BY AARON BARLOW
Every discipline falls into a pattern of standard practice; every few years each must reassess. The same is true for the institutions that house them. This happens, of course, too rarely—in both cases.
Over the weekend, I read two pieces—an essay and a book review—that made me think about the staleness that has overtaken both my field (speaking most broadly) of English and the institutions that house it. The first, by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette and David Golumbia, explores the rise of Digital Humanities as an institutional force, especially within English departments. The second is Matthew Abraham’s review of Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All Administrative University. Though they may seem distinct at first glance, the topics addressed are closely related.
My own hesitations concerning Digital Humanities have a somewhat different genesis than Allington, et al. Specifically, DH tends to reduce the items of my consideration from dynamic to static, making counting more important than understanding—or enjoyment (after all, the first—or second, if you are Philip Sidney—purpose of literature is entertainment). I tend to look at everything I examine as parts of conversations, my attitude stemming from what I learned in B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior about the active nature of grammar. Unable to encompass the speaker/vehicle/audience turning gyre, DH provides little of particular use to me.
That DH has something of a pernicious institutional presence, yes, I was aware but brushed it off. When DHers, a few years ago, were demanding ‘a place at the institutional table,’ I turned away. That sort of jockeying seemed simply careerism of no interest to me. Since then, I have rolled my eyes as colleagues have told me they are attempting to include DH components in applications for NEH grants and others, aware that this had become the flavor-of-the-month. I simply step aside from any involvement (I don’t want the focus of my work determined by funding bodies).
I should have been paying closer attention.
Allington, et al write that DH is:
about the promotion of project-based learning and lab-based research over reading and writing, the rebranding of insecure campus employment as an empowering “alt-ac” career choice, and the redefinition of technical expertise as a form (indeed, the superior form) of humanist knowledge. This is why Digital Humanities is pushed far more strongly by university administrators than it is by scholars and students.
‘Sure,’ I would have said, ‘but what does that have to do with me?’ And I might have, still, had I not also been looking at Abraham’s review.
Ginsberg’s book is one I probably should already have read. According to Abraham, Ginsberg argues that:
If the administrative apparatus continues to grow at its present rate, university professors may very well disappear themselves. Administrators have been clever in exploiting the university’s bureaucracy in advancing administrative interests while marginalizing faculty expertise, concerns, and perspectives.
What has that got to do with DH? Abraham writes that “Administrators are smart enough to know that they must avoid forums where probing arguments and the presentation of convincing evidence will be required.” DH, according to Allington, et al, is just the sort of field that reduces argument to nullity by replacing it with data. It is also an upending of the academic applecart, in the humanities, at least:
The goal was not merely to show what technical expertise could bring to humanities research. Rather, it was to redefine what had been formerly classified as support functions for the humanities as the very model of good humanities scholarship.
This, of course, plays right into the hands of those who, according to Ginsberg, are attempting to create the all-administrative university. When support moves to domination, the traditional center of the university, the faculty, is easily displaced. The technicians who once made the research aspect of faculty jobs more fruitful now are moving into control of that research, making the faculty less and less necessary.
Though I first became involved with computers in the university when a grad student in the early eighties, though I have written extensively on New Media, and though I use digital tools extensively in my own research and writing, I never thought of what I was doing as falling under the DH umbrella. I don’t want to focus my writing on my tools—unless, as in my writings on New Media, I am looking at the cultural impact of those tools. This places me squarely within the Cultural Studies field and far away from how I saw DH envisioned. I know (and have known) that there are others who see DH in a much more expansive fashion, but I was never comfortable with the centrality of the tools that even the name ‘Digital Humanities’ implies.
However, I never made the connection that I now see to the all-administrative university. Abraham, when he wonders what it would take to put together a career in such a place, makes me think of too many of the claims of DH, especially in light of what I read from Allington, et al. Abraham writes about his imagined career:
The first thing I would have to do is avoid any and all political controversy in my scholarship and public utterances, even going so far as to excise any evidence of previous strong commitments to unpalatable causes and charged statements about relevant issues. I might even go so far as to renounce these past allegiances as youthful errors.
That, in many respects, is just where DH can take us, if we aren’t careful.
However, as Allington, et al conclude:
In the academy and outside of it, the privileging of technical expertise above other forms of knowledge is a political gesture, and one that has proved highly effective in neutralizing critique of established power relations. We offer our analysis of the Digital Humanities social movement as a way of resisting that gesture and as an inducement to other scholars to do the same.
My hat tips to them. We all should join in the resistance.
But we also need to start developing alternatives, both in our disciplines and institutionally.