• August 2, 2014

Stop Calling It 'Digital Humanities'

And 9 other strategies to help liberal-arts colleges join the movement

Stop Calling It 'Digital Humanities' 1

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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close Stop Calling It 'Digital Humanities' 1

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

A persistent criticism of the digital-humanities movement is that it is elitist and exclusive because it requires the resources of a major university (faculty, infrastructure, money), and is thus more suited to campuses with a research focus. Academics and administrators at small liberal-arts colleges may read about DH and, however exciting it sounds, decide that it ill suits their teaching mission.

In fact, teaching-focused colleges have significant advantages over research universities in pursuing the digital humanities.

With shallower administrative hierarchies and less institutional inertia, liberal-arts colleges can innovate relatively rapidly and at lower cost. They usually have more collegiality across disciplines and divisions, and between faculty and staff members. It's easier to build coalitions and to organize project teams at small colleges.

Because of their teaching focus, they have lighter expectations for faculty research: Faculty members are more likely to be able to experiment with projects that may not lead to traditional scholarly publications. Some liberal-arts colleges even have a culture of faculty-student collaborative research, which translates perfectly into the project-building methods of the digital humanities. And the great variety of missions among liberal-arts colleges allows each of them to develop projects serving communities that might otherwise be neglected. All in all, participating in DH is not more difficult at liberal-arts colleges than at research universities; it simply presents a different set of challenges and opportunities.

Since 2008 I've been part of an effort, sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to build a DH program at a liberal-arts college in the Midwest, and have found all of the advantages I've just mentioned to be real. While I would not say that our situation is applicable to every college in our sector, I'd like to offer some casual suggestions for program building in this emerging field.

Stop calling it "digital humanities." Or worse, "DH," with a knowing air. The backlash against the field has already arrived. The DH'ers have always known that their work is interdisciplinary (or metadisciplinary), but many academics who are not humanists think they're excluded from it.

As an umbrella term for many kinds of technologically enhanced scholarly work, DH has built up a lot of brand visibility, especially at research universities. But in the context in which I work, it seems more inclusive to call it digital liberal arts (DLA) with the assumption that we'll lose the "digital" within a few years, once practices that seem innovative today become the ordinary methods of scholarship.

Show how digital humanities supports the liberal arts. Even before DH arrived, liberal-arts colleges were moving from traditional, lecture-based courses toward a model of teachers and students as co-researchers, collaborating across disciplines and cohorts, attempting to build projects that can serve a wide range of needs, seeking support for those projects, and presenting that work at conferences and now, increasingly, online. In that context, DH is not a "disruption"—it is an enhancement of the core methods of an ideal liberal-arts education.

Build a support network with like-minded colleagues. A small college may not have many people who are openly experimenting with the digital humanities, but there are likely to be many who are interested in some aspect of it, especially the ways it can enhance teaching and learning. In particular, reach out to the library staff and the information technologists. They are likely to become your closest allies, because they tend to be early adopters of new technology and have an institutional perspective and a culture of service and collaboration.

Departments such as communication, computer science, and education often include potential allies as well, because they are interested in new media and social media, coding and Web design, instructional technology, hybrid pedagogy, and assessment. The process of looking for collaborators may cause some colleagues to re-envision their work in ways that bring them more intentionally into the DH community.

Integrate digital humanities into the curriculum. The easiest way to start is by changing your own courses and letting others know what you're doing by attending or organizing workshops on teaching. Invite colleagues to participate in collaborative faculty-student research projects that relate to their areas of expertise. Encourage them to introduce DH in their pieces of the curriculum, particularly the general-education program, so that the expectation that studentswill use digital approaches becomes as normal as expecting them to write a research paper or give a presentation.

Work closely with the guardians of curricular integrity, and use assessment to demonstrate that digital approaches enhance learning. Reassure untenured colleagues that classes that liberate students from lectures and exams, and involve them in their own learning, will be popular and receive strong evaluation scores.

Show how digital techniques support faculty research. Introduce your colleagues to digital tools that will allow them to pose new questions and produce interesting results. Invite to campus speakers who have built strong yet attainable careers as scholars using digital methods. Demonstrate how digitally enhanced collaboration can improve the quality of research by allowing even geographically isolated academics to participate. Work to open the tenure-and-promotion process to include new forms of scholarly production.

Celebrate the accomplishments of students and colleagues. One of the great advantages of DH work is that—unlike most research papers—it can be showcased online. But also expect your students to present their work at college events (and train them for it); encourage them to present at national events, such as those sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research; and advocate for public recognition and awards for their scholarly achievement and leadership.

Organize campus events in which faculty members and students present their work together, as colleagues. Build a close relationship with your college's public-relations office. Keep its staff members informed (send them photographs and links to accomplishments), and alert them to digital projects that can be highlighted on the college Web site.

Invest as much as you can in at least one collaborative, multidisciplinary flagship project—ideally one with strong ties to the institution's most distinctive qualities or regional connections. The idea here is to identify the digital humanities with something that everyone already supports.

Seek the support of the higher-ups. Your administrators are probably pro-technology in general, but they may not know a lot about DH. Show them how digital methods enhance the college's mission and can promote its image. Call attention to the value of encouraging faculty and staff members to use new technologies.

Even so, most liberal-arts colleges are very conservative with money. If you want to try something experimental, it should be low cost. Plan to raise your own money, preferably from external sources, while looking for internal partners with whom you can share resources toward common goals. Your advancement office will be an essential partner in that effort.

Invest in faculty and staff development. The digital humanities is a rapidly evolving field. Keep a supply of relevant books and articles; never meet a newcomer to the field empty-handed. Encourage colleagues to ask you questions, and send them links to helpful resources, such as the DH Syllabi Wiki, DiRT Wiki, DH Commons, and DH Questions and Answers.

Seek support from external organizations like the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, whose purpose is to integrate technology with the mission of liberal-arts colleges. Organize faculty-development events with outside speakers. Hold collective drop-in events where people can work on their projects in the same space. Co-teach and guest-teach as much as possible, so that DH methods can be cross-fertilized.

If you can find the money, support sending faculty and staff members to regional THATCamps. Such humanities-and-technology camps are among the most economical options. And because of their open-ended, collaborative nature, they are the least intimidating and most beneficial to novices. On the other hand, such international events as the Digital Humanities Summer and Winter Institutes can provide an extraordinary, intensive experience in more-focused methods, such as geographic information systems.

Seek external partnerships. Share resources with other liberal-arts colleges and regional consortia, and consider using technology to create cross-institutional courses and projects. Reach out to nearby universities, especially ones with digital-humanities centers. They can offer specialized courses for your faculty members and students, and provide lecturers or postdocs to assist in the development of your DH program.

Seek opportunities to join or organize collaborative partnerships at the national level, including faculty exchanges with leading centers that provide support for specific kinds of research.

Strive to be a "servant leader." Build an extensive portfolio of service commitments so that you are aware of opportunities to unite common interests, and so that you can keep your project on the minds of a wide range of people. Do not neglect seemingly minor posts, such as advising internship programs. My experience is that such internship programs are often looking for students who can combine traditional liberal-arts skills and digital expertise. In fact, joining DH to the workplace may be one of the best ways to enhance the marketability of a liberal-arts education.

Think of your main duty as providing a place where others can grow and exceed their goals. Invest as much as you can in the success of your colleagues and students, while keeping in mind the benefit of their service to the larger institution.

Pursuing the digital humanities at a small liberal-arts college is not easy, but then, it's not easy at research universities, either. The challenges are significant in both contexts, but if you believe in the importance of this kind of work and see its potential, then it's effort well applied.

The digital humanities has the potential to revitalize what we do, and to justify continuing support from institutions, foundations, academic administrations, the government, and the general public. The DH'ers—or DLA'ers—are among the hardest-working people I know in higher education, but they also are among the most optimistic about the future and the most confident in the value of what they are doing.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker. Many of his previous columns were published under a pseudonym, Thomas H. Benton. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.

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