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The Humanities Digital Divide

On Friday, February 9th I attended the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Office of the Digital Humanities at the National Endowment of the Humanities. It was a jam-packed, vivid testimony to the ODH’s vision and work, featuring a keynote by Kate Zwaard, Chief of National Digital Initiatives at the Library of Congress, and John Unsworth, University Librarian and Dean of Libraries at the University of Virginia, shorter remarks from leaders in the digital humanities (Julia Flanders, Jesse Casana, Greg Crane, Amanda French, Dan Cohen, Michele Weigle, Matt Kirschenbaum), and 45 lightning round presentations by 2017 ODH grantees.

While the event focused mainly on how far things have come within the digital humanities world in the last ten years, the ODH’s ten year milestone is also an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between the digital humanities and the humanities-at-large (see this EDUCAUSE report for a great definition of the digital humanities). How are the digital humanities positioned within the academy after about a decade of increasingly institutionally recognized and grant funded activity?

At Ithaka S+R we have a unique perspective on this issue because we have been conducting research on the activities and perceptions of academics for over fifteen years, through projects like Sustaining the Digital Humanities, the triennial U.S. faculty survey, and in-depth qualitative work on disciplinary needs through our Research Support Services projects. These ongoing projects have enabled us to do deep comparative work on the trends that cut across and are particular to specific areas of scholarship.

Across the board, we see that scholars are adopting a variety of digital technologies that are aiding their work. Something as simple as the ability to capture archival artifacts through cell phone cameras has eased the research process. But, in many cases, scholars are using new technologies to support pre-existing approaches to conducting their research. For this reason, in our report on religious studies (see especially pages 36-39) we concluded that digital research is both “ubiquitous and marginal” for scholars in this field, and this echoes our observations from our earlier studies on humanities scholars in art history and history. Barriers to taking up new digital methodologies include lack of training opportunities, funding, and institutional support and recognition (through tenure and promotion requirements) for this work.  A survey recently conducted by the American Historical Association shows that this trend is continuing, and perhaps most strikingly, transcends age demographics. Ithaka S+R’s and AHA’s research also suggests that uptake of digital humanities research is also uneven, with, perhaps unsurprisingly, certain technology and/or data-dependent fields, such as archaeology and quantitative history, disproportionately taking up digital humanities-oriented approaches.

But, as the ODH 10th anniversary proceedings made clear, there are a number of initiatives underway to encourage the expansion and recognition of digital humanities more broadly. Kate Zwaard noted in her keynote that Library of Congress’ Labs program seeks to encourage creative use of the Library of Congress’ collection data with the goal of scaling up these forms of engagement. She acknowledged that the question of broader applicability is a common critique of lab-style programs and emphasized a belief in incremental progress. Several speakers also reflected on how the ODH has not only served as an inspiration for digital humanities to becoming a funding priority by other entities but also for digital initiatives to become incorporated into other funding programs, such as the NEH’s Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge Grants.

And the event highlighted several areas where the digital humanities are positioned to make the greatest impact:

1. DH as Teaching Resource

The ODH program funds projects that seek to develop open-source resources with pedagogical capacities and open educational resources, which reflect how technological affordances can be harnessed to make humanities education more affordable and digitally-responsive. Some examples from this funding round include: Grenzenlos Deutsch: An inclusive curriculum for German Studies, the Global Medieval Sourcebook, and Literature in Context: An Open Anthology.

2. Attending to Accessibility and Representation

The ODH is currently funding some exciting projects that seek to address imbalances in how certain marginalized communities are represented and/or have access to digital technologies. Exposing the Borders of Academia: Sign Language as a Medium of Knowledge Production, Preservation and Dissemination, will enable Deaf Studies Journal to implement a fully bilingual American Sign Language/English text digital platform. DH from an Indigenous Perspective: Strengthening Partnerships between Indigenous Communities, Scholars, Museums and Archives explores how Indigenous communities are working with objects digitally repatriated to them. Networking the Regional Comprehensives will foster collaboration and resource-sharing among smaller institutions that offer minimal pre-existing support for digital humanities endeavors.

3. Building Capacity

Considering the gulf that remains between how humanists generally engage with digital technologies and the often methodologically sophisticated aims of digital humanities work, the Expanding Communities of Digital Humanities Practice ODH-funded Institute is noteworthy for emphasizing building foundational skills.

Amidst the backdrop of heavy public skepticism of the value of humanities degrees, learning to design and work with digital humanities tools offer a compelling way to incorporate what is currently perceived as important practical skill development with the development of a critically-oriented, humanistically-grounded approach to analysis. The importance of critical thinking to technological innovation is increasingly recognized, for example, in 2017 Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet Inc. publically declared that critical thinking matters. The ODH-funded institution on Textual Data and Digital Texts in the Undergraduate Classroom educators can incorporate digital pedagogy into their instructional work.

Final Thoughts

In Building Capacity for Digital Humanities: A Framework for Institutional Planning, the ECAR working group outlines models for how what are currently still relatively small pockets of digital humanities activity throughout individual institutions can be scaled up within and across the academy, which is also helpful to consider in the context of the ODH’s important milestone. The themes outlined above demonstrate areas where ODH-work can potentially have the most impact if the digital humanities are to be scaled. To what extent digital humanities work can and should be scaled is an open-question which bears ongoing exploration and reflection.

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