DH, Interdisciplinarity, and Curricular Incursion

In last December’s NITLE Digital Scholarship Seminar, Teaching DH 101, I presented my experience designing and proposing a new digital humanities course at St. Norbert College. In that talk, I found myself arguing, somewhat to my surprise, for interdisciplinarity—by which I mean clear association with one of the humanities disciplines that converge under the digital humanities tent—in digital humanities courses. In short, I claimed that a digital humanities course grounded in a familiar academic discipline might stand better chance of being understood and approved by curricular committees and, frankly, students who are unlikely to have heard, much less understand, the term “digital humanities.” I use the term interdisciplinary with a strikethrough not to disavow the cross-field collaborations that underlie and energize digital humanities work, but to highlight the idea that interdisciplinary work, by definition, requires collaborators from distinct disciplines.

In his contribution to Debates in the Digital Humanities, Matt Kirschenbaum calls digital humanities a “tactical term” that can help DHers position themselves for institutional authorization of various sorts:

On the one hand, then, digital humanities is a term possessed of enough currency and escape velocity to penetrate layers of administrative strata to get funds allocated, initiatives under way, and plans set in motion. On the other hand, it is a populist term, self-identified and self-perpetuating through the algorithmic structures of contemporary social media.

Geoffrey Rockwell notes that he “used to argue for disciplinarity”—by which he means developing digital humanities itself as a distinct discipline—because

The advantage of choosing disciplinarity is that we can build formal ways in; we can develop graduate programs, skills training and a common discourse that provide people with open and negotiable guides to participation. If some level of programming is desirable we can create courses to introduce humanities students to coding and code studies.

Rockwell admits, however, that he is “no longer confident that we want to take the route of forming a discipline with all its attendant institutions,” and he asks, “Is there some way to maintain both the permeability of an interdisciplinary commons where the perspectives of different disciplines are welcome in the commons while encouraging appropriate skills and rigour?”

I want to suggest that relying on the term “digital humanities” can at times be a tactical error, especially for solo practitioners at institutions—large or small—without an established DH culture—in other words, at the vast majority of colleges and universities. By thinking through the interdisciplinarity of DH courses, I hope to offer a model for “curricular incursion” that might aid such practitioners. I haven’t abandoned Bethany Nowviskie’s strident call for interdisciplinary methodological training. In many ways, I hope to suggest a practical model for a “pandemic” curricular reform that can reshape institutions beyond the (meteoric?) glow of major DH centers.

An example might help clarify both the challenges I’m describing and their potential solutions. The first DH course I proposed, mere weeks after starting at St. Norbert College, was rejected. I was a newly-minted Ph.D. and new Assistant Professor. I was enthusiastic and idealistic. And I had had little understanding of college-wide curricular planning or the committees who do that work. I proposed “Introduction to Digital Humanities” and based my syllabus on a range of examples I’d found through Twitter and the Digital Humanities Education Zotero group. I was confident that my new colleagues would enthusiastically approve this (for the College) revolutionary new course. They had hired me, after all; surely they were keen to see digital humanities in the curriculum.

The note that the committee chair sent me explaining the committee’s denial of my “DH 101” proposal taught me a good deal about the practical necessities of the small college curriculum, and helped me craft a followup proposal that was approved the next semester. Those lessons were:

  1. Digital humanities remains an obscure term for the majority of our colleagues. However much press DH gets in the Chronicle during the MLA and AHA Conventions, it is still not a term that signifies for most humanities scholars. The members of our curricular committee were unsure whether I was proposing a course about technology or a course that would especially use technology. They asked, “How much of the course will be ‘learning about’ as distinct from ‘learning how to?'” Of course, we might recognize echoes of many debates within DH in their questions, which grew for them (as the debates perhaps grow for the field) from their uncertaintly about the term “digital humanities” itself. I should note that their concern wasn’t nitpicky for nitpicking’s sake. While noting their own confusion with the term, they rightly worried that students and advisors would be no more savvy about “digital humanities,” and so the course would be unlikely to enroll sufficiently. The revised course title, “Technologies of Text,” rhetorically grounded the course for my colleagues. Though the course remains a mixture of theory and practice, the new title conveyed a clear sense of what the course is ultimately about for the committee, advisors, and students.
  2. Semantics (can) matter a great deal. One major sticking point for our curricular committee was that I titled my course “Introduction to Digital Humanities,” yet wanted to offer it at the junior or senior level. Introductory courses, they noted, are offered at the 100 level. Courses at the 300 and 400 level should build on those introductory courses. At first I was perturbed by this semantic squabbling, but since then I’ve come to understand their perspective. I was assuming, of course, that my course would build on skills that students picked up in their lower-division courses. I expected my students to be competent researchers and independent workers. I planned to build on their work in lower-division literature and history courses. And because I’m the only DHer at St. Norbert College, students were unlikely to matriculate from my “Intro to DH” course into a more advanced DH course. Instead, I was proposing a digital capstone to the traditional humanities skills they’d picked up elsewhere in the curriculum. My colleagues were right to wonder how my proposed class could be considered an “intro” course. By dropping any pretense of my course as an “intro” course, I could help the College community understand that it truly is a course for more advanced students.
  3. Our colleagues understand “interdisciplinary” from the perspective of their disciplines. That is to say, my “Intro to DH” proposal looked to the members of the curricular committee—itself an interdisciplinary group—like a methodological mishmash. They didn’t understand what our readings in history, literature, computer science, and other fields added up to. By recasting this as a literature course that incorporates insights from history, computer science, and other fields, I was able to establish my authority to teach the course—I am a literature professor, after all, and not a “digital humanities” professor—and help my colleagues clearly see the lines of disciplinary intersection.
  4. A lone digital humanist is not equipped to teach the entire field. This realization came less from the committee’s rejection of my proposal than from the work I did revising the proposal in response. Changing the course title and description freed me to concentrate on literary DH rather than attempting to the entire arsenal of DH disciplines and methodologies. This is probably a good thing. I’m not prepared to teach all of DH. At a larger school I could collaborate with colleagues expert in diverse DH technologies or methodologies, and I’ve been bringing experts into the class virtually to talk about particular subjects. Ultimately, though, I must be prepared to answer my students’ questions about any topic we cover. Maintaining disciplinary focus perhaps limits my students’ sense of the wider DH field, but it allows me to teach a few things well rather than teaching everything poorly.

I’m currently teaching “Technologies of Text,” which enrolled to capacity. In many ways the course I’m teaching covers the same ground as the “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course I proposed. Nevertheless, the disciplinary focus of the revised proposal made the goals and content of the course more readily understandable to my colleagues and my students. If “digital humanities” is indeed a tactical term, then it follows that it should be deployed or reserved tactically. If your goal is incursion into a curriculum resistant to digital humanities methodologies, the best tactic might be to foreground the traditional disciplinarity of the course rhetorically while building new methodologies into the practice of the course.

To think more broadly for a moment: I would suggest that DH will only be a revolutionary interdisciplinary movement if its various practitioners bring to it the methods of distinct disciplines and take insights from it back to those disciplines. As Ted Underwood recently argued (against Stanley Fish’s New York Times provocations), “digital humanities is not a discipline or a coherent project. It’s a rubric under which a bunch of different projects have gathered—from new media studies to text mining to the open-access movement.” For Underwood, “what’s actually interesting and new about this moment” are its “new opportunities for collaboration both across disciplines and across the boundary between the conceptual work of academia and the infrastructure that supports and tacitly shapes it.” I heartily agree.

These collaborations will only change humanities fields, however, if they lead to scholarship that has a distinct impact within those fields. But that’s not always the (apparent? explicit?) goal of digital humanists, and many scholars outside of the big tent see DH, rightly or wrongly, as a separate entity: a roped-off area even within disciplinary conferences. For instance, I recently had a paper accepted to a conference in my literary and historical field. My talk will draw on my recent geospatial work, and is very much a “digital humanities” talk. The conference organizer included in her acceptance letter an odd apology. She noted that, while two of the papers in my panel were digital humanities papers, the other two were not. She hoped I would not mind presenting with two “non-digital” scholars. I assured her that I would look forward to the conversation.

As digital humanities sessions multiply at conferences such as MLA and AHA, so too does the divide between the DH panels and everything else. At this year’s MLA I attended one non-DH panel, and was struck by how thoroughly different that session was from anything else I had experienced at the conference. That room—and, let’s face it, the vast majority of rooms in the Washington Convention Center—was entirely unaffected by the digital humanities revolution. I realize, of course, that the only MLA I have known in my career is remarkably changed from the MLA of very recent history. The Executive Director tweets. The new Director of Scholarly Communication is a ProfHacker. So the MLA is a DH-friendly place now, far removed from the hostile environment I have heard described by earlier generations of DHers. But for digital humanists to make a real incursion into the field of literary studies, we have to start presenting in non-DH panels. We have to invite non-digital scholars to present on largely DH panels. We have to start actively seeking out colleagues who don’t know what we do—perhaps even those who don’t like what we do. We have to talk with colleagues who don’t tweet.

Including those colleagues on our local curricular committees. At some institutions the digital humanities community can operate independently, perhaps with the flexibility of institutional or grant funding far and above what their more traditional humanities colleagues can hope for. As DH grows rapidly, however, the vast majority of its practitioners will work within institutional structures formed by traditional humanities categories. I don’t write this out of despair. As many of you know, I’m with Thoreau: “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection.” Instead, I want to suggest that these instituions offer a unique opportunity for DHers to emphasize the interdisciplinarity of their work and open new conversations that will expand the “big tent” of digital humanities even further.

33 thoughts on “DH, Interdisciplinarity, and Curricular Incursion

  1. Thanks, Ryan. Great post. Your advice about keeping new courses grounded in a discipline is one of the things that really stuck with me from that NITLE seminar, and this feels to me like a thoughtful extension of that point.

    I confess that I enjoy DH most when it gets pretty far from a disciplinary home base. My own work right now is probably as much informatics as it is literary history. But I don’t disagree with your point at all. Especially where junior faculty and/or graduate students are concerned, it can’t be underlined enough that the “field” we see on Twitter doesn’t exist at most institutions! Departments may vaguely want to hire someone “digital,” but what they really want in many cases is someone whose work is largely traditional, but who can negotiate for them with this new and scary phenomenon.

    I also really, really agree about the value of hybrid panels that combine digital and non-digital approaches to a shared theoretical or historical problem. I was on one of those at the MLA and it was a very valuable conversation.

  2. I think that institutional change of any kind is really difficult work, and your comments here make a lot of sense to me. The “Trojan Horse” of familiar disciplinary language is a great tactic, like the DH term itself.

  3. Great post Ryan. I’m particularly interested in the point you raise about the problem of one digital humanist not being equipped to teach the entire field. I’ve been thinking about this as I prepare my own teaching materials and syllabi. In envisioning my own digital humanities course I love that “I” can work within so many disciplinary fields, but that does not make it interdisciplinary (multidisciplinary maybe), but I do not have, as you point out, collaborations between distinct disciplines. I would love nothing more then to create a class, collaboratively, wherein instructors from distinct disciplines team teach, but that’s not a reality as my current institution. Your idea of grounding a syllabus in one discipline then makes sense and provides a manageable model for crafting such a course.

    1. Shawn,

      I’ve been bringing folks in via Skype and Google+ to talk about a range of topics. We’ve had Miriam Posner, Kathryn Tomasek, Wesley Raabe, and will have George Williams soon. However, I have to be prepared to follow up on and support any topic they introduce. I can’t refer my students to our guest speakers for technical support. This does mean I have to curtail the number of humanities technologies we actively work with in class.

  4. Thanks Ryan. I’ve long thought that we cannot move forward with digital work without understanding how disciplinary boundaries impact what we do. The term digital humanities has tended to mask numerous naturalized methodologies that really need to be exposed and discussed. Without a careful examination of such approaches we will merely replicate disciplinary issues that we might want to move beyond.

  5. Agreed. I see similarities in DH’s emergence to ecocriticism in the mid 1990s. It seems like a process that many new fields/approaches undergo. Similar, too, in its dependence on collaboration and integrative methods. Dependence, too, on institutional acceptance, which can be harder to achieve. Thanks for the post.

  6. Hi Ryan, I agree with everyone else that this is a great post. I especially like your proposal to situate DH within a larger field (such as English and DH). I think that to introduce DH discussions on the level that we’re used to may alienate undergraduates, who are only starting to learn the conventions of disciplines that a lot of DH debates are critiquing at meta-levels.
    Also, what you said here recalls a lot of what was discussed at the MLA12 preconvention workshop for presenting digital scholarship for promotion tenure (Profhacker report here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/the-challenges-of-digital-scholarship/38103 ); that as DH-ers we need to be able to translate what we do to other scholars in terms that they can understand, or to “educate our audience.” I don’t think this is an unreasonable request, and in fact may lead to productive discussions about what “merit” and “standards” in our fields constitute.
    If I were to teach a DH course (which I haven’t yet), I would probably start with a lower level course which introduced students to some web 2.0 tools (such as a course on social media), by which I would, as you do in “Technologies of Text”, ask them to consider how these tools are changing our notions of literature. I would hopefully be able to build on these students’ knowledge when I teach a higher level DH class.
    Final thought I had: higher level DH classes may only be possible if DH is offered as a “track” within a curriculum, so that students enrolled in the higher level courses have taken some prerequisite courses. What do you think?

    1. A few thoughts, Adeline. First, your point about students “only starting to learn the conventions of disciplines” that DH critiques is spot on. In “Technologies of Text” many of my students aren’t even humanities majors. They took literature or history classes as freshmen and sophomores (as part of their general education requirements), but they’re definitely not attuned enough to the critical debates in humanities fields to understand why DH might represent an intervention in those fields.

      Your final point about higher-level DH classes is also a good one. I know I’ve seen a post recently about DH curricula beginning and ending with “Intro to DH” (can anyone recall where I read that?). At a small school like mine, a DH “track” would be staffed entirely by me. Given my other curricular responsibilities, I’m not sure how possible that would be–and, of course, it would be a limited track for all the reasons of expertise I list above! We probably can’t support a DH track anytime soon, so instead I try to work DH into many of my classes so that students who take me for several classes–and that *is* common in small departments–will build on a few DH skills while they’re here.

  7. excellent and so very true for those of us in very very SLAC. I’m planning to do digital history in my already existing and v. popular “history in the city” course as it offers so many ways to integrate both digital production of history by students and digital sources. I’ve been able to get buy in by emphasizing “informational/techmology literacy” which are part of our assessment and by pointing out that working with digital tools makes LA grads more “marketable.

  8. Thanks for these thoughts Ryan – they are very useful.

    I can say that I’ve had the experience of needing to locate my DH work within my discipline (English) in order to make the case that it belongs within my dept and therefore our curriculum. This works well for me, given that I have always felt that I had a particularly literary bent to my DH interests. At the same time, we have an interdisciplinary core program in which I’ll be stretching out to try to encompass the many variations of “archive” that can exist with both brick and mortar and digital domains. All of which is to say that I’ve had to both call on my disciplinary grounding and my interdisciplinary reach to propose different courses for different institutional purposes.

  9. Terrific. I will say that it’s a little hard for me personally to get outside of the DH big tent, just because I’m situated so firmly in places outside of discipline-specific departments: often libraries, currently at a DH Center. And it’s very difficult indeed to keep my disciplinary focus when I’m surrounded by all these historians . . . I’m hoping to do some work on Millay that’ll have impact both in and outside of DH circles.

  10. Wonderful post, Ryan!

    I have a bit of a vested interest in what you have to say because the proposal I sent to DH 2012 was concerned with precisely these issues. I hope they accept it, especially since you’ve now provided some additional anecdata.

    Some of what you say resonates very strongly with my own experiences teaching Introduction to Digital Humanities, first last Spring and again this Spring. The term “Digital Humanities” mystifies many. In my first day of class survey I ask my students how many had heard of the term “digital humanities” before they signed up for the course. So far, it is running 0 for 52. The term “Introduction” also causes some confusion both for its implicit assumption that there are more advanced courses to move on to and for the idea that intro courses should be reserved for Frosh/Soph. The first time I taught the course, I limited enrollment to upper division students. I loosened that requirement for this year’s course and as a result a majority of the class is freshmen. The decision to open up to freshmen was deliberate, in that I wanted to build a constituency for more advanced courses which is difficult if the “intro” course is being taken by seniors and there were pedagogical ideas that I thought would make the course particularly appropriate for lower division students. But the transition to a majority freshman class has not been completely smooth.

    There are some peculiarities of Stockton that make my experience very different from yours in other respects. My Intro to DH class is taught in our College of General Studies, not in a discipline. All Stockton faculty have a fraction of their teaching time assigned to General Studies and all Stockton students take General Studies courses rather than departmental courses for “breadth” requirements. Two major consequences of this are 1) only a minority of my students are humanities majors and 2) I am strongly encouraged to incorporate all humanities disciplines in my course rather than to limit the course to a single discipline. My course also counts as part of an interdisciplinary minor in Visual Literacy which attracts some Education majors.

    In part because of these peculiarities, I remain committed to a trans-disciplinary presentation of digital humanities. Indeed, I take the first couple of class periods to situate “the humanities” in relation to majors, departments, and disciplines. (Indeed, this point of entry was one reason I thought having lots of freshmen would work.) We then explore what difference computers make for a variety of humanities disciplines. Although the book is too academic for most students, the layout of the Companion to Digital Humanities, starting with chapters on each discipline before moving on to tools and interpretive strategies is actually very helpful for following this line of analysis.

    The biggest drawback so far in this approach is that it takes too long to get to the doing part of DH. My first year’s final projects were generally very weak and I’m beginning to worry about this year’s.

    As I said, I’m hoping that I’ll have more to say about this at DH 2012. You are posing important questions on the relationship of teaching and disciplinarity. I should emphasize that my own version of Intro to DH is a teaching convenience, not an effort to establish contours of DH as its own discipline. It’s why I like the term “trans-disciplinary” more than “inter-disciplinary.” The twitter discussion last week about why people don’t talk about “Digital Social Science” in the same way that they talk about Digital Humanities is related.

    1. I also like the term “trans-disciplinary,” John. On Twitter, Jentery Sayers proposed “cross disciplinary.” My course _does_ cross disciplines, but the reference point is always literary studies–or, perhaps more precisely, a history of the book.

      I should add that my course is also a General Education course. We have upper-division GenEd requirements at St. Norbert. “Technologies of Text” is even listed as IDIS 269; IDIS stands for “Interdivisional Studies.” This too was a strategic choice. Our upper-division GenEd requirements cannot be satisfied within students’ own majors. So an English student cannot take an English class to fulfill their upper-division GenEd. I wanted English students to be able to take this course, though, because it is so different from what they’ve done within their major thus far. And so it’s a history of the book course (clearly “literary”) offered within the GenEd program and listed as Interdivisional Studies–whew!

      My students are all juniors and seniors, and a great many come from fields outside of the humanities. As Adeline notes below, that does make it difficult for them to see the interventions that DH makes in the humanities, because their familiarity with the humanities comes from a few (likely other GenEd) courses. By casting the course not as a narrative of recent scholarly revolution, but as a narrative of textual technological change, DH ideas can be appreciated by students uninterested in literary or historical scholarship more broadly. At least I think and hope so–only time and student evaluations will tell.

      I hope you’ll keep me in the loop as you prepare your DH presentation. I wish I could afford to attend this year; I’d love to visit Hamburg. Please do share your presentation when it’s ready, though!

  11. Great observations. Here are some thoughts about building DH at a liberal arts college, for whatever they’re worth:

    1. Get the support of your administration. They are probably pro-technology in general but may not know a lot about DH.

    2. Seek internal and external funding for faculty development. Partnerships are best. External funding gets almost everyone’s attention and respect.

    3. Build coalitions with like-minded faculty members. Connect them with sources of support and extended collegiality. Extend that collegiality to peer institutions, research universities, and the larger DH community.

    4. Seek opportunities for faculty-student collaborative research (using DH-trained faculty, see #2 and 3). Support star students doing DH work. Showcase them at student research events. Build a close relationship with public relations: digital projects look great on the college Website.

    5. Seek places in the curriculum to teach DH courses or introduce DH into existing courses. I think the courses could be quite variable based on the curriculum and standing of faculty involved. Identify available niches and adapt to them. Work closely with the guardians of curricular integrity, so there’s no suspicion. Work hard in advance to make sure those classes are FULL and that the word-of-mouth is positive. Invite colleagues to make guest appearances and offer to reciprocate, showcasing DH in other settings.

    6. Work with administration, advancement and sponsored research to explore funding for program building in addition to faculty development.

    7. Work hard on hiring committees to write the ads and seek candidates who will support DH. Get DH into courses that every student must take: composition, etc., perhaps starting with “digital literacy.” Get the Writing Center to provide DH support using students trained in your courses.

    8. Get elected to boards and committees where you can advocate for DH. Acquire a track-record of leadership that eventually will allow for a more direct role in orienting the culture towards DH.

    I’m probably forgetting some things–and this kind of project is like a second job–but it seems to be working. Liberal arts faculty have to take the long view, but it’s still surprising how we’ve found support so quickly.

    DH was almost unknown three years ago. Our two recent provosts have become strongly supportive of technology interests and experiments of all kinds. Our regional consortium, the GLCA, has funded lots of projects for mid-career faculty interested in technology, including DH, as part of the Mellon-funded “New Directions Initiative.” And we received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to create an honors program in the arts and humanities with a DH emphasis.

  12. Ryan, thank you for this post. The ensuing conversation is most rousing.

    With that being said, we need to have the very real conversation about resistance to Digital Humanities in the academic world. Over at Hook & Eye, Aimee Morrison writes about an Associate Professor’s call to duty: crankiness on the behalf of others. So, I take that here:

    There exists some very real resistance, hostility even, towards Digital Humanities. Often, DH scholars and teachers find themselves defining, re-defining, explaining, and discussing the field in an attempt to convince colleagues of its efficacy and authority. But there is a certain point where that conversation can become counter-productive. Instead, the DHer will need to assess if doing is better than talking: teach, research, write, work with students and the like. We need some help with those kinds of situations when they arise. And sometimes, at that point, we need to abandon the case in our home departments.

    If this happens, spend some time talking with faculty in other departments. I bet you’ll find that they are already doing something DH oriented but may call it something else. This is where disciplinary boundaries are important, not to replicate them but to be aware of the vocabulary being used to articulate things such as student learning goals or scholarly output. For instance, the Communications Dept on my campus hired their way out of a very nasty situation. It took years, but now they all get along and have agreed to support one another. They take an interest in DH, but they call it something else or a myriad of terms. In their department they speak of community, but that’s a word equated with my DH discipline term, collaboration. When we all discovered that we were discussing the same kind of application, the conversation about cross-pollination became that much easier to navigate.

    We haven’t yet established a cross-listed course, but we have managed to host each other as guests in standing courses. This is true of other disciplines and colleges on my campus. Networking with my large number of colleagues far and wide (doing service work or just by emailing some based on their directory listings of specialties) has gone a long way towards good will and mutual interests. Curricular changes, as many of you will find, can be difficult to enact — for a variety of reasons, including navigating lots of administrative red tape which in turn forces extremely slow change. You might find that you will have to work outside institutional boundaries for awhile and pull in faculty and staff where you can. Networking is key.

    In another instance of vocabulary misunderstandings, on the Advisory Board tasked with creating the university’s new mission statement, the disciplines represented crossed the gamut. At some point, we were all discussing student-centered projects, but the outcomes were very different from discipline to discipline: some meant having students do the research work in a lab on behalf of a faculty member who would then publish the results as a single author (students as worker bees); others were discussing faculty as mentors who encouraged students to run an entire project themselves that would result in a course grade; and yet another derivation occurred with another set of faculty who wanted the students to make all of the decisions and create public scholarship that would be accepted by the stated field. These are all fine types of student-centered projects, but we were at a moment when we needed to be clear about the structure and the outcomes and our disciplines were getting in the way. We got over it, but only after discussing the relationship between student and faculty with specificity. Knowledge of disciplinary boundaries hurt us in this sense (and this was partly because everyone was invested in his/her college or department receiving a piece of the substantial funding if it could be proved that his/her field was the model for this part of the mission statement).

    Some in my department are openly hostile towards the tenets of DH (collaboration, open access, public scholarship, social networking), but these are the same people who are also openly hostile to what is considered other fringe types of work (anything dealing with social politics in literary studies). This is not to say that they are not smart, engaging people. But, they are deeply invested in their type of literary studies to the point that they believe that our students cannot benefit from DH in an English Department.

    That’s okay. If you establish that this will be the case in your department, try not to antagonize but don’t expect these people to change their minds through conversation and extra service work. At this point, ignore those disciplinary boundaries. See who else is interested. Try to ignore local politics even if you are constantly being called on to defend your field to your colleagues. (Just don’t take the bait.)

    Look, we all want our careers to be nice and absent of major trauma. That would be super terrific! Sometimes that’s not the way it’s going to be. And, there might be really solid reasons for sticking around that department: the students are awesome, colleagues in other departments are excited and passionate, living in a great location, etc.

    The short of it is: know your own discipline and its boundaries. But know also when it’s time to explore other disciplines that may have more porous boundaries and a more supple vocabulary.

    Edited to Add: Sorry for the might bit of gloom and doom. This response is not intended to deter anyone from doing DH in any discipline. But for those on the job, looking for a position, or thinking about getting into DH, there’s a point where it’s necessary to think about the negative response to DH in academia and how to salvage your work within your particular institutional culture.

    BTW: There’s always lemonade to be made!

    1. I really appreciate the long-term advice that you’re offering here, Kathy–as well as Bill’s advice below. I agree that we should make a poster out of Bill’s list!

      My ideas here describe short-term rhetorical strategies for starting DH at an institution. I would hope that these short-term strategies grow into long-term approaches like you outline. I think we mostly agree, to be honest.

      A few notes and questions to continue the conversation.

      1. My situation is almost the opposite of what you describe. My colleagues in English (all seven of them!) are for the most part very open to DH approaches. My task was to get the course past our curricular committee, which at the moment doesn’t include anyone from English. It was this committee that was unfamiliar with DH. I could have spent longer exchanging documents with them, trying to better define DH in my “DH 101” proposal. Instead I decided to pitch a course clearly grounded in English, a discipline they recognize, so that I could start “doing rather than talking,” as you phrase it. I hope, of course, that this doing can open conversations with colleagues doing similar things, as they hear from their students and advisees about what my course is and does.

      2. What I hope I’m describing isn’t a resistance to cross-disciplinary collaboration, but a strategy that privileges doing over “defining, re-defining, explaining, and discussing the field,” at least locally. I hope I’m not outlining a strategy of avoidance, but a different and more subtle strategy of engagement.

      1. Oh yes, yes, indeed! There’s nary a hint of pessimism in my long-ish response. It’s best to be prepared on all fronts for advancing the field (or not). And, we agree on all points here. Thank you for your clarity, though.

  13. Ryan,

    I enjoyed reading your post. Here at the University of Cincinnati I proposed the doctoral course “English Studies and Digital Humanities” last year (now on the books for semesters as of August 2012). Because all new courses (with the exception of special topics courses) have to go through the university submission workflow of program/department/college/graduate school/registrar, I have to make sure that the learning outcomes/objectives for new course proposal scaffold with my own doctoral track’s (rhetoric and composition) learning outcomes/objectives. Here are three ways that I considered audience:

    (1) If I claimed that the audience for doctoral students was outside of my department (History, Philosophy, Sociology, etc), I would likely run into additional submission problems at the department/college level. This may include issues of turf at the college level, and program learning outcome/objective questions at the department level. All of these questions could be resolved with more work, but I have no agency or interest as a junior faculty to fight curriculum battles at the college level.

    (2) If I narrowed the audience of the course to my own discipline, there’s the potential that the course may never make. We only have 1-2 new doctoral students in r-c each year, so the course requires students from other tracks to make.

    (3) If I keep the course wide/narrow enough that it’s visible under the umbrella of “English studies,” then other faculty in my department may take up the challenge of teaching the course. I’ve already seen this kind of growing interest, and this encourages a kind of departmental change from within.

    (4) These courses may easily become future building blocks for college/cross-college tracks and curricular collaborations. We’ve had success with this kind of scaffolding in our undergraduate curriculum with a new cross-college certificate in Critical Visions (http://daap.uc.edu/academics/art/undergrad/certificates/critical_visions_certificate.html).

    As far as my own disciplinary orientation goes, that would be another long response; however, I do think that my stake in most of the long term collaborative D.H. projects is my interest in questions particular to my own discipline. I also think that part of my D.H. training at the MSU WIDE Center prepared me identify shared/divergent interests in collaborative research. The D.H. Historian and the D.H. rhetorician may build X together, but may pursue different, complimentary research questions together. IMO, such a collaborative model does not cover everyone over in a single tent cloth.

    1. These are helpful considerations that mirror my own as I designed the course. I found, oddly enough, that a I could pitch my course more effectively to students outside my discipline (the majority of them, actually) by grounding it in literary studies. I was surprised by that–but as you say I would have run into trouble trying to claim expertise in other disciplines. These challenges would be more acute at the graduate level.

      I like this idea of “different, complementary research questions” growing out of a single project–that’s a model that would have traction at a school just getting started in DH.

  14. This is a really useful post Ryan, thanks. I’ve just finished a draft seminar titled ‘Introduction to Digital Humanities’ I’ll be offering to my colleagues which, along with dealing with Fish’s comments, outlines 3 ‘deployment models’ for DH: 1] ‘Dispersed’ (where DHers collaborate from within their own disciplines) 2] ‘Centralised’ (the ‘dept’ model) 2] ‘Mixed’ (a hybrid approach, which we’re taking, that uses an IT-based ‘incubation’ model followed by review after 3 years, to deal with some of the disadvantages of the other approaches. I’m working through paperwork to introduce a full DH programme, too, which needs to be assessed at a national level. I’m planning to blog about it (including my course outlines) at an appropriate time, but yes, there are some real challenges. As of now, though, I can report that we’re making some progress. One thing I’ve found, as have you and others quoted in your post, clearly, is to avoid the category error that conflates ‘Digital Humanities’ with Digital History, Digital Literary Studies etc (the terms lose clarity if they’re used inter-changeably); the taxonomic structure (as it were) of DH works best for me when it mirrors that of the analog world. It’s also more understandable to colleagues. So, yes, interdisciplinarity (with the strike-though) works for me.

    1. I look forward to following your program’s development, James. I think at institutions like mine the “dispersed” model might be the only available model. I’ll be curious to read about your hybrid approach–keep us posted!

  15. Great post, and the other comments are fantastic as well. DH needs to be grounded somewhere, and for me that’s history. DH is only its own thing (discipline?, movement?) when there’s widespread collaboration.

  16. Well said, Ryan. As a librarian at a liberal arts college that’s dipping it’s toes into the DH pool, I appreciate the insight into making the pitch for DH – particularly useful for those of us at smaller institutions without many DHers to hear the pragmatic side of getting DH into the classroom.

  17. Dear Mr. Cordell,

    I write to thank you for this very helpful expression of a tension I have sensed as I acquaint myself with the new insurgency of the so-called “digital humanities.”

    As you may know, I’ve recently embarked on an analysis of the movement in my New York Times column (not to say, blog) and the fourth essay in the series — http://bit.ly/H4Suf4 — makes reference to your writings on “curricular incursion.” It offers, I’m afraid, a bit of a challenge to the facile and inflammatory conclusions you draw.

    Stanley Fish

  18. My name is Kassidy Bridgeman, and I am a student in a digital humanities seminar called “Hamlet in the Humanities Lab” at the University of Calgary: .
    In my final paper for the course, I would like to base my argument on your blog post. You can read my paper after April 25th on the course blog:

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