Don Quixote for the Digital Humanities – Part I

The digital humanities (DH): if this topic excites among librarians a buzz verging at times on rapture, there are perhaps good reasons for that. After all, the humanities, as I have argued, have for their omphalos the library (or some such metaphor). Librarianship, on the other hand, has traditionally been a bureaucratic profession, concerned with the construction of order by application of a rule, rather than with the work of reading and interpreting; with the cataloging and stewardship of works, rather than with the consecration or desecration of texts. The digital humanities (DH), however, promise a fresh symbiosis (according to a recent OCLC report) between categorization and interpretation, bringing the work of librarians and humanists into a zone of more intimate contact. From text mining, to the creation of digital scholarly editions, to the construction of new analytic tools, the DH represent a confrontation between the humanities and the concepts of data and metadata; the fact that these data and metadata often pertain to textual objects beckons to librarians’ expertise.

But there are larger bones to pick. Let us suppose that, in the oracular words of OCLC, “‘the Digital Humanities’ […] will soon be considered ‘the Humanities.'” Is this prophecy cause for unqualified celebration? Does the ascendancy of the DH herald a world of broader access and deeper appreciation — a world in which digital surrogates bring ancient papyri into middle-school classrooms, and algorithmic techniques explode the canon, letting observation and insight traverse the most obscure nooks and neglected crannies of the archive? Or as more skeptical voices suggest, does this ascendancy betoken “the managerial and bureaucratic imperatives” (Eyers — see below) that more and more permeate higher ed, targeting now even those slow and steady herbivores, those workhorses who require for their upkeep only a library card and a quiet corner — the readers of texts?

Let’s look at two recent critiques of the DH — by Jeff Rice and Tom Eyers — following their suggestions to an errancy that might let us escape the hype.

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Is There an Art of Management?

Ann Larson’s recent essay declares that rhetoric and composition is dead. Its death, for Larson, accompanies the slow but certain demise of “the old idea of higher education as a publicly funded social good and a viable career path for teachers and researchers.” Larson’s analysis dovetails with recent discussion about neoliberalism and the academic library. What has killed rhetoric and composition, on Larson’s analysis — by which she means, killed its progressive, critical potential as a discourse and a site for emancipatory pedagogy — is an insistence, by some of those rallying to its banner, on securing disciplinary, i.e., professional, status. As Larson argues, this insistence has tended to co-opt and eclipse the struggle for fair working conditions for the majority of those who teach composition. That silent majority is, of course, the adjunct instructors, who typically lack the time to publish, the funds to attend conferences, etc. — in short, the means to assert a professional identity on their own behalf. Larson and others are right to remind us — in a reminder that pertains to librarians no less than scholars of rhetoric and composition — that those who work for a wage, regardless of their titles or credentials or the color of their collars, are workers. What this means, in an age of ramifying exploitation across all sectors of the economy, is that the tension between solidarity and professionalism — or between, on the one hand, an ethics of work and service and reciprocity; and on the other, an identity that appeals to expertise — admits of no reconciliation. As critics of a Marxist bent have long maintained, the tension is a conflict at the level of ideology.