Sticking a “Fork” in the Humanities? Some Thoughts on Digital Humanities
I had the opportunity earlier this week to take part in a showcase for graduate and postgraduate research that Oxford’s Humanities Division was putting on. The location (Merton College’s Chapel) was inspiring, the finger foods (poofs of pesto and rich meats on crackers) inscrutable, and the conversation interesting. I and a bestiary of about ten other graduate students and JRFs (what the British call postdocs) all created posters detailing our research in exchange for the opportunity to hobnob, show off our stuff, and provide the University with an opportunity to attempt to explain, somewhat despondently, the value of the humanities in higher education.
The event was a good chance to hone my presentation skills, meet other graduate students, and test what parts of the “pitch” about my dissertation excite people the most, but I found the event most interesting as an anthropological exercise to see how professors in the humanities and university administrators think. The fact that it would be a poster competition specifically also serves as an opportunity to think about the way that humanists and people in the university think about how to present, market, and pitch their research. In this short post, taking these two topics as starting points, I’d like to write a bit about what I think could be promising future directions in terms of presentation and platform (as opposed to topics or disciplines) for academics, or indeed anyone, trying to find a broader way to present their work.
Perhaps the best way to start this reflection is to ask what precisely a poster (or a poster showing competition) is. At the event, to which we were instructed to show up at a specific time in our Monday evening best, our handlers directed us to our posters, which hung from boards scattered around the antechapel. At the opposite end of the hall from the doors, a coterie of servers dispensed champagne, finger foods, and orange juice. Within a few minutes, the doors were opened, and the professors and administrators came in, to chat, nibble, and question for about the next hour. Many visitors appear to have come mostly for the food and the opportunity to continue their conversations from outside, but others came up to students’ posters, asked questions, gave compliments or criticism, etc. – and then generally left. Many students had their names, business cards, e-mail addresses, and so on displayed on the posters, but what was really going on was a one-off conversation, the impression of what the student was working on, and then off to the next meeting.
While certainly well-intended and definitely well-executed compared to other poster events I have attended, the format of the event suggests to me a lack of creative or, at the risk of sounding superficial, twenty-first century thinking about how people can and should present their work. Too often, content at universities is presented in the form of one-off events. We know them all too well: book talks, seminar discussions, courses, poster events such as the one at Merton, and public lectures. As I’ll discuss, events like these certainly have their place, and only a truly naïve technological utopian would dismiss them entirely. But I also fear that university academics and scholars are missing on much of the promise that digital platforms, including one which I’ll discuss below (Github), could potentially have for the way they work.
To get one obvious point out of the way, it would be foolish to deny the social appeal, indeed, imperative of some events like seminars. Attending a seminar with a wonderful professor or visiting scholar doesn’t just boil down to downloading the content of the discussion onto your brain. There’s an important aspect to having a good conversation with someone in person, with learning how to interact respectfully and generously in conversation with others (two traits that can occasionally be lacking in talented autodidacts). True, celebrity culture complicates some of these issues. I’ve been on a David Foster Wallace kick recently, and as he observed in an interview I was watching, too often people come to book talk events or public lectures less to engage with the argument or topic being presented than to see in the flesh the person they’ve been idolizing as a minor-league celebrity for some time. Some very tough questions about a person’s work (I mean really in depth questions about methodology, actually serious questions) will come across as overly aggressive or bizarre if asked during a Q&A session, and the speaker will feel awkward if he or she tries to give the 15-20 minutes necessary to answer a really serious question at a book talk. But the point is that whether or not we’re indulging in celebrity culture when we go to some events like these, humans are basically social (yes, even academics). We crave social interactions, conversation, and discussion, and packaging conversation time in with the academic content of the day, in the form of a seminar, lecture, or poster talk does have its advantages.
Still, the obvious disadvantage to these kinds of events is that you can miss them. While my greatest regret from Princeton (at least one not having to do with friends or romance) was probably missing a Girl Talk concert at my eating club, a close second would have to be the fact that during my junior year I was only able to take one, rather than two courses with Adam Michnik, a Polish intellectual who was visiting campus that term. The one course I took with him, on politics and intellectuals in the 20th century, was a transformative experience, and I know from reports of people who were in the other course with him (a graduate seminar on Communism in Eastern Europe in the 20th century) that that one was great, too. However, I wasn’t able to take the latter because it conflicted with … Russian language courses. I know that many other students have similar reports of two courses, ostensibly on similar or mutually reinforcing topics, that took place at the same time and hence made it impossible for ambitious students to maximize their educational experience.
More banally, you always have the problem, at least at good universities, of too much to do, and too much overlap. Conversations with Princeton friends are full of tough decisions made between, say, a course on Afghanistan with Michael Barry and another on South Asia with Gyan Prakash that took place at the same time. Throw in the bewildering mix of public lectures and visitors that mark an excellent university, and you have a problem.
It’s a problem not just for students (consumers of content), but also professors and visitors (providers of content). In an age when the value of many subjects has been questioned, and administrators and faculty perpetually fret over declining course enrollment, if I am a professor of, say, Ottoman History, I want to make sure that there are as many students as possible in my courses (and, of course, that they’re learning and having their minds expanded, and that these two missions of quantity and quality aren’t in conflict.) In an age of contracting higher education, I want to be able to present grant-makers, administrators, and book publishers potentially interested in my content with hard data and numbers showing that my content is popular, and that any contraction that touches my content will be at the risk of the institution’s relevance, not mine.
And yet the current system, in which people might miss out on a Gender Studies course not because they think it’s irrelevant, but because the scheduling happens to overlap in an unfavorable way, threatens the case many content providers have to justify their continued existence. I know this was a problem at Princeton, where many courses on English Literature (which have unfortunately strayed from rigor to self-identity studies) and European history (which is perceived as a luxury good and less relevant) have seen declining enrollments. Good luck trying to get a job teaching in those fields, let alone arguing for expansion in an age when PhD programs continue to churn out graduates.
Given all of this, it is perplexing to me why more scholars (or really any content providers) don’t make greater use of means of digital distribution. After consuming tons of podcasts and video lectures a week myself, I made a resolution to record and, barring unusual circumstances, upload to my site any content (in the form of lectures and talks) that I create. There are several benefits.
On one level, it makes you immune to the lousy charge that you often get from potential audiences of “I’m too busy.” When I presented some of my work to policymakers and advisors in Washington, DC, this spring, I was shocked by how many people working for the State Department, or other government organizations, would constantly resort to the claim of “We’re too busy” when you suggested that they read anything more than 2-3 paragraphs in length. (Their attitude raised the obvious question of whether they just spent the whole day reading executive summaries as opposed to anything more substantial, but that’s beside the point. It also raised the question of whether they were actually busy in the first place, which does not totally square with my observations of federal employees, but that’s also beside the point.)
I should interject the observation of the author Nassim Taleb here – that “I’m too busy” or “I don’t have time” are, for 99% of people, a way to say “I’m not disciplined enough or don’t care enough to look at this” – but let’s take the claim at face value. If your potential audiences are actually too busy to do, apparently, anything, then scheduling one-off events like the seminars and poster talks is a poor way to do anything but gauge how interested they really are in your content. It’s like asking someone on a date; her saying that she’ll be happy to listen to the podcast version of dinner with you is a less impressive commitment of time, energy, or, potentially, love, than signing up for the one-off real thing. But throw your content up digitally, and this commitment point works in reverse. Granted, people may still not actually be interested in your content (because it sucks), but you make it possible for them to access it at any time, with low commitment. If a person still claims to be “too busy” to even do the podcast version of dinner, or a seminar talk with you, then you either need to improve your act, stop wasting your time with this person, or both.
(But how do you know if it sucks, you might ask. Another benefit: if you’re going the podcasting or blogging route, many platforms allow you to gauge the number of downloads or views. True, it might suggest that more people are interested in Maury Povich than Timothy Snyder, and it’s hard to think of an equivalent of “conversion rates” for para-commerical activity like scholarship or seminars, but it’s some help.)
Still, what shocks me more than the focus on one-off events is how inaccessible most people’s work in the academy is today. I don’t mean inaccessible in the sense of demanding (thermal physics), or inscrutable (to take one commonly-cited offender), but inaccessible simply in the sense that I don’t know how to see what they are working on, via which portals or platforms. JSTOR works for published material, and Academia.edu is making some strides towards a more open content policy, but you can’t access the former without already being a member of an academic institution, and the latter is still content-poor for the most part. I am aware of plenty of graduate students in, for example, history, working on what sound like interesting projects, but other than literally e-mailing them to get their latest draft, or showing up to conferences (another example of a 20th-century one-off event), you have few options.
I wonder if academics, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences, might learn something from the world of hackers and coders. There, one of the most successful tools people use to share their intellectual property (i.e. content) is Github, a code base (i.e. a website to store your code on). If you’re working on a “Hello, World!” program, or something less trivial, you can sign up for an account on Github and synchronize the contents of your hard drive or wherever you’re programming with your online Github account. Whenever you’ve made significant changes to your work, you can then upload the latest version of your code to your account, and develop a repository of your work.
Assuming you’re keeping your content private, this all sounds basically the same as backing up your files normally. But where Github shines is the ability it provides users to “fork” content from other accounts to work on their own versions of a project. If I am coding, for example, a Pong game, and haven’t developed the code to tell the computer what happens when the ball hits a wall, I can direct one of my co-workers to “fork” the existing project onto his Github account, where he can work on that section, synchronizing his work on a local machine with his Github account. Then, if he goes away for vacation for two weeks, we still have access to his work (which was proceeding semi-independently of, say, the other work on the Pong program). In short, it’s a way to keep tabs on version control of drafts of projects, and to enable collective work and commenting that significantly improves the problems inherent in group projects, a problem that offers great treasure to whichever company can solve it best technically (if it is indeed a technical problem).
More than that, within the world of coding, Github has become popular as an alternative to resumes. Rather than requesting the traditional CV that shows your date of birth, educational institutions attended, and so on, many technology firms increasingly will ask prospective developers (i.e. the people who do most of the coding, both at a high level of architecture, writing it, and deploying the application onto servers) for their Github account. There, they can simply see the quality of coding, what projects the person has been working on, and that’s it. Compared to the byzantine system of patronage that governs much of academic life (the Rhodes accepted up to eight letters of recommendation when I applied for it, and most fellowships these days require at least two letters), this all seems refreshingly transparent.
Why shouldn’t people outside of the coding community make a shift to platforms like Github to present their work? I don’t think that the current system that effectively reigns (one in which patronage networks, from which I have personally benefitted, and the incredibly long timelines of academic journals and publications governs one’s image or reputation) can be justified in terms of either intellectual transparency or the best allocation of talent. Graduate students, scholars, and writers are famous for feeling obscure, reclusive, and under-appreciated – but a big reason why is that they make themselves so by not exploiting the platforms for content distribution that about around them. Remove as many excuses as you can for people being ignorant of your work, and once you have them actually looking at your work, remove as many opportunities as possible for ambiguity or non-comprehension. This all sounds basic, but having seen many species of homo academicus in their natural habitat – unshaven twenty-somethings not actually producing work, complaining about their lack of recognition and the state of the market, all while doing very, very little to improve their prospects – I know of many people, even at major institutions in the USA, UK, and Germany who would benefit tremendously from following just a few of the steps outlined here.
Given the news stories, the impending student loan bubble, which will threaten to further shrink the size, scope, and imagination of universities – but also the tremendous reach that twenty-first century technology provides us – this should be a no-brainer. If the choice is between remained sequestered, unaccountable, unknown, and unread, and, well, virtually anything else, then that’s not a choice at all.