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.