Two or three years ago it’d be difficult to imagine a university shuttering an internationally recognized program, one of the leading such programs in the country.
Oh, wait. Never mind.
That happens all the time.
My own experience tells me that it’s usually a marginalized field, using new methodologies, producing hard-to-classify work, heavily interdisciplinary, challenging many entrenched institutional forces, and subject to an endless number of brutal personal and professional territorial battles. American Studies, Cultural Studies, Folklore Studies. It’s happened to them all.
Sometimes the programs die a slow death, downsized from a department to a program, then to a center, and finally to a URL. They’re dismantled one esteemed professor at a time, their budgets and their space shrinking ever smaller, their funding for graduate students dwindling to nothing. Sometimes the programs die spectacularly fast but no less ignobly, the executioner’s axe visible only in the instant replay. The recession makes this quick death easy to rationalize from a state legislator’s or university administrator’s perspective. Today’s cutting edge initiative is tomorrow’s expendable expenditure.
Indeed, financial considerations seem to have driven a provost-appointed task force’s recommendation that the renowned film studies program at the University of Iowa be eliminated. Such drastic cutbacks make me wonder about innovative programs at my own university, where the state is sharply curtailing public funding. (The state has funded up to 70% of George Mason University’s budget in the recent past, but now Virginia only provides 25%, a figure that is certain to fall even lower in the years ahead.) And then I wonder about innovative programs and initiatives at other colleges and universities.
And then I fear for the digital humanities center.
There is no single model for the digital humanities center. Some focus on pedagogy. Others on research. Some build things. Others host things. Some do it all. Regardless, in most cases the digital humanities center is institutionally supported, grant dependent, physically situated, and powered by vision and personnel. A sudden change in any one of these underpinnings can threaten the existence of the entire structure.
Despite the noise at last year’s MLA Convention that the digital humanities were an emerging recession-proof, bubble-proof, bullet-proof field in academia, I fear for this awkward new hybrid. Funding is tight and it’s only going to get tighter. Sustainability is the biggest issue facing digital humanities centers across the country. Of course, digital humanities centers are often separate from standard academic units. I don’t know whether this auxiliary position will help or hurt them. In either case, it’s not unreasonable to assume that some of the digital humanities centers around today will ultimately disappear.
The death of the digital humanities center. It’s not inevitable everywhere, but it will happen somewhere.
Let me be clear: I am a true believer in the value of the digital humanities center, a space where faculty, students, and researchers can collaborate and design across disciplines, across technologies, across communities. I cut my own chops in the nineties working on the American Studies Crossroads Project, one of the only groups at the time seriously looking at how digital tools were transforming research and learning. I’m grateful to have friends in several of the most impressive digital humanities outfits on the East Coast. I have the feeling that the Center for History and New Media will always be around. The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities is not going anywhere. The Scholars’ Lab will continue to be a gem at the University of Virginia.
There will always be some digital humanities center. But not for most us.
Most of us working in the digital humanities will never have the opportunity to collaborate with a dedicated center or institute. We’ll never have the chance to work with programmers who speak the language of the humanities as well as Perl, Python, or PHP. We’ll never be able to turn to colleagues who routinely navigate grant applications and budget deadlines, who are paid to know about the latest digital tools and trends—but who’d know about them and share their knowledge even if they weren’t paid a dime. We’ll never have an institutional advocate on campus who can speak with a single voice to administrators, to students, to donors, to publishers, to communities about the value of the digital humanities.
Fortunately even digital humanities centers themselves realize this—as well as funders such as the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities and the Mellon Foundation—and outreach has become a major mission for the digital humanities.
And fortunately too, a digital humanities center is not the digital humanities. The digital humanities—or I should say, digital humanists—are much more diverse, much more dispersed, and stunningly resourceful to boot.
So if you’re interested in the transformative power of technology upon your teaching and research, don’t sit around waiting for a digital humanities center to pop up on your campus or make you a primary investigator on a grant.
Act as if there’s no such thing as a digital humanities center.
Instead, create your own network of possible collaborators. Don’t hope for or rely upon institutional support or recognition. To survive and thrive, digital humanists must be agile, mobile, insurgent. Decentralized and nonhierarchical.
Stop forming committees and begin creating coalitions. Seek affinities over affiliations, networks over institutes.
Centers, no. Camps, yes.