About the Seminar
[Chad Wellmon and Bethany Nowviskie will teach a year-long, non-credit Mellon graduate seminar at the University of Virginia, beginning in late August 2014. Advanced grad students will meet monthly through May 2015, to explore new digital tools and frameworks for composition and to "plot a more capacious history and imagine possible futures for the humanities." The course (including $500 travel/research stipends for participants) is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through UVa's College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and is supported by the UVa Library Scholars' Lab.]
IN RECENT MONTHS, the uncertain fate of the humanities in our digital age has been at the center of an increasingly pointed debate. Digital humanities practice itself is not new—the use of computation in humanities research and teaching has a 60-year history in the academy; even deeper roots in ars combinatoria, textual criticism, and the philosophy of language; and has been part of our local scholarly scene since the establishment of a number of humanities computing labs and centers at UVa in the mid-1990s. Yet articles in the New Yorker, The New Republic, and elsewhere have suggested that the digital humanities are deeply inhuman. With their purported obsession with data, graphs, and numbers, the digital humanities either tell us nothing we don’t already know or, more egregiously, delegate the task of thinking to machines, to computers and their inhumane algorithms.
Describing the deleterious effects of digital humanities on English departments, Adam Kirsch in The New Republic recently claimed that advocates of a digital humanities make a “false analogy between the humanities and the sciences.” But Kirsch’s essay, like so many of its polemical ilk, isn’t really about the digital humanities. It’s about the humanities more broadly and some critics’ truncated and ahistorical vision of what they ought to be. The problem with the digital humanities, Kirsch writes, is that they go against the “nature of humanistic work.” Their errant ways, he continues,
derive from a false analogy between the humanities and the sciences. Humanistic thinking does not proceed by experiments that yield results; it is a matter of mental experiences, provoked by works of art and history, that expand the range of one’s understanding and sympathy. […] This is why the best humanistic scholarship is creative, more akin to poetry and fiction than to chemistry or physics: it draws not just on a body of knowledge, though knowledge is indispensable, but on a scholar’s imagination and sense of reality.
Here, Kirsch pits the technologically unadorned humanities, which produce subjective experiences, against the technology-dependent sciences that produce mere facts.
Kirsch’s simple and false dichotomy manages to slight both the sciences and humanities at once, and to obscure more than it clarifies. It’s a dichotomy that has long structured our universities and shaped graduate education. But it reveals a deep ignorance about the history of the humanities, a history that predates the more recent divisions of “the humanities” and “the sciences.” The real issue in these debates, then, is not digital humanities per se or even the humanities in the digital age, but humanities more generally—that is, the debates betray disagreement and confusion about what the humanities refer to, what they do; what a “humanistic” knowledge might look like.
The goal of our Mellon Graduate Teaching Seminar is to use current analytical and new-media compositional techniques of the digital humanities and historical models of humanities practices to plot a more capacious history and imagine possible futures for the humanities. Our aim is to increase our students’ fluency as writers (and as instructors of writing across the disciplines) working online and with new media and imaginative humanities computing toolsets. Through a set of monthly readings and composition exercises using digital tools or platforms, we will consider the humanities—both historically and conceptually—not as a particular method, canon, set of propositions, or a distinct group of disciplines but rather as a disposition, a way of approaching, knowing, and being in the world.
Our focus will be on the practices that have bound humanistic scholars together across time and space, be they manuscript, print, or digital. The kinds of things that humanists actually do when they engage products of human creativity, their practices, have always been bound up with efforts not only to create particular objects and imagine particular types of experiences but also to make connections, to generalize, and to capitalize on the greatest affordances of the technologies of analysis and communication available to them at the time. From Lorenzo Valla’s careful and methodological debunking of the Donatio Constantini (On the Donation of Constantine) in 1440 to data miner Ted Underwood’s recent mapping of nineteenth-century literature genres, humanists of all kinds have relied on particular notions of method, evidence, verification, and reasoned argument, just as the natural and physical sciences have relied on intuition and creativity. Simple oppositions—the humanities versus the sciences—confuse more than they enlighten and, in a timeless irony, produce deeply anti-humanistic polemics. They also ignore the historical fact that the humanities and humanistic inquiry more broadly have not only been concerned with particular human artifacts (one painting, one poem, one piece of music) but also, as Dutch scholar Rens Bod recently put it, patterns and principles to make sense of and enjoy these artifacts.
Our goal is to expose students to a long history of the humanities—digital, print, and experiential—and help them to understand the technological practices and attitudes of mind that have shaped and will continue to shape humanistic forms of knowledge. Monthly meetings will not be entirely discussion-driven, however: we will also experiment with and share provocations created in a set of locally-built tools, including Neatline, Prism, and the Ivanhoe Game. These platforms were developed (in part by UVa grad students) through the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, and the Library of Congress, and all have been recognized as “quintessentially Virginia” in the intellectual contribution they make to the international digital humanities community. These will be introduced as three DH toolsets among many—not as eternal or favored approaches, but for interrogation through use: for what they help students to understand about all technologies of writing (manuscript, print, or digital). Together, we will produce and digitally publish a collection of reflections on and arguments about the theme of the seminar, composed in annotated Neatline maps and timelines, in crowd-sourced Prism word-counts and visualizations, and in ergodic, interactive, and collaborative Ivanhoe Game storytelling sequences. Our seminar participants will gain broad exposure to experimental modes of scholarly communication and greater confidence in their ability to pick up new tools in support of undergraduate writing pedagogy.
But they’ll gain more than that. Contact with the interdisciplinary group of graduate student peers who have participated in the Library’s Praxis Fellowship Program (through which the Ivanhoe and Prism software projects were created), and the ongoing support of Scholars’ Lab staff for our seminar participants’ work, will help them to understand the fundamentally collaborative, multi-disciplinary, public, and inter-professional nature of knowledge production in the digital humanities community. By the end of the seminar, students should better understand not only how specific DH composition platforms can be used in their own writing and teaching, but how open-source tools are constructed, augmented in response to scholarly questions, and maintained by technologists and information professionals within and beyond the academic humanities. This knowledge is of a piece with our larger argument about the long arc of the humanities and the self-defeating nature of the “two culture” dichotomy. They will also have gained marketable skills and proficiencies, added a distinguishing digital publication to their portfolios, and have entered into conversation with the broader DH community online, strengthening their personal networks ahead of the job search.
Look here soon for information about participating University of Virginia graduate students.
As instructors, Chad Wellmon and Bethany Nowviskie bring varied disciplinary perspectives and deep experience with the conceptual themes of the seminar and the humanities computing techniques and systems it will call into play.
Wellmon is an associate professor of German Studies, with expertise in European intellectual history, Romanticism, and media and social theory. His published work includes Becoming Human: Romantic Anthropology and the Embodiment of Freedom (Penn State UP, 2010) and forthcoming: Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Research University (Johns Hopkins, Spring 2015) and The Rise of the Research University, with Louis Menand and Paul Reitter (Chicago 2015). Among his recent articles are “Touching Books: Diderot, Novalis and the Encyclopedia of the Future,” in Representations and “Languages, Cultural Studies and the Future of Foreign Language Education,” in Modern Language Journal. Chad is also affiliated with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, has begun a computational inquiry into Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, and edits and contributes to the new Infernal Machine blog at the Hedgehog Review, reflecting on “technology, ethics, and the human person.”
Nowviskie is an associate librarian and director of the UVa Library’s department of Digital Research and Scholarship, which includes the Praxis Program and Scholars’ Lab in Alderman Library. She also serves as special advisor to the Provost for the advancement of digital humanities research at UVa, and is immediate past president of the international Association for Computers and the Humanities. Nowviskie, who holds a doctorate in English, has recently chaired the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Information Technology and is a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources. Over the course of an 18-year career, she has worked in most major areas of digital humanities research and has developed novel approaches to the scholarly editing, annotation, and modeling of texts, maps, images, and artifacts. The three core toolsets to be used in the seminar were created under her supervision.