MLA 2011 Paper for “The Institution(alization) of Digital Humanities”

I gave two papers at the 2011 meeting of the Modern Language Association in Los Angeles.  The first, posted below, was for the panel “The Institution(alization) of Digital Humanities, organized by the Discussion Group on Computer Studies in Language and Literature.

The second was for a panel called “What the Digital Does to Reading,” organized by the MLA Committee on Information Technology.  This paper, “Social Book Catalogs and Reading: Shifting Paradigms, Humanizing Databases” was co-written by Renee Hudson at UCLA.

A Media Ecological Approach to Digital Humanities; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love This Dynamic Field.

This paper might more appropriately be sub-titled “How I learned to stop worrying and let the meta take over.” My thoughts on Digital Humanities as a field are indelibly marked by my own personal experience. At some point in the writing, I gave up trying to fight it and am just going to let it flow…

If I were you, I would be wondering about me. I would be thinking, “who is this person and on what basis is she qualified to speak about the field of digital humanities?” I assure you that more than once over the last few weeks I have been struck by the extraordinary cheek implied in my abstract. Having only discovered the field in 2004, the suggestion that I could perform a reading of the “Institution(alization) of Digital Humanities” now strikes me as rather impertinent.

When I initially proposed this paper, I was working off of an idea I had developed as part of an on-campus job talk last year. One of my tasks in this very high-stakes talk was to give an overview of “digital humanities” for a faculty audience within a department that aligns quite closely with traditional models of academic disciplines. In hindsight, the idea of the media ecology served my purposes very well – it allowed me to showcase the different types of projects upon which I like to work, and which I argued could all be gathered under the umbrella of digital humanities all for a non-specialist audience.

So, that is how this paper originated. But let’s face it, the MLA audience who makes it out at 8:30 am on a Saturday morning is likely to a) be already immersed to some extent in the field and b) have a much larger stake in the question posed by the panel. I knew that today I would be preaching to the choir, the very passionate choir…

The first hurdle was to decide how to begin. Where does one start what one hopes will be a thought-provoking “sermon” that does justice to the diversity of this field? I could begin by offering a snapshot of UTD’s own ecology of digital humanities work that occurs between affiliated tracks and centers within the School of Arts and Humanities. Or perhaps I should begin instead with Espen Aarseth’s anecdote about the interdisciplinary field of historical computing, which he notes has been reabsorbed back into the discipline of History to the extent that the annual meeting of historical computing scholars has been dissolved. This might open discussion on how digital humanities as media ecology can avoid a similar retreat into traditional disciplinarity.

But before we can even get there, I feel it necessary to define my terms. How can I speak of institutionalizing something that I have not yet defined? What do I mean when I say “digital humanities”? I first became aware of the problem of defining the field when I attended an annual digital humanities event in 2007. Three years prior to this, in the spring of 2004, I had been accepted to multiple English PhD programs, to which I had applied with the intent of becoming a specialist in Victorian Literature. Sometime between when I applied and when I went on recruitment visits, I was introduced to the field of Digital Humanities, though it was never explicitly named as such. I had a pretty non-traditional undergraduate and master’s degree trajectory, through most of which I worked full time in management positions in various industries. I had always been fascinated by the anxiety that software and other technologies invoked in my professional colleagues. My fascination with this anxiety intersected with my love of theory and literature and my commitment to teaching and led me to enroll at University of California Santa Barbara, hopeful to do some work with the Transcriptions Center. Fast forward a few years to when I went to this DH event, never doubting that I was a digital humanities scholar-in-training. I used digital tools to analyze humanities texts. I also analyzed digital objects, including electronic literature. I employed digital platforms in my classroom, encouraging students to collaborate, engage in multi-media expression, and to place their work in the public context of the Internet**. After a few days of presentations from renowned DH scholars, something seemed amiss. Please don’t mistake me – the work that I was seeing was really smart and interesting. But with the focus primarily on text analysis and encoding, something seemed to be missing. With the exception of one speaker, none of the work addressed my interests in contemporary text and theory, nor did it engage with what I now know is commonly delineated as new media, or media studies.

I still found the training to be an enriching experience, but the absence weighed on me enough that I questioned one of the event’s organizers about what I perceived as a gap. Since I had thus far operated unaware of the schisms within the field, I admit that I did not possess the terminology to properly frame my question. Thus, what I meant to ask was why the training seemed so heavily focused on text analysis, to the almost complete exclusion of other models of digital humanities. If I remember correctly, what I actually asked was why so few of the presentations engaged with more contemporary work. It was the wrong question, and though I could not articulate the right question, I was left feeling as though the picture painted by this event was incomplete. My goal here is not to stir up the well-rehearsed arguments of humanities computing vs. new media studies, a conflict humorously distilled by Matt Kirschenbaum in a 140-character tweet, “.@sramsay @kfitz: my reductive take: NM thinks DH is the canon pimped out w/ pocket protectors; DH thinks NM is empty theorizing w/o praxis.” Rather I want to highlight that something that seemed self-evident to me, that there are all kinds of digital humanities work, was not reflected in the programming in the year that I attended this annual event that has an active role in shaping the field.

This is where I think the metaphor of the media ecology can be useful. The idea of the media ecology has a fairly robust history, but the theory that I find the most useful for my work is that of Matthew Fuller. Fuller’s media ecology is one “where media elements possess ontogenic capacities as well as being constitutively embedded in particular contexts.”

In other words, media elements are both productive of ecologies, as well as produced by ecologies that encompass a wider context than the element itself. Because the ecology is composed of the intersections between vectors that are constantly shifting and morphing, our only option is to engage with the ecology by approaching each media element as a temporary stabilization of these points of intersection, which are constantly refigured by acts of “interpretation, layering, reuse, and other operations”. Additionally, Fuller’s media ecology operates simultaneously on multiple scales, which produce the shifting contexts in which media elements operate.

What is at stake in thinking of the Digital Humanities as a media ecology? An academic field that is well-established might be thought of as one of those temporary stabilizations within an ecology. In other words, they are standard objects. Standard objects have standardized definitions and standardized uses, in this case we might add standardized practices. Fuller notes that in the media ecology, the articulation of a standard object is generally a “ruse of misplaced concreteness”, in other words it is an attempt to claim a standardized definition for something that is always in flux.

As standard objects, academic disciplines are constantly being produced by institutional frameworks, funding initiatives, cultural attitudes toward academia, including education, and the localized strategies of individual practitioners. Disciplines are productive of research, teaching, and collaboration, among other things. It is important to note that in the media ecology, relationships are dynamic and the scale of localized practices of research, teaching, and collaboration feeds back into the wider contexts that produce the field.

Digital Humanities is no different. However, the Digital Humanities is also a relatively recent field where the terrains to be claimed are still in the process of presenting themselves, in often surprising ways. And finally, the technology and media which fall under the umbrella of digital humanities develop and obsolesce at such a rate that the field almost demands a media ecological approach, to account for the complex of constantly shifting tools and objects for study.

You’ll no doubt notice that I still haven’t made any sustained attempt to define Digital Humanities. As I worked on this presentation, I felt it necessary to review many of the definitions of the field that I had read and internalized over the years. Traveling along the digital pathways of interlinked online texts, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find that I soon found myself reflecting on Borges and wondering if I should argue that all of the possible definitions are simultaneously true. While on some level I believe this, I also feared that it might be seen as an act of cowardice. So I once again look to Fuller for help puzzling out how to approach such a field? Fuller would suggest that I employ “taking inventory” as a strategy. Thus my necessarily incomplete, subjectively situated inventory looks like so: The field of digital humanities is made up of the localized practices of practitioners who engage in work that uses digital technologies to analyze the traditional objects of humanistic inquiry, work that approaches the digital technologies and their outputs as objects for analysis, and work that uses digital platforms in humanities pedagogy, as well as digital librarianship and archiving work. The elements that constitute the ecology of Digital Humanities are quite varied, both in terms of research strategies and objects of study. In addition the field “exists” simultaneously at different scales and in various locations – it is variously treated as a tool set, a sub-set of more established disciplines, or as a discipline in its own right. If you were attempting to locate Digital Humanities on a map, you might look toward English, Art, History, Communication, or your library, or you may find it as a discrete department, program, or research center. Even better, you would look in all of these places at once.

In short, defining Digital Humanities is messy. In an ecology, messiness is not just permissible, it is the fundamental condition of existence. Ecologies thrive on the co-existence of diverse elements that function semi-autonomously. Treating digital humanities as a media ecology does not privilege any one type of work and allows for interoperability. Humanities computing, new media studies, and digital pedagogy are all possible modes, operating simultaneously. It is possible for any one of them to operate independently but the most interesting and unforeseen outcomes can occur when they operate cooperatively, or even in cooperative conflict. Similarly, an emphasis on the field as ecology focuses our attention on the health and well-being of the whole, not just the survival of the constituent parts.

Of course, the amorphous nature of the ecology means that it has a looseness and permeability not without drawbacks. For one, its decentralized nature means that one must actively traverse the terrain of the ecology, looking for connections, all of the time. But the terrain cannot always be mapped. As such, I am 100% certain that there is work being done that I should know about, that would enrich my own work were I to come into contact with it, but about which I am completely unaware. Of course, I suspect that this also happens in more stabilized disciplines.

I value the complexity and robustness of Digital Humanities as media ecology. I love the freedom to move amongst its different areas in response to research questions and teaching challenges. Today I may be performing word frequency analysis of the text in a novel. Tomorrow I may be creating visualizations of tweets. The day after that, I may be guiding my students through collaborative writing in a wiki. The variable outlines and content of the ecology allows me to locate my work on a recognizable area of the academic map and to claim that all possible definitions of the field are simultaneously true. I’m mixing my metaphors in a way that is really sloppy here, but in some ways I feel like the layering of different metaphors matches the layering of strategies and research objects in Digital Humanities

To some extent, I worry that the ecology is endangered by processes of discipline formation. In moments of self-reflection I know that this unease is a result of fear of being left out. I like being able to traverse the varied terrain and worry that walls or borders will be erected that will impede my movement. However, As Kathleen Fitzpatrick points out in her blog post, “The Stakes of Disciplinarity,” there are certain realities that must be considered. However flexible and reconfigurable the ecology of Digital Humanities may be, it is situated in relation to the much more rigid structure of academia in general. When people are hired, they must be hired to somewhere. Economic resources must come from somewhere. And these “somewheres” are either going to be traditional departments and programs, or they are going to be DH centers, departments and programs. As the field matures, we would be well-served by implementing research projects and curricular initiatives with the conscious intention of retaining certain qualities of the currently emergent ecology, always utilizing and interrogating the effects of the moment while continuing to implement time-honored practices.

So, how did I learn to stop worrying and love this dynamic field? A few ways. For one, I often remind myself that as standard objects, all academic fields involve a ruse of misplaced concreteness. So long as we remain aware of the ruse, field formation carries with it certain benefits and does not equate to stagnation. More importantly, I focus on the scale of the individual within the media ecology. How can I ensure that the field of Digital Humanities continues to have properties of the ecology? By continuing to do the work that I value and hoping that others find value in it too. And by claiming a space for my work within the ecology. Recently I was surprised to hear a fellow academic who does work very similar to mine claim that they were not a digital humanist. When pressed on the issue, they admitted that turning away from the title was more of a political move than a statement about their own work. Reflecting upon this has made me realize that my claiming of the title is also a political statement. I want a spot at the table and I believe the media ecology affords us opportunities to question and push against job categories, silo’ed disciplines, and other rigid boundaries of academia, while still conducting the type of work that has a long and valued institutional history.

Who am I and on what basis am I qualified to speak about the Institutionalization of Digital Humanities? I work within the localized ecology of my program and campus, all of which interface with the larger ecology of the Digital Humanities community. I am an analyzer of texts and media objects, a believer in the pedagogical benefits of digital platforms, and a collaborator on a variety of projects. In short, I am a Digital Humanities scholar. Thank you.

**At this point I made an aside about the previous day’s panel on the History and Future of Digital Humanities. I arrived a few minutes late and was unable to get in the room, though of course I heard the reports about Stephen Ramsay’s remarks that if you are not making things, you are not a Digital Humanist. I told the audience that though I do some light making of things, wholly in the spirit of the amateur, that I am uncomfortable with this as the distinction for inclusion in the field. Whether or not it was intended in Ramsay’s remarks, implicit in the responses to it seemed to be the notion that making = coding, and even more so that writing != making.

Perhaps a longer blog post is warranted on this topic, but for now, I want to add that I’ve since had the opportunity to read Ramsay’s talk, in which he says,

Personally, I think Digital Humanities is about building things. I’m willing to entertain highly expansive definitions of what it means to build something. I also think the discipline includes and should include people who theorize about building, people who design so that others might build, and those who supervise building (the coding question is, for me, a canard, insofar as many people build without knowing how to program). I’d even include people who are working to rebuild systems like our present, irretrievably broken system of scholarly publishing. But if you are not making anything, you are not — in my less-than-three-minute opinion — a digital humanist. You might be something else that is good and worthy — maybe you’re a scholar of new media, or maybe a game theorist, or maybe a classicist with a blog (the latter being very good thing indeed) — but if you aren’t building, you are not engaged in the “methodologization” of the humanities, which, to me, is the hallmark of the discipline that was already decades old when I came to it. (available

Ramsay also posts a follow up to his remarks here:

His follow up resonates with my initial reaction to people’s enthusiasm for / outrage against his statement, which I expressed in response to hearsay about the discussion while still at the MLA . I told a colleague that “making” is less important than what is implied in a willingness to “make.” In other words, what is critical to being a Digital Humanist is a willingness to engage in experimentation and a willingness to fail, in terms of redefining both scholarly production and institutional hierarchies.

I’ll have to leave my thoughts on the related debate about exclusionary practices in the field to another time. My various responsibilities as a DH scholar beckon…

5 thoughts on “MLA 2011 Paper for “The Institution(alization) of Digital Humanities”

  1. Tassie Gniady

    Great essay, Kim. I wasn’t familiar with Fuller’s work, and I too, find it extremely useful, for a number of reasons. I’m reminded of set theory and I’m guessing there’s mathematical resonances to his word choices beyond that of the word “vector” you’ve highlighted here. I’m interested that he found the word ecology more relevant than matrix–I’ll have to go read him to understand why he chose one term and not the other.

    I’ve also been avidly watching the maker vs. bricoleur vs. ? debate and I’m interested to see your follow-up thoughts as it seems that Ramsay still hasn’t quite clarified for me why coding is a hallmark feature of the digital humanist.

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  3. kknight Post author

    Thanks for reading it, Tassie.

    I should add references here because I just looked back and I don’t think I ever mention the title of Fuller’s book: Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. It’s a slippery book, in some ways I think enacting its own argument – I read it, I feel as though I’ve got it, I close the cover, and it begins to slip from my grasp.

    I am unfamiliar with set theory, but if I understand you correctly, this passage, in particular, seems to have echoes of a matrix: “all media are here treated, rather than being possessed of infinite malleability, as being intersected and composed by dimensions of relationality that can, according to the instruments used to interpret them, be seen to be political, economic, rhythmic, aesthetic, and so on” (175).

    However, in other places in the book he speaks of flows and leaks, which for me are what make the ecology resonate.

    My personal (tenuously developed and coming from the position of not yet having read all of the follow up blogs, etc from the conference) take on the coding issue is that there are levels of coding. For my students, I feel that it is important to have a basic understanding of how code functions. The basic processes of printing and print distribution are more familiar to students than the mysteries of html, PHP, SQL etc. It doesn’t help that these processes are mythologized and often misrepresented in pop culture, often the only occasion that calls upon students to think about them. Basic understanding of something and being a fluent practitioner are two different things and while there is room for both in DH, I’m personally satisfied with the former.

    But, eh, what do I know? I’m just a n00b! :D

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