Time and Archaeological Legacy Data

With the ASOR annual meeting not even begun, I’m already being gently nudged to think about my paper for the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in January. Fotini Kondyli and Jon Frey have organized a panel on legacy data in archaeology, and according to the abstract that I wrote a few months ago, my paper will talk about flow and how scrutinizing the concept of flow can help us understand the archaeological argumentation and narrative.

Here’s my abstract

The more that I’ve thought about this paper, the more the first couple of lines in the abstract have stuck with me: “The notion of legacy data is an artifact of contemporary digital archaeology. Archaeologists define legacy data as information that is incommensurate with contemporary digital practices and standards.” 

This got me thinking about how legacy data fits into our notions of archaeological time. It seems to me that archaeologists generally have three notions of time in mind when they do their work. They tend to function in slightly different ways and can accommodate each other n varying ways.  

1. Archaeological Time. This is the basic framework for most archaeology. It assumes that the object of archaeological study is in a different time from that of the archaeologist. It allows us to see a past as “the past” and to think about what we do as “objectively” in the sense that it is fundamentally separate from who we are. The division between our time and archaeological time historically has tended to frame our object of study as part of the not-modern or pre-modern world. It’s not just the past, but a past that is distinct enough from the present to represent something discrete and worth studying through archaeological methods.   

2. Methodological Time. Methodological time represents the modern assumption that archaeologists are constantly improving our methods and practices. As a result, the archaeological knowledge that we have produced in the present is better than the archaeological knowledge that we have produced in the past. The best example of this kind of time is in the name of the SAA’s journal of archaeological methods: Advances in Archaeological Practice. Archaeological science, archaeological methods, and archaeology in general advances to produce a better, clearer, or improved view of the past.

3. Ethical Time. I am still attempting to understand completely what ethical time is an archaeologist. It manifests itself most frequently in debates over the repatriation of artifacts. Archaeologists understand, of course, that returning say a Greek or Egyptian artifact to the modern nation of Greece or Egypt does not under any systematic understanding of the word “repatriate” return an object to the same people or state or even cultural entity that existed in the past. We are not returning an object to ancient Greece and in some case, like the Parthenon Marbles, we’re not not even proposing to return an object to the same political entity from which they were taken. This is particularly complicated for debates over the repatriation of artifacts to say, Lebanon, from Turkish museums. In many cases, these objects became part of these collections when Lebanon or Syria were part of the Ottoman state. The Ottoman state no longer exists. At the same time, the post-Ottoman nations of Lebanon and Syria have claims to their pre-Ottoman past in the service of modern nation building and in the construction of narratives that produce a meaningful past to communities living in those areas.

This is a complicated time to understand as an archaeologist and unlike the more or less linear time of archaeological methodologies or the fragmented time, stratigraphic time of the archaeological past, ethical time in archaeology tends to be recursive, spiraling, and grounded in contemporary commemorative practices that many scholars will argue emerged in the second half of the 20th century as a counterpoint to the dour rationality of historical thinking that so often seems to contravene the work of nation building.

(4. Material Time? One could argue that archaeologists are increasingly coming to recognize material time especially as we have come to address the “material turn” in historical and archaeological thinking. This time reflects the varied ways in which material change and how we understand the persistence of particular material as fundamental to shaping the archaeological record. This is different from archaeological time because it recognizes that objects carry with them a multiplicity of times that allow them to exist both in the past and in the present.) 

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Legacy data itself exists at the intersection of methodological and ethic time in archaeology. On the one hand, much of the conversation concerning legacy data – or publishing the results of past archaeological work – is grounded in the ethical assertion that because archaeology is, in some ways, “destructive,” (or perhaps better, involve “recontextualizing” material) we have an obligation to justify the recontextualization of this material through publication. Unpublished material, even if it remains secure in a storeroom, is no different than looted material in that its context is not made understandable. By publishing our work, we recontextualize material and “restore” it to a particular kind of time. This has nice parallels to the work of archaeologists to repatriate finds and restore these objects to a chronological and political context that benefits (generally speaking) a colonized community’s ability to produce a meaningful historical and commemorative narrative for their own society.    

On the other hand, legacy data presents a problem for archaeologists’ sense of methodological time. Because we have tended to see our discipline as always advancing toward new ways of recovering the past and contributing to the present, legacy data is often seen as flawed or, worse still, obsolete. Our field continues to privilege new projects, especially for the career advancement of early career scholars, at the expense of the long and frequently compromised grind of legacy projects.

My work at Polis is a great example of how legacy projects force us to think in three times at once. On the one hand, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition was probably the last major American excavation in the Mediterranean not to employ a stratigraphic system in excavation. Instead they dug in levels and passes which may or may not have been stratigraphic. They also regularly ignored “last in, first out” and had multiple contexts open at the same time. 

It is possible, of course, to restore some sense of stratigraphic control to the excavation because many of the excavators understood the concepts of formation and depositional processes. Moreover a simple application of the rules of superposition still apply allow us to broadly understand that lower levels are earlier than higher levels whenever we can safely assume some kind of controlled of systematic deposition. With a few basic understandings cobbled from the methods of contemporary archaeological work, we can start to reconstruct the past at the site of Polis. 

Moreover, this offers us an ethical way to recontextualize the excavated material at the site. The value of this material is that we can make it speak through contemporary methodological expectations to the past. 

Finally, we might even argue that our work to address the legacy material from Polis has pushed us to think about how various kinds of legacy data exist within their own material worlds. We started with the paper notebooks produced over the course of excavations at the site and the artifacts from the dig dutifully stored in wooden trays and paper boxes. We then converted these artifacts into digital objects in databases which allowed us to recombine them in new ways. We’ve also started to think about how to publish or at very least archive our digital data in ways that ensures that they are more widely available than paper copies of records and artifacts in storerooms. We also anticipate, in some way, that our digital artifacts might last longer than the paper records produced by the site. The time of the varying materials shape our strategies. 

Obviously all these ideas need further refinement and expansion, but there will be time for that…  

Dissecting Digital Divides: Mostly Final Draft

There’s one more week before the start of classes, and I’m trying to wrap up some small projects that have been lingering around all summer.

The first one on the list is putting together the “almost final version” of my paper for last fall’s DATAM: Digital Approaches for Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean conference at NYU’s ISAW (I wrote a little review of that conference here). The Digital Press is going to publish a small, but intriguing collection of papers from that conference with a short introduction and conclusion. 

My paper considered the various digital divides in my classrooms at the University of North Dakota. The first divide is the conventional difference between students who have access to technology and those who do not. This shapes how they engage and use technology in their everyday lives. The second-level divide involves the willingness of individuals to produce as well as consume digital media. Finally, because I really can’t help myself, I offered a critique of how prosumer culture has shaped the way that I taught in a Scale-Up style classroom. Some of this critique came from an unpublished paper that I wrote with a graduate student many years ago (you can read that unpublished paper here).  

If you’re interested in my paper, “Dissecting Digital Divides,” you can check it out here and stay tuned for the volume later this fall!! 

End of Blogs?

Last week Neville Morely wrote a little piece on his declining blog statistics over at his Sphinx blog and has since followed it up with a new podcast. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast yet and I should have commented on his blog post when he asked other bloggers to chime in on their statistics. I feel like I let the community down.

If I look closely, I can tell that my visitor and page view numbers are down. At the same time, my monthly averages appear steady (or even slightly improved) over the past five or six years. My March numbers, for example, were 106 page views per day which is the highest since 2015 and the fourth highest total in the last 9 years. Two very popular posts, however, in the first half of the month drove a good bit of the traffic. These posts circulated rather widely (for me) on Twitter and Facebook, and social media platforms accounted for over 500 page views (or about 18% of the traffic). In an ordinary month, Twitter and Facebook account for 5%-8% of views. Despite my erratic use of social media to promote my blog, it is notable that for 10 of the last 12 months, my page views have been high than the previous year and for 8 of the last 12 months, they’ve been the strongest since 2015.

It is worth noting, however, that my 2014 and 2015 page views were also buoyed by a series of very prominent posts that led to spikes in traffic. Most of these spikes, like the publication of Punk Archaeology or Visions of Substance, tended to have a much longer tale and while they were abrupt, they attracted readers to my blog for months. 

It may be that the shorter term spikes in my blog’s page views reflects the function of blogs within at least American academia has changed. When I started my blog I wanted both to draw the public into my research and give them a bit of a perspective on how scholars (and, in particular, archaeologists) build their arguments. In fact, I celebrated the fuzziness of the knowledge making the process and the ragged edges of what we know. This seemed like a good thing to do at the time when fetishization of “facts” was undermining the careful work of scholars in the humanities to present a world where structures, power, and practice matter more than black and white judgements. Today, this mission seems more problematic and my audience, perhaps, less interested and sympathetic.

Today, my most popular posts serve as open letters which attempt to address issues that face my discipline and academia more broadly. The audience is more academic, more engaged with social, political, and economic situation within academia, and less curious about how knowledge is made in my little corner of the discipline. This isn’t meant as a critique or even criticism of my readers, blogging, or academia, but speaks to the shifting landscape of blogging as practice. Instead of blogs maturing into a less-formal and more intimate complement to the scholarly discourse, blogs have become places where we negotiate the social conscience of our fields. This is not a bad thing, but it creates a different rhythm of blog viewing. 

Indexes and the Bakken

I’ve recently become fascinated by indexes. Partly this stemmed from a rather arduous effort to index our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology (2018). Partly my interests stem from thinking about how and whether indices matter in the age of digital books. The ability to search a document for a particular word, for example, makes the conventional index of proper names and key terms irrelevant.

Indexes also have strange relationship to the world of the hyperlink. On the one hand, an indexes represent a one-to-many relationship. One terms links to many places. Hyperlinks are one-to-one links that connect one term to one place. In this sense, a conventional index is a helpful thing. 

On the other hand, most relationships in a text are actually many-to-many. In other words, a range of possible relationships exist for any location in a text. These range from the relative simple relationship between words or concepts that are either identical lexically or so similar to be virtually synonyms to the much more complex and fuzzy relationship between related ideas, concepts, or even antonyms that require their opposite to produce meaning. Indexes, then, could relate to clouds of meaning, perhaps derived from text mining or other automated analysis of a work. This would offer a non-linear way to read a text and to understand its meaning.  

Recently, however, there have been some creative efforts to engage with the indexing as an explicitly creative act. Anyone who has prepared an index (or edited someone else index) recognizes the intellectual and creative work necessary to make it a useful tool for engaging a work, but this is rarely noted explicitly. Indexers, for example, are rarely formally credited for their work. 

In Lauren Berlant’s and Kathleen Stewart’s new book, The Hundreds, the authors invited five colleagues to prepare indexes to their book and these indexes with their authors offer strange wonderful, and intriguing ways of engaging the text. In Ana Paula Pais and Carolyn F. Strauss’s edited Slow Reader, they run the index on the margins of the page allowing a reader to find similar passages in other contributions and read across these passages rather than in a simply linear way.

Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to get a volume of interviews from the Bakken oil patch published, titled Voices of the Bakken and edited by Bret Weber. At various times, we’ve even released little previews of it. One of the challenges that we’ve faced is how to organize these interviews. Do we arrange them chronologically to map how attitudes toward the Bakken Boom changed over time? Do we arrange them thematically? Do we organize them according to location or the position of the individual interviewed? 

Here’s a word cloud based on that document.

Voyant Tools 2019 04 25 09 12 09

One way to produce this book is not to worry very much about how the chapters are organized in the volume. After all, someone is unlikely to read this volume start to finish. More than that, since the book will be published as both a digital and paper form, simple queries can be conducted digitally with the search function on any PDF reader. Complex queries, however, require more complex reading and indexing the volume. More than that, more complex queries depend upon more subtle readings that are invariably idiosyncratic or, at very least, dependent on the particular questions and interests of a particular reader. I’d be particularly intrigued by an “affective index” that looks to understand the moods, feelings, and emotional character of the interviews. This would not, of course, preclude more conventional kinds of indexing that, say, explored relationships between individuals, a sense of home, or even just places or objects in the text.

What if we invited five or six readers to compile their own indexes to the interviews? These readers could engage these interviews in a range of ways that reflect their own research interests, which they could justify in a brief essay? Rather than indexing by page, we’d index by interview and include the key words that generated by the indexers at the conclusion of each interview, attributed to the authors, and with references to the other interviews.

This could get more wild, of course. We also have thousands of images that I started to analyze last year before getting distracted by other projects. These photos also need some kind of indexing to be useful and engaging. I’ve long considered publishing this data via, say, Open Context, but I wondered about the utility and value of a slightly organized dump of images. Maybe these images would be more useful if they were indexed according to some of the same criteria that our indexers would create for the Voices of the Bakken volume. After all, our interviews and archaeological investigation of workforce housing in the Bakken informed one another. There are obvious links between these two data sets, but also the potential for more creative ways to link these two sets of documents.

A project that links the interviews and the images would embody some of the ideas behind “slow data” that archaeologists have discussed recently. It would also demonstrate explicitly how publishing and curating data is work that creates new constellations of knowledge that revolve around critical engagement that starts in the field and continues through the organization of data for publication. 

To be clear, I haven’t yet convinced the editor of these interviews to go along with this kind of approach, and I’m not sure that I could find willing indexers. More than that, indexing thousands of photos seems like a daunting task, but one that would be worth it even if done on a relatively small scale. 

Politics of Mass Digitization

This weekend I read and really enjoyed Nanna Bonde Thylstrup’s The Politics of Mass Digitization (2018). The book considered the approaches, implications, and politics behind the early 21st century move to mass digitization. Thylstrup unpacks the responses, for example, to Google Books from the European Union and their Europeana portal or platform to the various shadow libraries that emerged to provide access to collections overlooked or paywalled by conventional digitization schemes. It is a sophisticated, but accessible primer to the main issues surrounding mass digitization from a range of perspectives and theoretical paradigms. It’s good.

As someone who has thought a good bit about digitization in archaeology – although certainly not at the scale of Google Books, for example – and is alternately drawn to the potential of large scale digital collections and worried about the ways in which these collections tie archaeologists to ways of thinking, working, and interpreting, the book offers some useful observations. 

There are four that I found especially compelling:

1. Assemblages. Thylstrup emphasizes that the work of digitization is far more than simply a technical challenge or even economic or legal one. Instead, a wide range of pressures, technologies, systems, social expectations, rules, governments, and objects interact to shape mass digitization projects. This cautions us from reading mass digitization as simply a technical challenge that must be overcome or a set of legal or political challenges that will invariably give way to progress. It was particularly interesting to understand how various project – particularly the European, Europeana project – situated itself as a response to Google Books – and, as a result, showed the imprint of this formation on how it sought to preserve and disseminate European culture. At the same time, different European copyright laws, priorities, and the organization of cultural institutions, also gave Europeana a distinct character.   

2. Standardization. Anyone who has read this blog knows that standardization is something that has fascinated me over the last few years. The need to prepare archaeological data in such a way to make it susceptible to linked open data standards, for example, links standardization of data with certain expectations of use. Thylstrup noted that the need to standardize data in mass digitization, however, resisted the rigidity of the Fordist assembly line and instead promoted interoperability. This interoperability promoted the “free range of actions” and “innovation” that are so central to neoliberal ways of thinking. In other words, standardization is a method of displacing and decontextualizing information that allows for it to exist within a world that values the flexibility of use and reuse over the restrictive notions of context. This has obvious relevance for archaeology as it seeks to leverage both the potential of largescale linked datasets and the tradition of provenience and context.  

3. Labyrinths, Flaneurs, and Serendipity. One of the more intriguing sections of the book considers the models of discovery present in mass digitization projects. In particular, Thylstrup considers the the social context for serendipitous discover or the leisurely and unstructured encounter of the flaneur who invariably is a white, able-bodied, male. The labyrinth, in contrast, speaks to intimidating character of the digitized and seemingly infinite library that always is expanding. The need for the ambivalent figure of the disinterested flaneur to tame the terror of the always expanding labyrinth presents a compelling counterpoint to the economic and cultural imperative for standardization and the need to create digital objects that can freely mingle in the service of innovation. This is a subtle but fascinating critique that suggests that the very structure of the digital world serves to simultaneously intimidate and liberate, to make information useful and to promote serendipity, and to ultimate to reinscribe the control within a new space of digital encounters.

For an archaeologist, this reality should give us pause. After all, the importance of context and structure to the archaeological encounter motivates most of the fundamental positions in disciplinary ethics from the need to maintain and preserve an archive to our understanding of repatriation and provenience. By presenting data as both susceptible to the unconstrained ambivalence of the flaneur as well as the structured world of fragmented data, we’re creating a tension that challenges some of the basic professional expectations of our work.       

4. The Politics of the Digital World. Finally, Thylstrup’s work emphasizes in both the micro and macro level the role of politics in shaping mass digitization projects. While there is always as risk (as she herself notes) of using the word politics so broadly to undermine its very meaning, by recognizing the political character of the assemblages responsible for our digital repositories, she offers a useful lens through which to consider the power relations that even the most utopian mass digitization projects create and reinforce. 

This reminder that our digital world is fundamentally political is not new, but its always a useful reminder in an age where it becomes so easy to use and celebrate the potential of digital tools and data without much critique.

Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean

I’m off to New York this morning to give a paper at the Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. I’m also hoping to convince the participants (and hopefully some of the other folks who are doing using digital approaches to teach the ancient world) to publish a little book of the paper with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The hashtag is #DATAM and since the usual ancient world twitteroti will be in attendance, I suspect the twitter stream will be vibrant. Who knows, I might even flex my twitter fingers a bit.    

Conference Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean  Institute for the Study of the Ancient World 2018 10 25 05 57 48

If you follow the link above, you’ll see that there are some pretty interesting papers. For my part, I’ll be presenting on my use of the Scale-Up Classroom at UND to bridge digital divides. My paper is here.

Long time followers of the ole bloggeroo, will recognize that this paper is a version of a larger and more buttoned-down paper that I wrote in 2013-2014 on my experiences teaching in UND’s Scale-Up room. I still would like to send this out somewhere, but right now, it’s a pretty low priority!

 

Four Things on a Wednesday Morning

I had four more or less random thoughts on my drive onto campus this morning. 

1. Famae Volent. There has been a good bit of buzz around the Classics job-hunter site Famae Volent this month. Most of it stems from the increasingly toxic, relatively un-moderated, and thoroughly angst-fill comments section. The tone lately has been hostile with attacks, incendiary language, and lots of blaming.

I can’t help but thinking that this is, in part, the result of the general state of the humanities and particularly proximate sense of dread created by the growing momentum for various austerity projects at both private and public colleges. You’ve undoubtedly read enough about austerity on this blog, so I won’t rehash my arguments. What got me wondering this morning is whether (1) Famae Volent has been archived (it was only captured 17 times by the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine) and whether the language of the comments section has been analyzed systematically. I’d be curious whether the language in the comments has, in fact, become increasingly polarized (as some have suggested and I agree with instinctively), by what measure we could understand this, and whether the language in the comments has parallels with, say, our political discourse or various larger intellectual (or anti-intellectual) trends. 

This seems like it would be a cool project for a digitally inclined historian or Classicist. 

2. Re-Reading. I almost never re-read things. I mean, I will go back to a text to look for something or to check my notes or confirm a citation or even to make sure that I understood a complex passage correctly, but I rarely sit down and re-read an academic book. Last week, I agreed to review Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016), for the American Journal of ArchaeologyI even blogged on it briefly a couple of years ago, but to be honest I was a bit overwhelmed by the book and struggled to formulate a coherent critique. 

But now I have to! And what makes this review even more of an adventure is that the book has been pretty thoroughly reviewed across a wide range of literature. More than that, the AJA is aimed at Mediterranean and largely “Classical” archaeologists for whom this book should be relevant, but isn’t instinctively so. Stay tuned.

3. Racing the Bulldozer. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working to document the two Wesley College buildings at UND: Corwin/Larimore and Roberston/Sayre Halls. I learned just this week two bits of news. First, Corwin/Larimore is slated to begin asbestos mitigation later this month and second that the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office is going to require Standard II recording for both buildings. The former will speed our work up and require us to set some new priorities. The latter will involve us having to collaborate with UND to find the ideal partners to complete the necessary documentation.

The good thing about the decision of the ND SHPO is that it will require a basic history for the two buildings and a technical architectural description and we hopefully fold this into our more comprehensive analysis of these buildings, their change over time, and their abandonment. 

4. Rejections. I’m sitting in the morning light that rakes through the garden level windows of the NDQ offices and facing the unpleasant task of writing my first little gaggle of rejection emails. While I know this is part of the business, I still find it depressing. The sunlight is helping a bit though. Maybe it’s even symbolic. Something about the darkest and the dawn or whatever. 

Back to work… 

Announcing the Publication of Volume 1 of the Epoiesen Annual!

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is very excited to announce the publication of the first volume of the Epoiesen Annual. This is an annual volume based on the extraordinary new journal, Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement in History and Archaeology, edited by Shawn Graham and colleagues and hosted by the library at Carleton University in Ottawa. Check it out here.

Epoiesen (ἐποίησεν) – made – is a journal for exploring creative engagement with the past, especially through digital means. It publishes primarily what might be thought of as “paradata” or artist’s statements that accompany playful and unfamiliar forms of singing the past into existence.

What have you made? What will you make? This journal, in its online home, makes space to valorize and recognize the scholarly ways of knowing that are expressed well beyond the text. Bill White reminds us why society allows archaeologists to exist in the first place:

“it is to amplify the whispers of the past in our own unique way so they can still be heard today.”

The journal seeks “to document and valorize the scholarly creativity that underpins our representations of the past. Epoiesen is therefore a kind of witness to the implied knowledge of archaeologists, historians, and other professionals, academics and artists as it intersects with the sources about the past. It encourages engagement with the past that reaches beyond our traditional audience (ourselves).”

Download, explore, or buy it today!

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For a bit of the backstory, Epoiesen is really the work of a group of dedicated and innovative collaborators, editors, and partners, as Shawn Graham himself makes clear in the introduction. The native format for the journal is on the web, but Shawn reached out to The Digital Press in the middle of last year to explore producing a hybrid, print/digital (pdf) format. The hope is that this form will appeal to readers who more comfortable with print for reading, citing, and cataloging.

The work of the Digital Press, then, was largely translation from they dynamic digital form to the more conventional print-ready format which at times was a bit tricky, as even a quick review of the PDF will show. We adopted a format that intentionally played with the tidiness of the textbook and the grid, pushing images over the boundaries and outside of lines.

The cover is itself is a vibrant piece of scholarship thanks to Gabe Moshenska’s generous decision to make his book, Key Concepts in Public Archaeology, free and open access. For the cover design, we listened intently to the authors, members of the editorial board, and various sundry social media commentators. It seemed fitting that the cover emerged from the very creative, digitally mediate milieu that journal itself celebrates.

Finally, this project embodies the kind of laboratory publishing that The Digital Press has pursued since Punk Archaeology appeared four years ago. So it’s particularly fitting that on the fifth anniversary of the Punk Archaeology conference, some of the same collaborators (Andrew Reinhard, for example, designed the cover for Epoiesen) returned to the scene of the crime to produce this volume.

What’s the Matter with Digital Humanities?

Last week an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Timothy Brennan created a good bit of buzz in my social media world. The author declares, after a bit of muddled argument, that digital humanities is largely bust after carefully setting aside certain common digital tools like the “Moodles” and podcasts. In short, he suggests that DH has not lived up to the hype or realized the promised revolution, instead producing works that are more overstatement than substance.  

Whatever the merits of Brennan’s article, it suffers from a rather narrow reading of digital humanities (in which it recognizes “the Moddles” and not, say, Wikipedia, and lots of digital text projects and not as much attention to the use of digital tools in spatial analysis, “maker culture,” history, or archaeology) and probably a less than critical understanding of certain generic conventions in DH texts, like a penchant for overstatement, that the author should have recognized as part of a both historical and transdisciplinary trends in how we talk about technology. In other words, Brennan’s article is both overly narrow and not particularly deep in its reading of DH. 

At the same time, I did feel like the article did reflect a certain anxiety among people like me who hang around at the fringes of the DH movement, and I found some of the push back against it disconcerting. Brennan’s article is flawed, to be sure, but understand why this kind of article (and I’d group it with the better argued, but no less controversial article last year in the LARB) appears from time to time. I think there are five or six things.

1. DH and Analogue H. For the last 15 years or so, there has been a kind of rhetorical tension between DH and Analogue humanities. While both sides will agree that their larger goals are the same as are their methods, DH practice remains distinctive and it is often presented as the cutting edge alternative to the tired tradition of analogue or conventional humanities. Some of this comes from university administrators eager to demonstrate that even the hide-bound humanities have embraced technologies, and some of it comes from the humanities itself when DH projects have sought to distinguish their practices from convention in order to attract funding. Of course, it’s easy for those of us in the murky marshes between the digital and analogue conventions in our field to dismiss those inclined to divide the humanities into two types. This tendency from DH to take on the mantle of innovators and for this to divide digital from conventional humanities practices is a source of anxiety.

2. Institutional Narratives. At least some of this divisiveness derives from institutional narratives that seek to promote digital humanities as a high-tech alternative to traditional methods and humanities. This is tied to an effort to promote institutions as hotbeds of innovation and to celebrate breakthrough discoveries as evidence for their place on the cutting edge. In this way, it coincides with large trends in how the media, higher education, and national agencies have positioned cutting-edge humanities research as exciting, revolutionary, and oriented toward results rather than practices. Embodied in TED talks, idea summits, and various other high-profile gatherings or celebrations of the humanities elite, this result-oriented view of the humanities tends to run counter to the slow, incremental, process oriented slogging that makes up much humanities work. For every sensational TED-style presentation and discovery touting new technology, there are hundreds of hours and thousands of researchers slowly reading, thinking, teaching, and writing in traditional ways that are overlooked in the rush to the next idea festival or DH sensation. While a generous reading of this celebration of innovation imagines that it’ll raise all ships in the humanities, the reality is that the academy is an increasingly competitive place which competition for ever scarcer resources and support defining the relationship between and within units. When DH “wins” because it fits into the kind of sensational narratives promoted by universities, conventional humanities are positioned as losers, whether this is true or not.

3. The Rise of Technological Solutionism. I think some of the tension between DH approaches and conventional humanities comes from a tendency to conflate the practices of the traditional humanities with problems to be solved. Again, I’m not saying that this is a real tendency among digital humanities who obviously recognize the value of, say, slow reading of a body of text or the walking of the landscape, but the time consuming nature of these conventional practices tend to stand out in a world that celebrates speed, efficiency, and acceleration. Technology is frequently the solution to the problem of slow and deliberate research, just as “big data” has become “the solution” to narrow academic specialization It is easy enough to dismiss this kind of academic Taylorism as a red herring for the value of DH just as advocates of BIG DATA have stressed that our ability to process massive and complex datasets does not necessitate their creation. At the same time, there is a tendency to speed as solution to the “problem” of deliberate thinking with an eye toward break throughs and results that overshadow the value of process. This fits into institutional narratives of continuous improvement with speed being an easy to grasp and useful measure of success and reinforces the caricature of the plodding humanist toiling of his or her “life’s work.”

4. Technology and Corporate Influence. The landscape of corporate interest in Digital Humanities is difficult to parse and confusing. On the one hand, many of us cringe at the idea that we’re preparing our students in the humanities for lucrative middle-management careers using their digital skills in the corporate world. At the same time, it is hard to understate the importance of employment for students students who have taken on massive loans to pursue higher education and who fear that that their passion for texts and humanistic inquiry will lead them to life of penury. Digital humanities appears to some as the best of both worlds (or a problematic compromise) between skill-based education and practices of humanistic inquiry that seek to cultivate the whole person for a lifetime.

On the other hand, digital humanities has long been tangled with corporate interests that extends from support from digital giants like Google to the use of social networks for community building and the wide-spread adoption of for-profit technology in our daily work. In some ways, of course, this is unaided in the contemporary world and we can thank thoughtful DH scholars for pointing out the inconsistencies in our attitudes and practices. These inconsistencies, however, do lead to confusion and compromise that can produce a palpable frustration among scholars who look to DH practitioners for guidance in the murky world of technology and corporate/college interaction.

5. Uneven distribution of DH rewards. I think some of the anxiety felt by non-DH scholars is that many of us WANT to be more deeply involved in the digital humanities, but the promise of more egalitarian and even distributed of DH technologies, appears to be oversold. The difference between access to support and technology at well-heeled liberal arts colleges and major state universities and smaller and less wealthy second and third tier schools is more dramatic than many DH practitioners suspect. While this unevenness can easily be dismissed as no more dramatic than the unevenness of other resources and exceptions abound, I’d contend that the division between lower-tier universities as consumers of open digital humanities projects and higher-tier schools as producers will only become more dramatic despite the institutional rhetoric that celebrates innovation. This irony probably accounts for some of the most palpable frustration at the most elaborate pronouncements of DH utopianism. 

The point of this rather lengthy response is not to give Brennan too much credit for his somewhat muddled article, to blame DH for current in higher education that are far beyond the control of a relatively small group of scholars or to take any credit away from scholars who have done meaningful and in some cases sensational research using digital tools. Instead, I am trying to articulate my own frustration as an outsider to many of the cutting-edge digital practices in the fields of history and archaeology and trying to anchor it in certain discursive trends rather than the complicated realities of humanities research and their significance and impacts. For a more thoughtful critique of Brennan’s article, do check out Sarah Bond’s response

Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto

I am really excited to share Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto with the world. This small book emerged over the course of my graduate historiography seminar. The student authors, Peter Baganz, Yonca Çubuk, Nicholas Graves, Joseph Kalka, Matthew G. Marsh, Janet Wolf Strand, and Susanne Watt wrote, edited and compiled this little book in response to learning that our graduate program had been defunded and the current cohort of graduate students would be the last for at least a little while.

The book contains a series of essays that explore the intersection of the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota, the character of higher education in the 21st century, and the role of humanities and history, in particular, in the past and future of American life. The essays are sharp, critical, and do not shy away from controversy or provocation.

The work benefited from a round of public comments that served as a kind of peer review. You can see the comments here.

The work concludes with a sweeping call to action that embodies the arguments throughout the book:

  • Apply historical thinking to higher education policy decisions.
  • Recognize the relationship between higher education and community building.
  • Understand that the historical success of the American university as a means of promoting prosperity is not necessarily linked to job creation.
It’s free, it’s provocative, and it balances the immediacy of the the UND budget situation with the perspective of history and the past.

 

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