The digital humanities is not about building, it’s about sharing

Radiohead CrowdEvery scholarly community has its disagreements, its tensions, its divides. One tension in the digital humanities that has received considerable attention is between those who build digital tools and media and those who study traditional humanities questions using digital tools and media. Variously framed as do vs. think, practice vs. theory, or hack vs. yack, this divide has been most strongly (and provocatively) formulated by Stephen Ramsay. At the 2011 annual Modern Language Association convention in Los Angeles, Ramsay declared, “If you are not making anything, you are not…a digital humanist.”

I’m going to step around Ramsay’s argument here (though I recommend reading the thoughtful discussion that ensued on Ramsay’s blog). I mention Ramsay simply as an illustrative example of the various tensions within the digital humanities. There are others too: teaching vs. research, universities vs. liberal arts colleges, centers vs. networks, and so on. I see the presence of so many divides—which are better labeled as perspectives—as a sign that there are many stakeholders in the digital humanities, which is a good thing. We’re all in this together, even when we’re not.

I’ve always believed that these various divides, which often arise from institutional contexts and professional demands generally beyond our control, are a distracting sideshow to the true power of the digital humanities, which has nothing to do with production of either tools or research. The heart of the digital humanities is not the production of knowledge; it’s the reproduction of knowledge. I’ve stated this belief many ways, but perhaps most concisely on Twitter: [blackbirdpie url=”″]The promise of the digital is not in the way it allows us to ask new questions because of digital tools or because of new methodologies made possible by those tools. The promise is in the way the digital reshapes the representation, sharing, and discussion of knowledge. We are no longer bound by the physical demands of printed books and paper journals, no longer constrained by production costs and distribution friction, no longer hampered by a top-down and unsustainable business model. And we should no longer be content to make our work public achingly slowly along ingrained routes, authors and readers alike delayed by innumerable gateways limiting knowledge production and sharing.

I was riffing on these ideas yesterday on Twitter, asking, for example, what’s to stop a handful of of scholars from starting their own academic press? It would publish epub books and, when backwards compatibility is required, print-on-demand books. Or what about, I wondered, using Amazon Kindle Singles as a model for academic publishing. Imagine stand-alone journal articles, without the clunky apparatus of the journal surrounding it. If you’re insistent that any new publishing venture be backed by an imprimatur more substantial than my “handful of scholars,” then how about a digital humanities center creating its own publishing unit?

It’s with all these possibilities swirling in my mind that I’ve been thinking about the MLA’s creation of an Office of Scholarly Communication, led by Kathleen Fitzpatrick. I want to suggest that this move may in the future stand out as a pivotal moment in the history of the digital humanities. It’s not simply that the MLA is embracing the digital humanities and seriously considering how to leverage technology to advance scholarship. It’s that Kathleen Fitzpatrick is heading this office. One of the founders of MediaCommons and a strong advocate for open review and experimental publishing, Fitzpatrick will bring vision, daring, and experience to the MLA’s Office of Scholarly Communication.

I have no idea what to expect from the MLA, but I don’t think high expectations are unwarranted. I can imagine greater support of peer-to-peer review as a replacement of blind review. I can imagine greater emphasis placed upon digital projects as tenurable scholarship. I can imagine the breadth of fields published by the MLA expanding. These are all fairly predictable outcomes, which might have eventually happened whether or not there was a new Office of Scholarly Communication at the MLA.

But I can also imagine less predictable outcomes. More experimental, more peculiar. Equally as valuable though—even more so—than typical monographs or essays. I can imagine scholarly wikis produced as companion pieces to printed books. I can imagine digital-only MLA books taking advantage of the native capabilities of e-readers, incorporating videos, songs, dynamic maps. I can image MLA Singles, one-off pieces of downloadable scholarship following the Kindle Singles model. I can imagine mobile publishing, using smartphones and GPS. I can imagine a 5,000-tweet conference backchannel edited into the official proceedings of the conference backchannel.

There are no limits. And to every person who objects, But, wait, what about legitimacy/tenure/cost/labor/& etc, I say, you are missing the point. Now is not the time to hem in our own possibilities. Now is not the time to base the future on the past. Now is not the time to be complacent, hesitant, or entrenched in the present.

William Gibson has famously said that “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” With the digital humanities we have the opportunity to distribute that future more evenly. We have the opportunity to distribute knowledge more fairly, and in greater forms. The “builders” will build and the “thinkers” will think, but all of us, no matter where we fall on this false divide, we all need to share. Because we can.

(Radiohead Crowd photograph courtesy of Flickr user Samuel Stroube / Creative Commons Licensed]

38 thoughts on “The digital humanities is not about building, it’s about sharing

  1. I have often wondered myself why a handful of scholars couldn’t form a print-on-demand academic press. In fact, in Europe, that’s largely what they do (for example It seems to me that we in North America are a little behind our peers elsewhere in the world when it comes to accepting what is and what isn’t legitimate means of both validating and sharing our academic output. How many layers of review does a work have to go through before it is considered “worthy”? How are artists evaluated for tenure review? Can we learn something about their different standards?

    But I do believe (and have written about previously) that higher education often limits ho we share our work. to me, that is where I consider myself a digital humanist – figuring out new ways to share and collaborate.

  2. I love your push on the false divide of building/thinking in the service of scholarly communication (and I share your real excitement about Kathleen leading the new MLA office). The means of communication and what gets communicated are so closely tied together–the form limits and enables message just as the message determines and reshapes form–that to insist on either building or thinking misses the mark. I came out of the frustration with my last print collection determined never to go through a traditional press again. That’s a post that I’ll be writing once I figure out how to build my website. But I’ll look forward to seeing what other possibilities emerge from individuals and communities and institutions.

  3. You ask, “what’s to stop a handful of of scholars from starting their own academic press?”

    Not a thing. That’s how we started Witan Publishing. In fact, although we started Witan Publishing to epub medieval scholarship only, we’ve had so much demand from other non-medieval academic journals that we’ll soon launch an imprint just for academic journals from any field.

    Witan Publishing hasn’t had any outside funding or organization — just our own money, and our own reputations. The response from scholars has been incredibly enthusiastic. It only takes a few minutes of musing about the possibilities before scholars begin to ask, “why does my book or article have to be such-and-such a length? If it were priced at under $10 rather than over $100, wouldn’t that mean my ideas would spread to wider influence? What if there were no print runs, and in the future anyone at any time could suddenly assign my book or article to their class?”

    What’s stopping us? Nothing — we’re already doing it.

  4. I strongly agree Mark, and I am excited about the possibilities. You ask ” what’s to stop a handful of of scholars from starting their own academic press?” Nothing. Check out Parlor Press, owned by Dave Blakesley of Clemson University, who published my book, The Two Virtuals and 100+ others in the last few years. Or the WAC Clearinghouse, which offers a number of books for free online. Or even the relatively new which is building composition textbooks from essays written by writing instructors. So those are the ones in my field.

    The other question is how the shift in representation and sharing alters composition and the composition of knowledge. If I can share differently and represent differently, I can ask different questions and answer them in different ways. So it’s all mixed up.

  5. 1. Yes! But what about taking it one step further: what about claiming this role of “sharing not just building,” “reproducing knowledge not just producing,” for the humanities en bloc, whether “digital” or not? To me this is one of the signal achievements of DH: reinvigorating our perspectives on the humanities as a (dare I? I do) “whole.”

    2. Looking at the humanities in this way illuminates some of the other divides (or, um, stakeholder arguments) you mention. Eg, does this make teaching vs. research, center vs. network, look different?

    3. What about discoverability and sustainability? Parole (and multimedia) in liberta from traditional academic confines is a beautiful thing but how do I share and reproduce if I can’t find?

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