Heather Bowlby is a PhD student in Victorian Literature at the University of Virginia and 2011-2012 NINES Fellow.
In a recent article in The Chronicle, “How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship,” Gary Olson addresses the role of emerging digital methodologies in efforts to reform humanities scholarship. The increasing call to refashion humanities research by means of the digital, as demonstrated in ideas expressed at this year’s MLA convention in Seattle, crystallizes what Olson perceives as an alarming trend. While he acknowledges that the humanities are indeed in peril, Olson perceives reform efforts via alternate technologies and practices as a major part of the problem, not of the solution. For Olson, digital scholarship threatens the very nature of humanities professionalism by changing the ways scholars perform academic research and the avenues through which this research is disseminated. Attempts to renovate the humanities, warns Olson, run the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater and destroying the standards of thinking on which these disciplines are built.
The question that Olson raises in this article touches on a crucial issue facing digital humanities and the humanities more generally. The relationship between humanities and digital technology needs to be worked out, as this definition may indeed affect the way in which humanities scholarship is conceptualized and executed both now and in the future. Ways of thinking—the conceptualization of ideas—is at the heart of Olson’s approach to this topic and the real issue that he addresses in this article. He recognizes that the effects of digital modes of thought have the potential to transform these disciplines and fundamentally affect the theoretical basis for research as well as the methods of executing it. In this sense, I think that Olson hits the nail on the head. While it may be easy for digital humanists to dismiss his perspective as representative of the entrenched, outmoded traditionalism against which DH has had to struggle from its beginning, I believe that the main kernel of Olson’s argument deserves consideration.
In support of his perspective, Olson argues that the scholarly monograph—and the dissertation as traditionally conceived—represents a concentrated, sustained method of thinking and writing essential to the basic operation of the humanities as disciplines. Not only would a widespread revision of this key element of orthodox scholarship present problems for administrators evaluating the value of research, it could also lessen the significance of the research itself by diminishing its rigor. Consequently, with academic standards changed to accommodate the short attention span of a fast-paced, technology-driven world, the criterion for acceptable scholarship would be lowered. Proving the meaningfulness of the humanities to a society that demands a reason for its existence would then be difficult, if not impossible.
I don’t agree with Olson’s claim that the introduction of new, technologically-driven ways of thinking would depreciate humanities scholarship. This idea does seem to me to oversimplify the nature of digital modes of understanding, which encourage multiple perspectives and emphasize networked relationships between ideas. Just as sustained concentration is not always complex, conceptualizing and managing multiple applications is not necessarily simplistic. I believe that the humanities has the potential to evolve through the introduction of the digital, but not by a scorched-earth policy of abandoning traditional scholarship to create a clean slate for the introduction of a brave new digital world, a fear that many in academia outside of DH currently seem to possess. Rather, the key to me seems to involve working on a middle ground between the academic establishment on the one hand and DH on the other: in other words, integrating DH within existing scholarly structures, not using DH to replace these modes of inquiry.
We don’t need to formulate the issue of humanities reform as a battle for survival between the new and old. Both can coexist productively; DH can enhance traditional scholarship rather than supercede it. A large part of the problem is that, so often, the relationship between tradition and innovation is rhetorically framed as a conflict in which one perspective must prevail over the other. In this respect, Olson’s point that the larger issue in play in these discussions concerns methods of thinking is right on target. However, I would advocate taking this idea in a different direction by considering how we in DH might frame our work as a collaboration with the academic establishment rather than a complete reconstruction of it.