Digital humanities scholars are like Silicon Valley ‘disruptors’

Controversial article argues such academics are – intentionally or not – leading a ‘neoliberal takeover of colleges and universities

May 9, 2016
Digital footprint

Many humanities scholars have praised the digital humanities as one of the more promising developments for their disciplines. But a recent article in the Los Angeles Review of Books compares digital humanities scholars to “Silicon Valley ‘disruptors’”, saying that they are leading a “corporatist restructuring” of their fields.

The article, written by three digital culture studies and English professors at Carleton University in Canada, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of the West of England, has once again brought to light the polarisation among humanities scholars. Some have applauded co-authors Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette and David Golumbia for their “devastating critique”, while others have dismissed the article outright for being too one-sided.

“What digital humanities is not about, despite its explicit claims, is the use of digital or quantitative methodologies to answer research questions in the humanities,” the article reads. “It is, instead, 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.”

In a follow-up email, the authors added, When the focus is on skills training, the building of highly expensive tools and archives and the management of teams, critical thought tends to be pushed to the margins.

The article is the latest think-piece questioning the value of using digital tools and techniques in humanities disciplines. In 2014, for example, a trio of columns in Slate, Ozy and the New Republic criticised the hype around the digital humanities, questioning whether the interest was a passing fad.

Allington, Brouillette and Golumbia do not treat the digital humanities as a joke, however. They trace the history of the digital humanities movement back to the subfields of textual studies and humanities computing, writing that it “was born from disdain and at times outright contempt, not just for humanities scholarship, but for the standards, procedures and claims of leading literary scholars”.

The argument exposes the conflict at the heart of the article – between traditional interpretive literary scholarship and research that produces digital archives and tools. Connected to that conflict is a debate about the role of organisations such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Google and the National Endowment for the Humanities, whose earmarked grants for digital humanities projects are funding a shift away from the former and towards the latter (a topic others have previously touched on). Finally, the article concludes with critical look at the diversity within the digital humanities movement, “whose key figures remain (mostly) white men.

Together, these three points of criticism add up to an argument that digital humanities are promoting a “neoliberal takeover” of universities, leading to a Silicon Valley-like situation in which tech skills are valued more highly than other skills, diversity is yet another buzzword and success as faculty members in the humanities is defined by how much they are able to secure in grant money, the authors write.

“From the viewpoint of the neoliberal university, the best kind of research (and the kind to be most handsomely rewarded) is the kind that brings in the most external funding,” the article reads. “This is one of the main reasons why the digitization of archives and the development of software tools – conspicuously expensive activities that influential funding bodies have enthusiastically supported – can exert such powerful attraction, effectively enabling scholarship to be reconfigured on the model of the tech start-up, with public, private and charitable funding in place of Silicon Valley venture capital.”

Instead of expanding the scope of their departments, digital humanities scholars are making gains by displacing other forms of scholarship, the authors write. “It unavoidably also suggests that other approaches in the humanities fit less well into the contemporary university, because the implied measure of success is economic.”

Critics have responded to the article differently, some addressing the issue of diversity, others unpacking the term “neoliberalism”. One commonly heard counterargument is that the article generalises the digital developments in the various humanities disciplines and across colleges of different size and type.

“You can’t say digital humanities is one thing,” Martha Nell Smith, founding director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, said in an interview. “When tools are emphasised at the expense of the scholarship being produced, there have been problems. On the other hand, there are some terrific movements within the digital humanities.”

Smith said that the article is another example of the “conglomeration of arguments” against the digital humanities that crop up from time to time. Smith was quoted in the article, which she said contained points she agreed with and others she disagreed with.

“I don’t see a reason for the discussion to be polarised, and its seems like that’s happened in the responses to the article,” Smith, professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park, said. “It’s not black and white.”

Alan Liu, a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara whose 2012 essay was quoted in the article to make a point about the influence of funding agencies, tweeted a similar critique. He criticised the article for being “an attempt at a last word foreclosing the critical potential of [digital humanities]”, saying that it doesn’t see the “nuance that digital humanists have real critical goals too”.

Roopika Risam, assistant professor of English at Salem State University, in a blog post debated the “ethical imperative” for digital humanities scholars. She pointed out that institutions such as hers – regional public universities – are often left out of the debate about the digital humanities even though they (and community colleges) make up the largest segment of higher education by student enrollment.

“In fact, our undergraduate and graduate students are our only rationale for doing digital humanities,” Risam wrote. “We couldn’t be farther from the cartoonish fantasy of digital humanities that circulates in the clickbait du jour.”

This article first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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Reader's comments (1)

Here I sit using Linux and OpenSource apps to manipulate big data from the National Probate Calendar, Census returns, and London Gazette through nominal records linkage. There is marginal cost. Now, these other scholars sit there with their expensive Apple and Microsoft OS and programmes/apps to wordprocess. The essential cost is proprietary IT like Apple and Microsoft which two oligopolies are also (allegedly) gross tax avoiders. You are the cost.

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