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

May 25th, 2011 § 28 comments

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:

DH shouldn't only be about the production of knowledge. It's about challenging the ways that knowledge is represented and shared.
@samplereality
Mark Sample
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]

§ 28 Responses to The digital humanities is not about building, it’s about sharing"

  • [...] Mark Sample: 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. [...]

  • ReadyWriting says:

    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 https://www.interdisciplinarypress.net). 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.

  • Sarah says:

    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.

  • 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.

  • Alex Reid says:

    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 WritingSpaces.org 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.

  • Gabrielle Dean says:

    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?

  • [...] Late last month, the Modern Language Association announced the creation of an Office of Scholarly Communication, to be run by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of media studies at Pomona College and one of the founders of MediaCommons. On his blog, Mark Sample, a digital humanist who teaches contemporary literature and new-media studies at George Mason University, considered what that office might do: [...]

  • [...] Sample argues that The heart of the digital humanities is not the production of knowledge; it’s [...]

  • I think that attitudes about the digital humanities may vary in different disciplines. Some thoughts on that here: Sharing, Truth, and Context – a Reply to Mark Sample on Open Access.

  • [...] Mark Sample’s recent blog post continues the conversation started back at the MLA convention in January. What do the digital humanities do? Are we digital humanists if we don’t build anything? These questions were in the air this past weekend, too, at Computers and Writing. In fact, Saturday’s town hall was devoted to the question of what defines a digital humanist. All these conversations are so interesting and important, especially since we HASTAC-ers are in the crux of it all. We come from different fields, different techie talents and interests, and we are arguably very in-tune with what’s going on in conversations about the digital. In response to Sample’s post, we here at HASTAC are a group of “sharers”–we talk about, repost, link to, and make new connections. We don’t, necessarily, build things. The recent Code forum delt with many of these issues–can we talk about software studies if we don’t know (how to) code? What are the limitations of not knowing code if we’re trying to understand the usability of technologies? We need people to make digital spaces, just as much as we need people to think through these spaces and applications. So, who gets to be a digital humanist? Why are we so interested in naming who is and who isn’t? Isn’t one of the benefits of this field its cross-disciplinarity? Can’t we be builders and sharers? from → Uncategorized ← Interview with Daniel Reetz, founder of the DIY Bookscanning project LikeBe the first to like this post. No comments yet [...]

  • [...] had time to read much of his yet. Also, the digital humanist Mark Sample makes this case in a great blog post about the future of digital scholarship. The conviction shared by Creative Commons advocates is [...]

  • [...] the role of DH in your project when you are still getting your own head around the debates over what being a digital humanist means. I pointed to the importance being able to ‘sell’ the digital [...]

  • [...] the role of DH in your project when you are still getting your own head around the debates over what being a digital humanist means. I pointed to the importance of being able to ‘sell’ the [...]

  • [...] Education on “Building a Better University Press.” She mentioned Mark Sample’s recent challenge for a group of scholars to create their own university press. She also quoted from my THATCamp [...]

  • [...] The digital humanities is not about building, it’s about sharing by Mark Sample [...]

  • [...] As PM on the City and Region project (phase II website launching soon; formerly Historic Rents) I take it upon myself to engage with literature emerging from the DHums community. Quite unlike the particular corner of historical scholarship with which I have been accustomed, DHums is (with a few exceptions) an open-access, egalitarian, and blogospheric space. My surprise over this lack of boundaries and firewalls can be summarised by examples such as Brian Croxall‘s #389dh class page and an exchange I had on September 5th with Melissa Terras. What I find invigorating about DHums scholarship is the extent to which practitioners are taking liberal ‘wishful thinking’ and making it seem thoroughly attainable and achievable. Take this post by Mark Sample from May 25th entitled ‘The digital humanities is not about buil…: [...]

  • [...] Exploration of Research Teams in Digital Humanities Environments” by Lynne Siemens, and (2) “The Digital Humanities Is Not about Building, It’s about Sharing” by Mark [...]

  • [...] very hard about how digital approaches affect our relationship with sources, data, people, and the politics inherent to all academic [...]

  • [...] humanities in the classroom. One of the most popular things I’ve written in the past year is a blog post decrying the hack versus yack split that routinely crops in debates about the definition of digital [...]

  • [...] and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History, Stephen Ramsay’s On Building, Mark Sample’s reflection on DH as sharing, and the Day of DH (2011, [...]

  • [...] Mark Sample, “The digital humanities is not about building, it’s about sharing” [...]

  • [...] Mark Sample: 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. [...]

  • [...] to “stand on its own”–stuck in my mind. It echoed assertions I’ve seen many times in the “hack vs. yack” DH permathread, that code “speaks for itself.” “And the more I think about it the more I [...]

  • [...] out of nothing, an entirely new space for me—and others—to experiment with publishing. I had previously wondered what’s to stop someone—anyone!—from launching an academic press, and Hacking the [...]

  • [...] gone on record as saying that the digital humanities is not about building. It’s about sharing. I stand by that declaration. But I’ve also been thinking about a complementary mode of learning [...]

  • @miriamkp says:

    @howet Weirdly, no! But I did remember @samplereality’s piece on building/sharing: http://t.co/waE06xRn

  • @djp2025 says:

    #MLA13 #s307 Ramsay’s follow up post to that talk: http://t.co/aX2ujKeI The @samplereality riposte: http://t.co/GOtOwem1