An Interesting Thing Happened to the Digital Humanities on the Way to a Historical Moment in University Leadership (UVa, the traditional university, and “the Internet”)

July 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

An outcome of the widely blogged about and closely tracked UVa debacle — beginning with the announcement of Teresa Sullivan’s ouster as UVa’s president and followed by her relatively rapid reinstatement under pressure from nearly every corner of the academic universe – were the fragments of correspondence and misdirected emails between members of the UVa Board of Visitors (now synonymous with “Dragas,” since the name has a much more sinister and oppressive ring). Among these emails was an urgent directive that positioned Sullivan’s approach to “incremental” change as an immediate threat to the university’s progress in a “world moving too fast” for the kind of leadership Sullivan had to offer.  Listed in one email were a few vague specifics that pointed to critical differences between the B of V and Sullivan: the “changing role of technology” and “the Internet.”

We now have a full explication of these terms in the context of the crisis. Members of the board were pushing for a rapid (now read: “reckless”), top-down investment in the MOOC movement (Massive Open Online Courses).  Major research universities like Stanford and MIT have just begin to test the waters of this new initiative to provide free (for now – and really, even now, not really “free”) online access to courses.  We now, appropriately, have a litany of responses pointing to how fool-hearty any giant leap into online learning is at this moment, and how an emphasis on the online education industry distracts  from more comprehensive and incrementally-realized programs  (both Siva Vaidhyanathan and Elijah Meeks offered significant correctives to this early on).

Yet, from my perspective, this event has had an even more worrying impact on impressions of the digital humanities more broadly, and its role in informing alternative approaches to learning, publishing, and re-envisioned models of the university itself.

Among the fallout from the UVa event has been a new emphasis on dichotomizing “new technologies” against the virtues and permanence of the “traditional” university.  Increasingly, there has been a tendency to conflate the ill-conceived impulses toward online learning with a massive array of materials, theories, and methodologies that fall within the digital humanities.  Of late, I have waded through emails and manifestos that declare how the UVa incident justifies general resistance to “internet and web-based technologies,” dismissed as a false panacea to our real ills.  Distilled, the line of thought runs thus: Internet and web-based technologies are a threat to the free possibilities inherent in the physical space of the university and our face-to-face interactions within that space.  And, moreover, that online technologies, as destroyers of such Real Life intimacy, are a symptom of the newly corporatized and mechanized university.  At first glance, there seems little to take issue with here.  Who doesn’t lament the increasingly corporate-controlled environment of education: faculty and student publishing, access to archives, bottom-line accountability, food services, intellectual rights and ownership, and so on?

What’s stunning to me, and a bit ironic, is the confusing turnaround at both ends of this argument.  The first part – the re-invocation of the “traditional” university— has some pretty interesting history.  Indeed, it was the traditional university that spawned many of the initiatives that took publishing, collaboration and education into the digital world in the first place. Many of these initiatives are now accepted developments and improvements to the production and circulation of knowledge, and rarely identified as part of the digital movement. We should also recount that traditional connotes not just a gloriously Edenic face-to-face flow between professor and initiate, but also entrenched attitudes about “how we do things”; the presence of women and others within the academic community; the priority of the lecture over discussion (and other issues of equity and access in delivery); what counts as scholarship, how it’s conducted, and where it must appear; what constitutes collegiality.  When I hear “traditional,” I feel the reverberations of these echoes off the walls of the hallowed physical space of the university.  What gives with this sudden, wildly reductive romance with the traditional university?

Partial insight can be had from Nathan Jurgenson’s wonderfully poetic take on the “IRL fetish”, the addictive appeal of “decrying the loss of the real” – a nostalgia for a purity that never was:

But this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online  (Jurgenson)

This recent re-enchantment with the traditional university can also be explained by our collective depression over the deep infiltration of market forces into learning and knowledge production, and the overall mechanization of the university as a system; not to mention the ruthless gutting of entire university systems.  But are we really comfortable laying this at the feet of digital initiatives on the whole?

The university and its circle have been a system of “mechanistic concern” for a very long time, as Andrew Prescott outlines in a recent article in the Journal of Digital Humanities.  One could probably trace this back quite a distance in various guises, but certainly we see it clearly imprinted by WWI and WWII, with the emphasis on standardized education and grading systems that were patterned on practices in part set forth in the early meat industry (see Cathy Davidson’s background and perspective on this).  The mechanized university has some parallel lineage with the development of the computer, but is far more a product of the automation philosophies of early industrialism, the re-consolidation of nation-state bureaucracies  and war management in the early twentieth century, and attendant assemblyphile mentalities. Assessment, and its many aspects, is the traditional university now, as much as any real or imagined face-to-face Socratic moments.  It was on the scene long before “the digital” or “online” were even in our lexicon.  The B of V of UVa was working off an insidious intrusion into university governance with roots deep and long, and ones already entangled with the traditional university as we know it.

And it’s important to note that there is no singular strain that represents “technology” in the humanities (or elsewhere, for that matter). The second part of this recently emerging dichotomy between the virtual and the traditional university seems content to conflate the digital humanities with the rudimentary and blunt instrument of technology (See Ted Underwood’s and Martin Mueller’s posts on the problem with labeling in the digital humanities).  This is, unfortunately, a still pervasive misunderstanding outside of the field.  I have had many conversations, on planes, at conferences, in my office, trying to extract the digital humanities from direct associative musings on Smartphones, PowerPoint (now Prezi), and even, as one college president put it to me once, the Bluetooth in her BMW.

Of course, the digital humanities is not divorced from the utilitarian and cultural interests in devices and technologies, but it has little to do with them in principle. If there is a connection, it is drawn through an “understanding of  [how] knowledge is inextricably bound up with the nature of the medium by which it is transmitted” (Prescott).  Those mediums are moving and proliferating at present. And the field is incredibly diverse, ranging from the more radically off beat and queer, to the more traditional and conventional.  Most significantly, the digital humanities, if there is such a thing anymore given the integration of digital methodologies within the humanities, is now about a series of questions that are about the becomingness, the in-betweenness, of knowledge, learning, and publishing in the present.  At their best, these are primarily experimental, playful, and theoretical predispositions.  There is as much risk for over-commodification in the digital humanities as there is the traditional university, and neither has history separate from the market forces and mechanizing tendencies that have made both systems possible.

I don’t intend this as a defense of or apology for the digital humanities. I do want to mark a passing concern over how the UVa event is being re-directed in relationship to digital initiatives and practices.  Rather than lamenting the loss of the traditional university to online learning and the digital, we might perhaps ask which aspects of the digital humanities promises to re-direct us away from the kinds of programs set forth in those emails. Rather than adopting a luddite-fury that refuses engagement with anything digital or technology-driven, we might ask, what kind of digital initiatives are happening around me?  Or, more to the point, is there an ad hoc committee down the hall set to implement an online program without significant staff or faculty input?

It’s also worth mentioning that the full display of support for Sullivan, and the subsequent critiques, commentary and calls-to-action, were in part made possible by a digital network of teachers, scholars, alums, and journalists.  It’s reasonable to ask if Sullivan’s reinstatement would have even been possible in a slowed-down, non-digital world.


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