[Humanist] 24.427 digital humanities and the cuts

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Oct 24 00:42:25 GMT 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 427.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 23 Oct 2010 22:32:12 +0100
        From: Andrew Prescott <andrew.prescott at glasgow.ac.uk>
        Subject: Digital Humanities and the Cuts

Dear Willard,

I am surprised that we have not so far had any discussion on Humanist of 
the devastating effect that the current financial crisis will have on 
the study of the arts and humanities internationally. Of course, here in 
Britain over the past two weeks our attention has been totally focussed 
on the report of the review on the future of higher education funding 
and student finance led by Lord Browne (former Chief Executive of BP, 
which may give American readers an uneasy feeling) and the outcome of 
the Comprehensive Spending Review which allocates budgets for individual 
government departments (in Britain since 2009, higher and further 
education has been the responsibility not of the Department of Education 
but of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which gives 
some idea of the priorities of successive British governments). Although 
the details are not yet finalised, it seems pretty clear that the upshot 
of these recent events is that in England all state funding for the 
teaching of arts, humanities and social sciences will be withdrawn with 
effect from the academic year 2011-12. The loss of state funding will in 
principle be compensated for by allowing tuition fees charged to 
students to be at least doubled. However, it is unlikely that many 
students will be willing to pay fees of £8,000 plus a year unless they 
are attending one of the most prestigious universities. It seems 
probable that over the next year many departments teaching arts, 
humanities and social scientists in England will close and hundreds of 
first-rate academics working in these fields will lose their jobs. The 
situation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is more complex since 
higher education is devolved to the governments of those nations and in 
Scotland at least tuition fees are not charged. However, it seems 
unlikely that the devolved nations will be able to resist the English 
lead, especially given that the budgets of the devolved countries have 
also been slashed.

The naivety, not to say philistinism, of a political outlook which 
declares that only science, technology, engineering and medicine are 
worthy of government support hardly needs elaborating here. At the time 
of writing, there is every sign that the situation in British 
universities may become even worse than we first feared - the government 
is indicating that it is reluctant to allow a free market in tuition 
fees, which means that the financial constraints will be even tighter. 
The Head of Universities UK, the consortium of University 
Vice-Chancelors has spoken of a 'valley of death'. There are some silver 
linings - funding for scientific research has been protected, and it is 
possible that this may mean that the Arts and Humanities Research 
Council, the establishment of which was one of the great achievements of 
the past ten years, will survive. If so, there is every indication that 
the AHRC will be keen to prioritise the digital humanities. It may be 
felt that the digital humanities will offer a means whereby arts and 
humanities academics build closer links with scientific colleagues and 
enable the arts and humanities to access the scientific funding streams. 
But what will be the value of this if the wider study of arts and 
humanities has been devastated? Most of the digital humanities centres 
in the UK are part of universities which are members of the 'elite' 
Russell group, so again it may be felt that they can potentially survive 
the eradication of the arts and humanities in the wider UK university 
system, but at what terrible cost for the study of arts and humanities 
more widely.

Digital humanities cannot thrive if the study of the humanities more 
widely is under attack, and in Britain there is certainly a terrible 
ferocious attack on any study which does not have a hard measurable 
economic value. It is not simply in the universities that the study of 
the subjects that interest us is under attack. One of the first actions 
of the new government was to announce the abolition of the Museums, 
Libraries and Archives Council which has done a great deal to promote 
the use of new technologies in museums and libraries. The national 
museums and libraries have declared themselves relieved that their 
budgets will be cut by 'only' 15%, which will indicate how dire the 
earlier forecasts were. Regional museums and libraries, funded by local 
councils, are under enormous threat. Suffolk County Council have 
announced that it intends outsourcing all its functions - including 
record office, libraries and museums - to private firms. Other councils 
are likely to follow suit. What likelihood would there be under such an 
arrangement of developing innovative digital humanities projects with 
such service providers?

In urging that, as digital humanists, the impact of these cuts should be 
at the centre of our thinking at the moment, I can do no better than 
refer back to Melissa Terras's remarkable plenary address at Digital 
Humanities 2010, one of the most compelling and visionary statements on 
the digital humanities I have ever heard. Refering to the impending 
cuts, she wrote:

"The Humanities are one of the easiest targets, given scholars' 
reluctance or inability to make the case for themselves. I’m reminded of 
a phrase from Orwell’s 1984, and what happened to society when under the 
horrific pressure and surveillance within. Allow me to paraphrase: if we 
are not prepared, and if we are not careful, these cuts will be “a boot 
stamping on the face of the humanities, forever”. I remember very 
strongly that at the end of an upbeat DH2009 Neil Fraistat stood up and 
said “The Digital Humanities have arrived!”. But in 2010, the place we 
have arrived to is a changed landscape, and not nearly as optimistic. We 
are not in Kansas now, Toto".

I fear that, in Britain, Melissa's most pessimistic vision has come to 
fruition in a couple of months. What depresses me most about it is the 
impact on younger scholars - I am on the tail-end of the baby boom and 
probably would not be too devastated to be packed off early into the 
sunset, but I bitterly resent seeing the younger generation of scholars 
deprived of the opportunities I have had.

This would all be bad enough if it only affected Britain, but of course 
this is an international crisis. The British commentators who fondly 
imagine that, by increasing tuition fees, British universities can 
emulate American institutions would be well advised to look at recent 
events at SUNY, where state budget cuts have led to the closure of the 
Italian, French, Russian, Classics and Theatre Programmes. In Texas A&M 
University, a profit and loss account is now kept for each Faculty member:


The natural reaction is to try and demonstrate that the humanities can 
make money, but Stanley Fish has argued in two recent articles for the 
NY Times that this may be a badly-advised tactic - kissing the boot 
which is stamping on our face rather than resisting it. Fish urges that 
we 'drop the deferential pose' - stand up to the bully:

"Make a virtue of the fact that many programs of humanities research 
(and not only humanities research) have no discernible product, bring no 
measurable benefits, are not time-sensitive, may never reach fruition 
and (in some cases) are only understood by 500 people in the entire 
world. Explain what a university is and how its conventions of inquiry 
are not answerable to the demands we rightly make of industry. Turn an 
accusation — you guys don’t deliver anything we can recognize — into a 
banner and hold it aloft. (At least you’ll surprise them.)"

He continues:

"And as you do this, drop the deferential pose, leave off being a 
petitioner and ask some pointed questions: Do you know what a university 
is, and if you don’t, don’t you think you should, since you’re making 
its funding decisions? Do you want a university — an institution that 
takes its place in a tradition dating back centuries — or do you want 
something else, a trade school perhaps? (Nothing wrong with that.) And 
if you do want a university, are you willing to pay for it, which means 
not confusing it with a profit center? And if you don’t want a 
university, will you fess up and tell the citizens of the state that 
you’re abandoning the academic enterprise, or will you keep on mouthing 
the pieties while withholding the funds?"

"That’s not the way senior academic administrators usually talk to their 
political masters, but try it; you might just like it. And it might even 
work. God knows that the defensive please-sir-could-we-have-more posture 

Fish's articles are worth taking a look at:



Is Fish right? And what should we be doing about it as digital 
humanists? We have been very preoccupied with business planning and 
demonstrating the value of investment in the digital humanities projects 
over the years, but should we not be adopting the approach Fish suggests 
- that spending money on these types of projects is simply the sort of 
thing that a university should do. I was listening to Kathryn Sutherland 
on Today this morning describing the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts 
project and the way in which it has helped improve our understanding of 
Austen's writing. Isn't that a good thing to spend money on? Shouldn't 
we be arguing for the importance of this? A number of recent tweets have 
repeated a story about Winston Churchill: "When Winston Churchill was 
asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply replied 
'then what are we fighting for?'". I have not been able to find a 
contemporary source for this, but it's a wonderful story nonetheless.

If humanists respond to Fish's rallying call urging us to aggressively 
explain, aren't digital humanists in a perfect position to facilitate 
such a campaign? So far, the campaign to promote the cause of the arts 
and humanities seems to have been very desultory - a number of op-ed 
pieces in the papers, som tweeting, a few nascent Facebook pages. Of all 
the humanities communities, we as a group should know more than many 
about comunication and providing platforms for campaigns. We are at a 
moment of supreme crisis for all our disciplines. Could we not as 
digital humanists come together jointly to create a new means of getting 
our message across, and resisting that boot which is currently stamping 
in our faces? A platform which enabled all humanists to express their 
views on this assault on their intellectual world and enabled them 
aggressively to explain why universities worth the name must have 
flourishing humanities (and social science and science) faculties.

Any comments?


Professor Andrew Prescott
Director of Research
Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute
Sgoil nan Daonnachdan / School of Humanities
University of Glasgow
12 University Gardens
Glasgow G12 8QQ
Tel. 0141 330 3635
Mobile 0774 389 5209

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