[Humanist] 23.265 BBQ and fire

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Sep 4 10:22:07 CEST 2009


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 265.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org



        Date: Thu, 03 Sep 2009 13:03:38 -0400
        From: Wendell Piez <wapiez at mulberrytech.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.264 BBQ and fire
        In-Reply-To: <20090903050152.F22FD38441 at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard and HUMANIST,

This thread reflects a familiar anxiety that afflicts this list like 
a bad knee. But I think to critique the label as problematic (be it 
"digital humanities", "humanities computing" or anything else you 
might imagine) misses the point that *any* label will be problematic 
as long as it is burdened with the task of justifying one's work, in 
a label, to those who are skeptical of it. For that, any label will 
do, or none, since what passes for justification is not in the label 
itself or what it ("literally") denotes, but in the aura it brings 
with it. A glamorous aura can be useful and I suppose we all want to 
be glamorous. But it is treacherous.

Ten or more years ago, I decided that the institutional suspicion of 
"digital humanities" (or "humanities computing" as it then was) had 
nothing to do with what we were doing, the legitimacy or interest of 
it or lack thereof. It was (is) simply a structural problem. In a 
system where resources (budgets, faculty lines) are constrained and 
the organization is pyramidal (more pawns than knights, only one 
king), win/win games are hard to find, and discriminations have to be 
made: there will always be someone who is not hired or whose work 
isn't supported. But since to discuss this is taboo, reasons have to 
be offered for excluding someone or something. If the something is at 
all threatening to the status quo, there's a reason to find a reason. 
And by its nature, any pursuit will be threatening that threatens 
disciplinary boundaries (raising questions of integrity and control), 
or that calls on talents or skills or interests different from those 
that a discipline has hitherto cultivated. To the digitally uneasy 
academic, to say "digital humanities is important" is to suggest that 
what he does may be less so, and there's a threat. On the other hand, 
to say to a theory-steeped literary critic that archives might be 
interesting, or pedagogy, or close reading, or anything at all that 
falls outside the domain of her theory-making, might also be to make 
a threat despite oneself, even allowing that there is also theory of 
archives and pedagogy and close reading. So it's not really about 
"digital humanities" at all.

Accordingly, and not looking forward to a career trying to find 
common ground with those who thought of me as a threat, I dealt with 
this by finding a line of work where it wasn't an issue, where I 
didn't have to run a gauntlet of justifying myself constantly and at 
intervals. The consulting business is sustainable only because (and 
as long as) there are organizations out there to whom our work is 
valuable enough that they are willing to pay us up front to do it. 
The work is justified before I'm ever hired. So I don't have to fight 
those battles.

Note that this doesn't mean that the problem isn't there. It just 
alters the structure of the calculation, putting the question "is the 
work worth it" up front. The gauntlet is still there: it's just that 
the client and I get through it mostly before I ever hear about it. 
There is usually a bidding process, but after that we're done, and by 
the time the work itself starts we are committed together to its 
success. I still face the problem of defining work that is both 
valuable to others and interesting and satisfying to me, but 
fortunately that hasn't proven to be very difficult. You see, much as 
academics might doubt it, the work of "digital humanities" is 
actually both very valuable and very interesting in the world at 
large, especially when you reduce confusion and placate anxieties by 
taking the label off.

Now, I don't believe this solution is available within the academic 
context, which is structured as it's structured. On the other hand, 
it does suggest something about the outlines of the problem. I think 
that if a dean or a tenure committee is asking "is the work of 
Assistant Professor X worth it?", the battle is already lost. There's 
little or nothing Prof X can do, since it amounts to a popularity 
contest, and the very possibility that the answer is "no" hangs in 
the air. And of course the same thing is true of casual conversations 
in the hallways about projects or research initiatives.

Accordingly, the solution to Prof X's problem is not to have an 
answer to the question "why is your work important?". The question 
must already have been answered, and the dean and the tenure 
committee should *already know* the work is important. How Prof X 
brings that about is less a matter of influencing the dean or faculty 
directly, than it is of bringing about change in the intellectual 
climate and culture such that the dean and faculty are already 
convinced, first, that the work is complementary and consistent with 
their own commitments and goals, not a threat or even a diversion, 
and secondly, that it has a constituency, and is valued by the 
interests that they themselves serve. It won't raise doubts among 
those themselves answer to, but instead will strengthen them. 
Ideally, of course, this is done by having made a commitment long ago 
that has created such a constituency. "Let's have a department where 
we study English novels and poetry."

A label like "digital humanities" can be a rallying point for a sort 
of PR campaign, but the point isn't ultimately PR: it's a problem of 
demonstrating value and of including people in such a way that they 
become that constituency. Indeed, if the effort is treated like PR, 
it is likely to run its course, and any label will eventually become 
a liability. This year's fashion is next year's object of satire.

Cheers,
Wendell

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Wendell Piez                            mailto:wapiez at mulberrytech.com
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