On the Death of the Digital Humanities Center

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.[pullquote align="right"]There will always be digital humanities centers. But not for us.[/pullquote]

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.

11 thoughts on “On the Death of the Digital Humanities Center

  1. We lost our DH Center (Humanitech) at UC Irvine last year. It was shuttered on its 10th anniversary due to budgetary issues. Here’s the old website: http://www.humanities.uci.edu/humanitech/about/about.html

    In its place I’ve been working to create inter-campus collaborations of DH scholars (since I don’t have a DH center, I’ll ride on the coattails of campuses who are better funded & more forward-thinking than mine!). The DHSocal site is my/our most recent effort in that vein: http://dhsocal.blogspot.com/p/about.html

  2. Ok, Mark, this is great advice. But, how will those camps and discrete collaborative relationships have any wider impact. Everyone will re-invent the wheel every time? That’s just not feasible and it’s not realistic for most faculty who have absolutely zero funding for anything outside the traditional scholarship.

    • Kathy, I certainly wouldn’t want everyone to reinvent the wheel every time. There’s a tremendous amount we can learn from each other. In fact, this is a strong argument for making our digital humanities work public—and public at every stage in the process. This is one role that the flagship digital humanities center can (and are) taking—to act as repositories as knowledge and resources they we can all share and build upon. Think of it as a Digital Humanities Commons.

      • I would love this, but it’s not happening yet, the sharing, I mean, not on a scale that I can bring to my university. (Admittedly, we’re a hot mess here red-tape wise.) DHers do it via a community that’s been self-generated. But, that ebbs and flows, too. Anecdotally: my library desires to coordinate with faculty, but doesn’t do it effectively. The Library School is hugely generous but seriously disenfranchised from the rest of the univ and especially the library (old fights & politics). Faculty are using digital tools in the classrooms to great success, but there’s no centralized dissemination of this info. Faculty are creating totally cool digital things, but there’s no way to know this on our campus or even all other 22 CSUs. (Same with the UCs, by the way.) Stanford is fairly fractured in DH but attempting to get stuff off the ground. Berkeley, hmmm, don’t know other than Project Bamboo. UC Santa Barbara, great stuff! but completely underfunded. Santa Clara Univ, awesome! but private univ and keeps to self. This is just NorCal (sort of). There are so many worthy projects but not enough Centers to support.

        Let me say again, Project Bamboo was proposing answers this stuff but it got derailed with Mellon funding shifts and quite frankly much of the DH Community was skeptical and chose not to participate. I’m still not sure why.

        • Mark’s comment about the “Digital Humanities Commons” and Kathy’s reply re: her campus library point the way toward a possible hybrid solution. Some of us in the library community have been building on the Information Commons (IC) model begun at Iowa and USC in the early 90′s to create expanded learning support collaboratives often called Learning Commons (LC) or sometimes still called IC’s. A colleague of mine is completing a dissertation that studies about 150 such facilities, & I’ve done several articles & a book on the topic. I helped start one at UNC-Charlotte in 97 (still extant) and just got a $100K grant to do a new LC at nearby Belmont Abbey College. Here are two reasons Digital Humanities Center advocates should take a close look at the IC/LC model: 1) they are often immensely popular with students to the extent that they become very hard to kill off; an new library director at one university was unable to kill its resident IC because students consistently rated it the #1 learning support unit on that campus (that IC “outlived” that library director); 2) some leading edge LC’s, like the Weigle IC at Penn and the Harrington LC at Santa Clara, are learning how to engage faculty early-adopters with new IT leartning initiatives, and others, such as the Champlain College IC, by hosting or co-hosting Faculty Development Centers. A last comment: don’t allow your perceptions of the potential of this IC/LC phenomenon to be constrained either by local attitudes or by the reporting on the phenomenon in outlets like the Chronicle, which has tended to repeat the reductive “computer lab in the library” cliche. Coverage in Campus Technology has been marginally better, but not by much. I do fear we are at risk of falling behind Europe, Australia, and Japan at leveraging this opportunity for collaboration. Both the UK’s Journal of Library Administration and Japan’s Nagoya University Annals have devoted entire issues to the IC/LC movement within the past year.

  3. Not sure if this is a different ending to the same story or just a more upbeat way of looking at the situation? Suppose that Digital Humanities Centers are indeed doing useful work and that over time the sort of work they’re doing comes to define what research in the humanities is all about and everyone’s using those tools and instead of it being confined to “centers” the idea spreads and absorbs the part that today isn’t digital humanities… Centers don’t exist in that scenario either but it will be because they succeeded in leading the way to the new humanities research.

    • Kay, I think this is our preferred path to obsolescence: the digital humanities becoming so pervasive and integrated into the rest of academia that digital humanities centers are no longer even necessary.

      • Kay says pretty much what I was going to say. In this vision of the future, DH centers become obsolete because the digital humanities become simply part of the humanities (or: the digital humanities become humanities). I hope that’s where we are headed. In fact I’ve argued with people who have been doing DH much longer than myself that rather than Digital Humanities centers we should have Humanities centers (that is, we should stop separating the two altogether) and been scoffed at, but maybe now is finally the time for integration.

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