Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Will the Digital Humanities Bubble Burst?

William Pannapacker discusses the dominant role that digital humanities played at the recent meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA).  In this piece at "The Conversation" blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pannapacker discusses the "dark side" of digital humanities and wonders if the field has reached "the top of its growth curve."  He writes: "there seems to be a growing backlash against DH, right on schedule."  Here is an additional taste:

One MLA panel yesterday expounded on “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities.” Like all the DH sessions I’ve attended this year, it was packed. Amid the surge of Twitter conversations (like drinking from a bundle of firehoses), I was able to absorb some points in the larger bill of indictment: That DH is insufficiently diverse. That it falsely presents itself as a fast-track to academic jobs (when most of the positions are funded on soft money). That it suffers from “techno-utopianism” and “claims to be the solution for every problem.”  That DH is “a blind and vapid embrace of the digital”; it insists upon coding and gamification to the exclusion of more humanistic practices.  That it detaches itself from the rest of the humanities (regarding itself as not just “the next big thing,” but “the only thing”).  That it allows everyone else in the humanities to sink as long as the DH’ers stay afloat. That DH is complicit with the neoliberal transformation of higher education; it “capitulates to bureaucratic and technocratic logic”; and its strongest support comes from administrators who see DH’ers as successful fundraisers and allies in the “creative destruction” of humanities education. And—most damning—that DH’ers are affiliated with a specter that is haunting the humanities—the specter of MOOCs.

In short, DH is an opportunistic, instrumentalist, mechanized response to the economic crisis—it represents “the dark side of capitalism”—and, as such, it is the enemy of good, organic humanists everywhere: cue the “Imperial March” from Star Wars.

The reaction of the DH’ers in the audience was captured immediately by Amanda French, “I didn’t recognize the digital humanities in what the panel was discussing.”  Just after the session, Ryan Cordell told me, “There were so many horrible mischaracterizations that I had trouble attending to the valid critiques.”

Many DH’ers were baffled especially by the conflation of the digital humanities and MOOCs. At the Q&A, French said, “I don’t know a single digital humanist who likes MOOCs.” In the Presidential Forum on DH that followed, Cathy Davidson said that the popularity of MOOCs with administrators—and unpopularity with DH’ers—is that MOOCs are the least disruptive to methods of education that were devised during the industrial revolution.  We need to see the “liberal arts as a startup curriculum for resilient global citizenship,” Davidson said, and—while it is not perfect, given the ongoing challenges of access and inclusion—“the digital humanities is the only field in the humanities that takes that project seriously.”