out that these individuals and relationships are barely visible in the publication of the case reports by William Cranch, chief judge of the D.C. court for nearly the first half of the nineteenth century. Cranch’s volumes have been cited routinely in appellate decisions and legal briefs, as well as examined by legal historians for years. Yet, Cranch excluded last names of African Americans throughout his volumes and focused mainly on legal procedures and rules. The result is that although this source has been digitized and can “mined” or combined with other texts in the HathiTrust collection, it does not contain the “life histories” visible in the case papers. Modeling the life histories contained in legal records asks us to represent legal structures as well as social relations.
John Unsworth has argued that digital humanities is a “practice of representation, a form of modeling or mimicry.” He has further pointed out that we ought to be able to distinguish the seriousness, or depth, of the engagement with the array of computational and digital properties at work in any given project. This should be possible across the liberal arts I would think and applies to the field generally. (John Unsworth, “What is Humanities Computing and What is it Not?”)
To train us to see the difference, he suggests that there is a difference between, say, the digital liberal arts, and a something close to it that nonetheless is really an analog form reproduced in the digital medium.
“The bad news here is that all humanities [any field] computing projects today are involved in some degree of charlatanism, even the best of them. But degree matters, and one way in which that degree can be measured is by the interactivity offered to users who wish to frame their own research questions. If there is none offered, and no other interactivity, then the project is probably pure charlatanism. If it offers some (say, keyword searching), then it can be taken a bit more seriously. If it offers structured searching, a bit more so. If it offers combinatorial queries, more so. If it allows you to change parameters and values in order to produce new models, it starts to look very much like something that must be built on a thoroughgoing representation. . . . But you see the principle implied by this scale–the more room a resource offers for the exercise of independent imagination and curiosity, the more substantially well thought-out, well-designed, and well-produced a resource it must be.”
We’ll not discuss tenure and promotion standards here, but Unsworth’s counterintuitive comment deserves serious consideration. The quality he is describing is a more dialogic, less directive, characteristic of the digital, but as he suggests it clearly demands a thorough understanding or model of the knowledge domain being represented. Unsworth’s example of the degrees of interactivity in a digital resource reveals another common property or characteristic we should consider.
#2 Commonality: Understanding the Affordances of the Digital Medium
Janet Murray in Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice explains how the digital medium exploits certain affordances, and I’ve taken these as an essential guide to understanding the digital medium.
Rather than settle for remediation of old media into digital forms, Murray encourages scholars and designers to “think more radically.” She describes four essential affordances of the digital medium: procedural, spatial, encyclopedic, and participatory. Procedural refers to the degree to which the computer processes information through algorithms or otherwise engages its processing power (database searching, on the fly rendering. . .). Spatial refers to the degree of navigational spatiality inherent in the digital resource under consideration–not whether or not the project deals with geography. How does one know where one is in the virtual space of any digital project? Encyclopedic refers to the degree to which a given digital project exploits the memory capacity of the machinery to make accessible vast quantities of information, text, or material otherwise too big to manage in print form. And participatory refers to the degree to which a project invites and allows interaction.
A given project might exploit one of these affordances more than another. But according to Murray, “these four properties constitute our design space, the context for all of our design choices.” Every work of digital scholarship can be assessed on the degree to which it maximizes these four affordances. Some works may be more spatial than participatory or more encyclopedic than procedural.
Murray’s formulation of an “affordance grid” offers a particularly helpful way to categorize digital works. By placing a digital project on the scale of its relative engagement in each affordance category, Murray suggests we can “map an existing or proposed artifact against the larger design space in order to identify opportunities for growth and to predict the direction of media innovation.” Affordance mapping entails asking: “What does it do? What can I (the interactor) do? Where am I in relation to the whole? What are the boundaries of this domain?”
As an example, we’ll take a tour of The Valley of the Shadow project. Its censuses offer a example of procedural processing on the part of the server for the client; its navigational scheme offers a sense of spatial movement through the project; its newspapers collection with tens of thousands of newspapers images offer an encyclopedic depth for any reader; and its premise of comparing two counties, one in the North and one in the South, offers a participatory choice at every level and junction in the project design–that is, which will you choose, which next to compare?
Indeed, much of the energy and work in the digital humanities community has been framed around building digital objects with attention to these particular properties, tools that are inflected in ways specific for humanistic inquiry, interpretive acts, and formulating hypotheses. These efforts have been substantial, and include large-scale digital editing projects, interface design for digital reading, query design, and data encoding.
The effort to explore the affordances of the digital medium extends to scholars working in different contexts across the world. Kiyonori Nagasaki at the University of Tokyo for example has been researching methods for reading across translations, working toward less chaotic and more comparative textual encounters. The shaping of humanities materials to the affordances of the digital medium has been preparatory to, and vital for, further interpretive scholarship.
I would also note that understanding these principles of the digital medium should play a role in online education as well. If online education persists in forcing a LMS-driven approach, and ignores these affordances of the digital medium, it will fail.
#3 Commonality: Practice and Process for Iterative Scholarship
Scholars across the disciplines are conducting their scholarship in iterative fashion, mobilizing collaborations, and building networks of research and teaching. Often adopting open access models of publication and using open-source software, these scholars are also conducting their research in ways that allow anyone anywhere to see what they are doing and build upon their work.
I want to show two examples, both the work of students. Brian Sarnacki in our department is conducting his dissertation research in digital form on “The Rise and Fall of the American Small City, 1870-1930.” His written interpretive work appears side-by-side with his methodology, data, and encoding practices. He offers downloadable data and instructions for replicating his visualizations, graphs, and maps using various software packages.
The Spatial History Project at Stanford provides another inspiration. Here, a team of students worked with historian Richard White on data that he and I identified in the Newberry Library’s CBQ railroad collection (Conflict on the Q!). The Spatial History Lab has emphasized the process of crafting historical visualizations of spatial experience, and the lab has built networks into other communities of researchers and practitioners. Zephyr Frank’s Terrain of History project offers an outstanding example of scholarship in process, iterative layering of interpretive elements, data, and query features.
Graduate programs at Stanford, Nebraska, UCLA, Emory, and USC, among others, are training students in ways that encourage digital iterative scholarship. These scholars will be on the faculties at small liberal arts colleges in five to ten years, expecting to have their work valued and understood as digital scholarship. Sidonie Smith, former president of the Modern Language Association, called in 2010 for a re-examination of the dissertation monograph, arguing in “Beyond the Dissertation Monograph” that we should “expand the forms the dissertation might take.” Smith considered revising the form of the dissertation to be an “urgent challenge,” and she concluded that “Experimenting with new media stimulates new habits of mind and enhanced cultures of collegiality. Future faculty members in the modern languages and literatures will require flexible and improvisational habits and collaborative skills to bring their scholarship to fruition.” The point here today is that our students are already engaged in expanding the forms of the dissertation, and they will be embarking on their careers at small liberal arts colleges having been acculturated to these digital forms.
For historians, there are considerable opportunities to engage the public, especially genealogists, just as scientists are engaging citizen scientists. As our work becomes more iterative, more open, it offers the possibility to enlist communities we have long (too long) ignored.
#4 Commonality: Digital Pedagogy
Finally, teaching and learning offers us our greatest opportunities and commonalities. The term digital pedagogy is not yet in wide use, but it means much than using Powerpoint, so called flipping classrooms, or MOOCs. Instead, by digital pedagogy we mean a critical engagement with and through the digital medium. Jesse Stommel, a perceptive advocate of what he calls “critical digital pedagogy,” defines it this way: a practice that “demands that open and networked educational environments must not be merely repositories of content. They must be platforms for engaging students and teachers as full agents of their own learning.” (Critical Digital Pedagogy–A Definition)
As an example, we’ll look at a pedagogical project underway at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: The History Harvest.
The main aim of this project is to engage students in making history by working directly in communities on the creation of digital resources that document the history of that community. They harvest history. They also create the possibility in digital space for a more diverse, inclusive, and democratic narrative of American history. The resources build upon themselves and are made available for further teaching, use, and research. But it is the process of iterating harvests in communities and iterating family and community histories that the project emphasizes.
By making the histories of families and communities visible, by incorporating into the digital archival stream previously invisible materials and histories, we open up the possibility of more holistic history. And through the conversation we have about the meaning of these materials, we also consider how the history of these families fits in the fuller sweep of the history of the U.S. and the world. This moment of recognition is particularly powerful for students and for donors–they see how their history matters.
We started in North Omaha, the birthplace of Malcolm X, and we have moved into small rural communities, the Germans from Russia, and will be working in South Omaha with Latino families in the coming year.
We have run different models of the History Harvest course (see historyharvest.net). Last year we combined history and computer science students in a joint class to explore through the History Harvest how history students might engage in more robust computational thinking and work and how computer science students might engage in more robust historical thinking and work.
Many of the graduate students in my digital humanities seminar went to liberal arts colleges. They suggested that one of the most important aspects about the digital in higher education, particularly in the liberal arts college setting, is that with relatively minimal support advances in digital technology and communication have made it possible for students to build sophisticated works of scholarship on their own or with an advisor, share that work in the world, and make meaningful contributions to the circulation of knowledge.
In addition, there are numerous ways for digital practices to bridge disciplines so that students gain mastery and knowledge by building on domains that have long been separate. A course in computer science tailored to data visualization might allow students to work with data collected in another course in the social sciences, sciences, or humanities. A course in 3D modeling might build molecular structures, reconstruct historical sites, or fabricate material culture that students documented and researched in previous courses. This generative approach to teaching and learning promises to tie together what students have previously experienced as separate intellectual actions.
We should take the broadest definition we can of the digital and the digital liberal arts we can.
If I worry about anything in the digital humanities, it is that our engagement with the digital will be incomplete and truncated. We will use computational tools and digital technologies “offline,” so to speak, to conduct investigations, manage and query data, and reach new discoveries, but we will continue to publish our research in scholarly journals and with presses in formats developed for print publication. This scholarship will be digitally informed, to a greater or lesser degree, but its form will not be suited for the digital medium. We may continue to have our scholarly conversations with one another in this form, even as nearly all other human communication and expression bends to the medium. What we see as “digital” may not be truly digital at all. And we might be the last to know.
Like Murray, I encourage us to “think more radically.” Let’s use the digital medium to open the world of our disciplines (physics, history, English . . . ) to others so that they can see the depth and interconnections we see in any chart, table, map, or paragraph, how it unfolds and opens into the disciplinary directions and meanings we value. We can do this for and with our students, and in ways that reach those outside of our disciplines and institutions, for whom our world may often seem obscure or unknowable.
We might start with our students. Ask them the following questions: if you research X, how do you think we might communicate that work to your colleagues, to the world, how might we represent that knowledge most effectively? Their answer might be uncomfortable, that’s understandable. But it probably won’t surprise us, and it will be digital.