The first class meeting of our digital humanities seminar at the University of Nebraska on Thursday, August 25th, included thirteen Ph.D. and Master’s students from English, History, and Geography. Although half of the students had taken several of our Digital History courses or worked on digital projects at CDRH, half were either new to Nebraska or new to Digital Humanities. I was struck by the diversity of backgrounds and research interests in the class–we had students working on Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, William F. Cody, early modern English texts, Civil War diaries, Native American documents, 20th century Russia, and the Burlington Railroad. This seminar, we decided, would be truly interdisciplinary in its approach, bringing together students working from different perspectives, backgrounds, and disciplinary approaches. And the common ground would be the digital medium, the methods of digital humanities, the quest to explore the changing terrain of scholarly communication and knowledge creation.

As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, it was clear too that some of us maintained a healthy skepticism about the technology. One student explained that she wanted to see what digital humanities had to offer beyond tools to conduct research. She wanted to understand how digital humanities might “develop research” for her work, not just make it faster or easier. She was “still trying to see the value” of the digital humanities, especially its theoretical contribution.

The reading this week focused on Christine Borgman’s Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet. But before we discussed Borgman’s book, the class took some time to discuss the iPad/iPhone class project challenge. Not surprisingly, there were numerous questions. The syllabus asked students to do the following:

“The Challenge: As a team the class will design, program, and prototype an iPad/iPhone app (IOS 5) to advance the field of digital humanities for 4Humanities–i.e. suggestions from 4Humanities scholars

–to digest “daily all news articles related to humanities and digital humanities from state and local sources in an easily accessible and manipulable way”
–to create “infrastructure (tools, apps, platforms, etc.) for allowing humanists to bring their work more naturally to the attention of the public.  As an example, . . . an idea for mashing up such tools as Open Journal Systems, Omeka, the Simile widgets, etc., to create effective exhibition platforms or feeds.”
–to create a tool for accessing, perhaps mobile-aware, “harvesting, packaging, and channeling a ‘showcase’ or ‘gallery’ of public-oriented humanities research and teaching.”
–to imagine and execute a program to showcase “what might be done to promote the value of the humanities in K-12. In particular, . . . having students go into schools and present or partner wit h students . . . figure out what a fun humanities fair might look like, modeled on science fairs.”

The Resources: University wide campus resources, including CDRH, New Media Center, Computing Innovation Group, Renaissance Computing Initiative, and global network of Digital Humanities scholars . . .

The Deadline: One month.”

The wheels started turning right away. One student had already assessed Apple’s developer site and asked about the cost of the iOS 5 SDK beta kit and membership. I agreed to pay the $99 fee . . . ask and ye shall receive. Others began assessing what benchmarks the class should have by the next week. And we started talking about what is needed in the field and what would be useful for Digital Humanities. Several students began to sketch out concepts aimed at particular audiences, such as K-6 students or college-level students. Then, the conversation shifted to what would kind of App would be useful–should we select content and build it into a demonstration of digital humanities for students? If so, what should we say about the subject and what subjects would we want to include? Perhaps unsurprisingly, a class of humanities students was talking immediately about creating “content.” And yet, they quickly concluded that we needed to do the opposite for this project. Not build content but harvest or collect. Create a tool to see digital humanities content differently or arrange it more usefully. This short session of planning, dreaming, and sketching was not only thrilling, it was chock full of the very questions we would discuss in Borgman’s book.

At each point my response was to ask the students what they thought the decision points needed to be for this project, what needed to happen when, and where they thought they needed to go for further information. Stay tuned next week for the students first “benchmarks.” I will post them on this blog with comments on why they did what they did.

The discussion of Borgman’s book centered on “what is scholarship”? And this was exceedingly useful in light of our preceding, freewheeling thoughts about an iPad App. Borgman usefully defines all sorts of terms for students: “open access” (p. 102), “e-Science” and “big science” (p. 29-30), and “peer review” (p. 60). She calls attention to scholarly practice, in particularly perceptive ways. Her discussion of “authors” and the decisions they make and do not make reveals the complexity of what she calls “the social aspects of the system.” Indeed, Borgman never loses sight of the ways that the scholarly communication infrastructure, or cyberinfrastructure, is both socially and technologically constructed. Our students found this particularly striking and illuminating–to consider the process of scholarly production and communication as fully interrelated with its infrastructures, in effect to see it whole. Although many humanities scholars might wince, Borgman notes that “gathering and generating data is often the simplest part of the research process.” (p. 128) The problem, she points out, is how to document their use for others, a considerably more difficult task for scholars.

I think students appreciated her perspective. They know that the tools for documenting their work are more robust than any previous generation has possessed. They also know that there are terrible gaps in the structures of these technologies and scholarly practice, ones that run to the very foundations of their research enterprises and career trajectories. Daily, they skip over these gaps, looking straight ahead, knowing that if they glance down into the chasm they might wobble and lose their confidence. We all do, in fact. They also know, therefore, that Borgman is right to draw our attention to the ways our technologies and our practices produce discontinuities and, we might say, broken links. They know too that we need to work on what she calls “the devil . . . in the details.” (p. 262) One student summarized, “Scholars need to pay attention to infrastructure NOW.”

Interestingly, these students saw scholarship far more broadly in definition than it has been traditionally understood in the humanities. They saw a wide range of scholarly activities in building the infrastructure and systems to document their work, to link it to others, and to interpret their materials. Knowing as one student put it that “publication is the coin of the realm,” they wondered after reading Borgman if the humanities would ever “value infrastructure.” This was what seemed to concern them most: how can we value different understandings of scholarship?