Reflections on the Economics of Digital Humanities

When Amanda invited us to reflect on THATCamp@Penn, my mind started working almost as fast as it had during an extraordinary day of learning and collaboration. Today was my first experience with a THATCamp and with the “unconference model,” and I think that I’m leaving with the near-Messianic enthusiasm that I think was cautioned against in our opening session—or at some point in the day, perhaps in the Critical Editions session.

As the day progressed, I collected links to new tools in my library, and I’m including that list at the end of this entry. I don’t know if I learned what I had hoped when I applied to THATCamp, but I definitely feel as if I’ve found a pathway toward discovery that is going to enhance my own scholarship and teaching and that will make me a better citizen of my own campus and academe.

Two sessions really stuck out to me in provoking an examination of some of the underlying assumptions that make entry into the digital humanities more difficult for faculty: the Critical Editions session and the Credit/recognition for digital scholarship session.

The Critical Editions session provided a wonderful opportunity to explore various online and packaged digital editions, including the Carlyle Letters collection, the Jonathan Swift archive, the Brown Women Writers Project, and the Electronic Beowulf project. Although we struggled with the question of “where to begin” in a digital critical edition, I think that we began to address the paradigm shift that might be underway and that might complicate our understanding of digital critical editions. In my own field, Historical Linguistics in general and Old English studies in particular, critical editions are solitary projects, the result of years of contemplation of a manuscript or set of manuscripts. Many years ago, the critical edition was the classic dissertation, because it extended the possibilities for scholarship in a field where texts were unavailable. Since the work of a critical edition–collation and comparison of manuscripts, collection and annotation of lemma, noting of variants, bibliography, glossing, and indexing–was something that an individual scholar could accomplish (with the support of briefly acknowledged undergraduates, graduate students, and librarians), it didn’t require much knowledge apart from that generally aquired in graduate programs or in research libraries, or through the example of textual scholars.

A digital critical edition seems to be something entirely different: first of all, it requires the digital architecture through which the text is mediated. And then we have to address the question that Rebecca Stuhr brought up in our session: shouldn’t a digital critical edition provide something specific that a standard, print edition cannot provide? If an edition also includes a facsimile of original materials, how should it train the reader to use them? If it’s a text in a language other than English, should it also provide translations, and, if so, what is the purpose of the translations? At what point does the edition become a pedagogical tool rather than a base text that can be used for the production of new scholarly work? Should a critical edition aspire to serve as a reading edition? If so, should it provide a variety of interfaces? Who designs those interfaces?

The questions exceed the amount of space that I should probably fill, and have likely been addressed in more thoughtful ways by textual scholars such as Jerome McGann, who also serves as the editor for the Dante Rossetti Archive, which we referred to in the session. Nonetheless, since one of our participants was from Penn Press (I believe Stephanie Brown, although I can’t verify it with her picture), we also started to discuss the future of digital monographs and publishing. In this case, we had to address whether we expected that ebooks would need to provide greater and more various content in order to justify their status as electronic texts rather than continuing as traditional books. We looked briefly at an enhanced ebook published by the University of North Carolina Press, Freedom’s Teacher, thanks to Alex Beaton for directing our attention to the Long Civil Rights Movement website. The key issue at play seemed to be the model that would allow for economically sustainable publications. If the market for monographs and critical editions is driven by library sales, and library sales become increasingly limited by licensing agreements, then authors face increased constraints on their publication options. Of course, this summary doesn’t nearly address the richness of the session.

In the final session of the day, on attribution, acknowledgement, and the role of digital materials with the structure of the academic workplace, we had to address economic issues again, although I’m not certain that they appeared economic when we began to discuss them. After the conference was over and I repaired to the train, I had an epiphany (or at least a fleeting insight): the academic tenure and promotions process is built upon the assumption that intellectuals within the academy need to have some method to be recompensed financially by their institutions, because they will not receive financial rewards directly as a result of their scholarly contributions. Moreover, publication costs have traditionally been borne by academic institutions (in the form of university presses and the journals those academic presses produce). Thus, the academic system of publication is built upon a system of limited, yet distributed, financial awards. Institutions themselves receive financial awards because of the prestige their faculty and staff publications lend the hosting institutions in the form of government funding (grants and state funding), tuition dollars, and donations from corporations and alumni. Academic presses, in turn, receive funding through institutional libraries and professional associations, in the form of higher than market prices for library editions of monographs and editions. No one gets rich in this model, but intellectual production has traditionally become monetized in some modest way, which gets translated into “value” in deliberations of tenure and promotion.

What happens, however, if intellectual work is publicly available and non-monetized? What if “information wants to be free” and scholars respond to that impulse by sharing their insights outside of monetary frameworks? What happens if the intellectual work of faculty is brought to “market” via the electronic resources of their own institutions? If I were to produce an edition that was hosted on my own institution’s web server, all of the traditional modes of valuation, both monetary (although slight), and intellectual, disappear. Without outside editorial intervention, or peer review, or the promise of monetary rewards for the hosting entity, the edition ceases to be “valued scholarship” and becomes “service to the profession” or “service to the community” instead. The same is true for other modes of electronically mediated discourse, it seems. We discussed some of the issues at play in academic blogging. For example, Carolyn Cannuscio mentioned the databases that she and other institutional colleagues have created and maintained. Those resources represent the best values of academic citizenship—presentation of massive amounts of data that can advance our understanding of important health phenomena, resulting in genuine and meaningful interventions that can improve public health. Nonetheless, they aren’t “worth the time” (my words, not hers) because they seem to defy the model of provincialism and isolation upon which academic rewards are built.

The consensus among all the participants in the session was that junior faculty across the region (if not the country) are pressured to abandon interests in digital scholarship because institutions lack the vocabulary to reward it in the tenure and promotion process. I wonder if graduate students, who are pressured to enter the increasingly competitive publishing track, are unable to take advantage of the resources that research institutions provide to learn about coding, encoding, and various standards. I was lucky enough to have some experience with materials that certainly fall within the umbrella of digital humanities, through the Indo-European Documentation Center at the University of Texas, and the Undergraduate Writing Center at the same institution, but I do not know how to build something. I can figure out how to use tools, but I can’t do more than dream something up and turn the dream over to a developer. When I taught Old English years ago, I was able to collaborate with an extraordinary developer, John Kuiphoff, who is now one of my faculty colleagues in our Interactive Multimedia Program, on a paleography tool to learn how to read Old English manuscripts. It’s a beautiful widget, but I have no idea how he made it work.

Which brings me back to the tensions that I felt in the digital critical editions session. Textual scholars, I would assert, are to the restorer of a classic automobile as a devoted reader of a literary text is to a classic car enthusiast. Textual scholars (or those who aspire to be textual scholars when they grow up) want to know what’s under the hood. We want to be able to take what appears in manuscript form and move it around, relate it to other similar materials, see how they compare, and present them in the format most useful for literary enthusiasts.

As a result, when we use digital tools, we also tend to want to know what is under the hood of the tool. I’m sure the same could be said about any number of types of scholars, and perhaps it’s a personality type that I really want to describe. Perhaps what I really want to know is not “how do I become a digital humanist,” but how can a humanist become a hacker, or (more politely) a coder, who can manipulate the interface that the user experiences when coming to the materials that I’ve presented for them. That desire might be over-reaching. Perhaps there’s only intellectual room enough for the digital humanist to imagine the interface, and she has to turn the mechanics over to someone else. But then she also needs to know how that collaboration can be rewarded within the academic context.

Overall, the “unconference” was one of the most intellectual stimulating programs I’ve participated in in the last ten years.

Digital Tools/Digital Humanities Projects mentioned at today’s THATCamp:

Categories: Collaboration, Open Access, Proceedings of THATCamp, Publishing, Scholarly Editions | Tags: , , |
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About Felicia Jean Steele

When people ask what I teach, I often joke that I have "The Highlander Job" in the English department--there can be only one History of the English language specialist. My dissertation tracked changes to the modal verb system in English from Old to Middle English, primarily examining homiletic discourse. Over the years, my scholarship has focused on linguistic issues as they've manifested in British literature (in Beowulf, Chaucer, and Shakespeare), but I want to move more aggressively into corpus linguistics and digitally assisted textual scholarship, particularly on understudied British manuscripts.