Scholar != Island

[NINES welcomes graduate fellow Jean Bauer ( Ph.D. Candidate, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia) for 2009-2010 school year]

I recently gave a presentation on letters as primary sources — their format, use in historical inquiry in general, role in my dissertation research (and database design) specifically, etc. (My talk was part of an ongoing series called “Original Sources” held on Friday afternoons in the Harrison/Small Library at the University of Virginia.  For more about the series, or to the hear the podcast of my talk, click here.)   In the Q&A session that followed, the organizer, Kelly Miller, asked me one of the now standard questions in digital humanities: “Has the adoption of digital technology changed how humanities scholars see themselves in relationship to their work?”

I was really glad to get the question, because it is one that I have heard many other scholars answer over the years.  The response I have invariably heard is: YES!  Digital technology makes humanities scholars more reliant on other people to get their work done, particularly the programmers who translate their vision into databases and websites, using skills that the scholar frequently does not have or fully understand.  This loss of independence is a source of anxiety to many who work in the field of digital humanities (the level of anxiety varies greatly from scholar to scholar), keeps other scholars from fully exploring the possibilities of new technologies, and can sometimes cause friction between humanities scholars and the technologists they work with.

I see the issue differently.  I don’t think that digital technology has made humanities scholars any more dependent on other people than they were before the “digital revolution.”  Scholarship in the humanities has always been (in my humble opinion) a collaborative process: we complete our first works of scholarship under the watchful eye of thesis and dissertation advisors, workshop early drafts of our papers, participate in conferences, offer to buy our colleagues a cup of coffee if their expertise can shed light on something we’ve become interested in, wrestle with anonymous reviewers and editors to perfect our manuscripts prior to publication, and so on.  We also rely on an army of documentary editors, archivists, and research librarians to organize primary sources and help us find the materials we need.  We return these favors by answering other scholars’ questions and writing the long acknowledgement sections that go at the beginning of our monographs.

After I responded to the question, Mary-Jo Kline (author of the original The Guide to Documentary Editing) gave her opinion that the early adoption of digital tools by libraries (particularly putting finding aids and library catalogues online as well as an increasing percentage of the actual collection) has increased scholars’ tendency to view themselves as working in isolation because now they can locate and/or access so many materials without ever having to enter a library or speak to a librarian.

Of course, adopting digital technology has changed how humanities scholars research, analysis, and publish their scholarship, but not because we’ve fallen from a higher plane of independence.  If anything, we have gained powerful allies in our ongoing struggle to share our work with the world.  If you disagree, then the comments thread is your oyster.

3 responses to “Scholar != Island”

  1. Jerome McGann

    I merely annotate Jean’s excellent posting to say that the collaborative environment of any scholar
    goes out further and in deeper than we often realize or reflect upon. The individual scholar is always working within a vast network of institutional relations: professional organizations, libraries, museums, publishers, review and reception entities. And those social agencies not only put a host of persons into action, each is structured as a complex network of subordinate social units. The existence of that elaborate socio-institutional environment “explains” why instituting a practice of digital scholarship is so difficult. The problems are predominantly social and institutional, not technical. The paper-based network has been centuries in the making and is now highly articulate and sophisticated. It also has a commanding inertia precisely because individuals participating in the system can function as independent agents. Each individual can assume the reliability of the system as a whole. The contrast with the digital environment for a scholar is stark. The vast “networked” character of the digital environment is at this point a dream (we trust not an illusion), drifting in the empty corridors and rooms of an as-yet only imaginary building. (I am dreaming within a dream, as you see. The master dream is highly infectious.) And the institutional problem is especially acute because (a) the dream building we require will have to integrate with the entire in-place paper based network, and (b) the building is being thrown up by an anarchic set of eager agents who work without a general contractor.

  2. Heather Bowlby

    Jean has brought attention to a particularly relevant issue here: if the use of digital technology is changing the nature of humanities research, then it also affects the way we as humanities scholars perceive our professional role. I agree with Jean’s view that digital technology hasn’t increased the dependence of humanities scholars on professionals in other areas of study, and I’d like to add on to her idea that venturing into digital realms has increased productive collaboration between fields. As Prof. McGann has remarked, scholarship itself is marked by different types of collaboration, many in areas we don’t tend to think of when we consider scholarly labor. The integration of digital technologies has brought these networks into relief and placed strain on some of them, especially the established paper-based network in which the work of individual researchers is seemingly independent and self-contained.

    Not only have we gained “powerful allies” (as Jean terms it) in our humanities research by working with digital technology, we’ve also engaged in the process of expanding the perspective of our own scholarship. In the best sense, using digital technology will not cause the ceding of scholarly agency over to the expertise of others. Rather, the integration of technology will optimally result in the evolution of humanities research into a new and better form that emphasizes mutually beneficial relationships between fields. Collaboration can be a two-way street, and just as humanities scholarship can grow by working with different technologies, digital technology could likewise benefit by interacting with the humanities.

    Analyzing and establishing relationships is an essential part of the work we do as scholars. Our ideas are built on those of others at some level, and very little (if any) of it is entirely discrete. If we conceive of our roles in this manner—as independent of other fields—then it seems to me that we would miss out on the possibilities for collaborating and thus working with those areas of study to increase the scope of knowledge in our own field. Prof. McGann points out that the practical implications of this increased collaborative effort are tricky at the institutional level because existing systems don’t necessarily support interactive methods of study and problems are being worked out in the trenches, so to speak. The diversification of humanities research through collaboration with other fields like digital technology will encounter many bumps in what will probably be a long road, but achieving significant progress most often isn’t easy.

  3. Alison Booth

    This is a fascinating issue for me as I learn how to get out of my own study and collaborate on a digital project. I flatter myself I’ve never missed the point of my interdependence with an economically and ideologically motivated institution and profession well beyond one discipline’s or school’s walls. I would have said that the advantage of digital work would be the immediacy of results and audience response: it takes too long to publish finished work in print, to have it reviewed, etc. But I’ll just say, because I’m pressed for time on a grant proposal that would get me more help on my digital project, that in my limited experience, digital work is a quantum leap in time-to-completion from humanities scholarship of a more established sort. Collaboration is one of its attractions; it’s social. But as Jerry says, it’s not easy to establish a real work plan with a group when there’s no institutional support in place for it (go out on the highway and try to round ’em up). No slight intended on the “gift” of collaboration I’ve received here at UVA.

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