I’m gearing up for #AcWriMo starting Saturday, November 1st — and doing so has made me realize that I’ve been neglecting this site. Since my last post, I’ve joined the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship at McMaster University as a Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow, and as part of my position, I’m going to be teaching a version of the Demystifying workshops that I taught at the University of Washington with Sarah Kremen-Hicks and Brian Gutierrez.
One of the first steps for adapting the workshops has been to look at the set of values informing digital humanities that Sarah and I put together. After all, it’s been over two years since they were written: has digital humanities (or digital scholarship) changed since then? I think so, but I wasn’t sure how it would impact what we’d put together.
Now I have a revised version, though I’m not sure it’s ready for the workshops. My main concern is that it’s too long: where the previous values fit on a single page, the new version is 2.5 pages, single-spaced, and includes a couple of paragraphs providing an introductory context. If I use this version, I’ll need to present it differently, just because it’ll take more time to process. I’m still thinking about that.
Without further nattering, though, here’s the revised version. Feel free to let me know what you think.
Values of Digital Scholarship 2.0
Digital scholarship is being produced in multiple disciplines and subfields. In some disciplines, computational methods feel newer than others, depending on the traditions that have been prevalent. Some of the “new” digital scholarship in English Departments, for example, might not seem nearly as new to people working in Linguistics programs.
There’s a lot of emphasis on specific digital scholarship skills: learning to code, learning to work with a particular tool or program. But there’s no single coding language or platform that encompasses all the practices. Instead, when you’re starting to learn, it’s more useful to examine a list of the values that motivate digital scholarship and make up its ethos.
It’s important to recognize that much of digital scholarship being produced right now is responsive to external situations. One such situation is the lack of funding in higher ed, and for humanities fields in particular. Another factor influencing the prominence of digital scholarship is the lack of traditional tenure-track professorships available, and the hope that becoming proficient with digital research skills will help graduate students and junior academics find more job opportunities inside and outside of the academy.
Arguably, then, digital scholarship is both a set of methods and a movement. Many practitioners are concerned with their particular research area, and with critiquing and improving the university as a whole. This is because practices and tools involved in DS have great potential to impact colleges and universities’ infrastructure. Online courses can make education more accessible when well-designed, but can also become a source of profit that benefits the institution more than its students. Collecting data can lead to new insights, but can also raise ethical questions. Being aware of the “method & movement” aspects of digital scholarship is important because the two can be complexly entangled with each other.
Examples of digital scholarship’s responsiveness can be found in the emphases on using social media tools and making scholarship open-access. Funding cuts have impacted library purchasing budgets and travel funding that facilitated face-to-face dialogue, as well as class size and teaching loads (which impacts both graduate students TAs, and the time that faculty have free to do research and/or mentor grad students). The emphasis on social media tool-use and open-access resources are partly efforts to compensate for these effects.
Adaptive: Motivated by the view that the practices for knowledge production, publishing, reading, and writing, are changing, and that these changes affect the scope of professional academics’ work and responsibilities.
Sustainable/resource-aware: Thinking proactively about how a resource, project, or skill will be used. This thinking involves consideration of what will be necessary for its long-term effectiveness, or might result in planning projects that are deliberately ephemeral, and have a low resource cost.
Multimodal: Involving multiple modes (both image analysis and written commentary, or an essay published in a format that is designed to be navigated in different ways); produced in multiple or alternative media formats that result in a variety of types of audience engagement.
Interdisciplinary: While interdisciplinarity is not a requirement, many digital scholarship projects borrow or blend aspects of multiple fields. Text and data analysis projects may require statistical knowledge, while other projects blend literature and historical studies with geographical information.
Auto-didactic: Willingness to independently learn a skill or technique that falls outside of the traditional boundaries of your field, and which you may need to teach yourself (or make arrangements to learn). Example: statistical data analysis, programming languages.
Collaborative: The complexity of some research questions may require working with partners who have expertise in other disciplines, or industry partners. A project might begin with autodidacticism, and become collaborative as the project grows in size. Alternately, a project that involves looking at how users interacted with a particular tool, text, or site, would benefit from having investigators from multiple schools or communities. In addition, many people working with digital scholarship cite early-stage collaboration as a source of richer ideas and even a more fun work experience.
Ad hoc: 1) Experimental, either in pursuit of serendipitous discovery or due to the lack of a single best practice; 2) Focused on solving a problem or meeting a particular need.
Process & product-driven: Traditional products of scholarship (essays and monographs) emphasize final products as valuable. In contrast, digital scholarship treats the process as equally valuable and worthy of commentary and dissemination. This can mean that even failure is valuable, provided that the failure is presented in a way that it can contribute to others’ work. As a result, rather than working towards one final product, digital scholarship is often designed to be iterative: a scalable sequence of small goals that are valuable in themselves, and add up to a larger product over time.
Accessible: Digital scholarship is often linked with the open-source and open-access technology movements, which advocate for making products freely available for use and modification, and for making code that determines exactly how a program functions easily visible. An equally important aspect of accessibility involves making resources (printed, digital, or other formats) fully useable by people who have visual processing disorders or other disabilities that affect their use of resources. The wealth of information available on the web can be made accessible to audiences with varying abilities if content producers are thinking actively about accessibility from the start.
Public & transparent: Public scholarship, which involves and engages people and places outside of the academy, is its own field. It overlaps with digital scholarship for a couple of reasons. One reason is that a common component of digital scholarship is the preservation of texts/objects/information that is already of interest to the public; another is that public scholarship allows for greater advocacy of the importance of scholarship in general.
Another aspect of the public practices associated with digital scholarship is public peer review, which allows for more diverse commentary on scholarship prior to publication, and allows readers to see how feedback has shaped scholarship.
Project-oriented: This value may change, depending on whether digital scholarship becomes more integrated into departments, and on the availability of training — but for the time being, digital scholarship is substantially project-based: you set a goal, determine how to accomplish the goal, document your results (whether success or failure), and disseminate them to an audience. The scope and type of project can vary: one project might go on for years, while another is a month’s work. Your project might be about analyzing a set of data with a particular tool, researching potential audience engagement, or learning a new skill (i.e., using Tumblr).
Social: Who else is working on topics related to yours? Who will the audience for your work be? How will you reach that audience and build interest in your project(s)? What might you discover when you start communicating your goals? These are all questions that you might ask as you start learning about digital scholarship, and especially if you begin planning a digital project. Being a digital scholar doesn’t mean you have to be a social extrovert — but finding ways to communicate early on (when you’re starting and developing your project, as opposed to when it’s all done) can make the difference between success and failure. And while this type of communication can sound like just more work, the audience you build can provide key support as you experiment.
This list of values isn’t a rulebook, or a manifesto. Each of the values is subject to ongoing discussion among people who are doing digital scholarship. Moreover, each value is highly likely to evolve in practice over time. Some projects and practitioners are more focused on certain values, while less focused on others. With that said, each of these values tends to work best when used in conjunction with others, rather than in isolation: ad hoc experimentation isn’t sustainable if you’re not making an effort to document your process, and share it with others who can use it.