William Pannapacker published a followup to his tweet from DHSI that I responded to a while ago. I spent a few minutes weighing in on the comment thread, and thought I’d go ahead and post it here.

I think what I’m responding to here is a general sense that the digital humanities is just another “area” to be “covered.” I don’t think anyone out and says so, but the vibe I’m getting is that notion that in a generation or so, people will all use these tools, and it’ll just be part of how the humanities operates from that point forward. Maybe so, but…

I take their project to be a little more far reaching than that. Could be partly because I’ve just been reading Hacking the Academy, but I think part of the DH agenda is to move the whole academic apparatus forward. That means making room for experiments with the review process, accepting forms of scholarship that aren’t always or only words in a row, and taking on an evaluation system that currently doesn’t accommodate the kind of “making” that DH advocates. Did I convey this successfully?

“such a person never needed a distinct, interdisciplinary field called DH to do that”

Well, yes and no. It’s certainly true that such a person could succeed without DH, by publishing articles and books, incorporating those passions into his or her teaching, etc. But one of the things that DH folks are advocating for, as I understand it, is that such work doesn’t necessarily (or even optimally) take the form of print, and that is a fight that’s still ongoing. I’ve been around long enough to hear the horror stories of colleagues’ digital work being misunderstood or misrepresented in tenure reviews, for example. I know places where they still hold to some fundamental distinction between print and online publication, even in cases where the peer review process is identical (to say nothing of more experimental moves towards open review). For many departments in the humanities, if those questions are settled, it’s because they haven’t been raised in the first place.

If our geographical Wordsworthian wanted to spend a couple of years developing the tools to be able to do that work, there are a lot of departments where that would not be considered valuable academically. And that’s a place where the fallback reliance on peer review doesn’t help. Traditionally published, innovative scholarship is going to be judged by the reviewers for journals and presses, but the humanities have not traditionally held themselves accountable for the kinds of “making” that Ramsay argues are central to DH.

I don’t think that most DH folk would suggest that other kinds of work in the humanities are less valuable, but I think it’s important for everyone to understand the ways that DH work differs from that work, and may need to be evaluated differently. My first foray into the job market was when “Computers and Writing” was trending in my field, and I had a number of friends who struggled, not because they couldn’t do “traditional” work, but because they were loaded up with responsibilities that ultimately counted for little later on.

All that said, I’m pretty ambivalent about the idea of “no DH, no interview” for a lot of the reasons explained above. I also believe, though, that part of the reason for the DH zeal (some of which I share) is that it takes a lot of pushing to shift some of the mindsets that I’m talking about here. For me, it’s more of a both/and than an either/or, though.