Centers of Attention
[This is a talk I gave in April, 2010 at the Knowledge Futures Spring Forum at Emory University.]
I’ve been around digital humanities centers for a long time — fifteen years at least. I’ve worked at them (in positions ranging from part-time staff member to Fellow), consulted for them, given speeches at various openings and anniversaries, and been present at a few center funerals (these happen at bars, usually). And so I’m always interested in how these things get started and how they end.
One of my favorite founding stories involves the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia, where a lot of my ideas about centers were formed. According to the story, ibm offered to donate a server to the University of Virginia (this was back when such things were a lot rarer, and a lot more expensive). The University naturally approached the Computer Science Department asking if they’d like the equipment. The cs department, amazingly, said “No.” They had heard, however, that there were some people over in English and History who were doing things with computers. Maybe ask them.
I’ve always imagined the server washing up on the shores of the College of Arts and Sciences and starting a strange cargo cult among a group of people who normally didn’t talk to each other much. There’s a guy in history who’s into computers, and there’s someone in English. Neither of them really know what they’re doing, and the cs people are too busy with serious computational matters to help out the poets. The librarians, fortunately, know more than the computer scientists about how to actually run a rack server, and so they get involved. Questions arise: Where do we put this thing? Who pays for its upkeep? Doesn’t it need, like, maintenance or witchcraft or something? And are we really qualified to design Web sites, given that none of us have the faintest idea how to draw?
That this turned into one of the most vibrant centers of intellectual activity in North America — a hugely influential research group that would be widely imitated by such contemporary powerhouses as the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities — should surprise no one.
We like to marvel at the technological wonders that proceed from things like servers, but in this case — I would say, in all cases — the miracle of “computers in the humanities” is the way it forced even a highly balkanized academy into new kinds of social formations. Anyone involved with any of these big centers will tell you that they are rare sites of genuine collaboration and intellectual synergy — that they explode disciplinary boundaries and even the cherished hierarchies of academic rank. They do this, because…well, really because no one really knows what they’re doing. Because both the English professor and the History professor need to learn mysql; because the undergraduate student from art history happens to be the only one who knows php; because actually, you do need to learn how to draw (or at least know something about design), and the designers are pleased to reveal their art to you. Because you know Java.
These may not sound like disruptive modalities, but in an area of scholarship where co-authorship is viewed with suspicion and collaboration is rare, the idea that you couldn’t master everything necessary to create a digital archive or write a piece of software was a complete revelation. It forced scholars to imagine their activities in terms of highly interdependent groups. To succeed, you had to become like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales; “gladly would he learn and gladly would he teach.” Working as a full-time programmer at iath in the late nineties (while finishing a PhD in English) not only changed the way I think about computers in the humanities, but changed the way I think about the humanities, and about higher education itself.
Universities are designed around subject areas. But what if they were designed, like centers, around methodologies or even questions? Right now, we have English Departments, and Political Science Departments, and Biology Departments. And these various units — made up of people who only occasionally talk to each other — band off to form things like the Graduate Certificate Program in Eighteenth Century French Drama, or the Center for Peace Studies, or the Bioinformatics Initiative. What would it be like if that was all there was — structures meant to bring people and students together for as long as a methodology remains useful or a question remains interesting? Such entities would be born like centers — born with all the excitement and possibility of not knowing what you’re doing — of having to learn from each other what the methodologies and questions are really about. And they might also die like centers. I mentioned that I’ve been at a few center funerals, and I can tell you that they don’t die the way you think (lack of funding, for example, is probably the least common reason). Mostly, they die because people move on to other questions and concerns. And what’s wrong with that? You could imagine a university in which scholars move through a number of different centers over the course of a career, and students pass through a number of them on the way to a degree (we’d have to change the names of the degrees to something vague, like “Bachelor of Arts” or “Doctor of Philosophy”).
The things holding us back from this kind of grand vision are manifold. But in the case of the Digital Humanities centers, I think there’s a particular problem that we do well to acknowledge. Every center for Digital Humanities that I am aware of has some kind of service component. I don’t mean outreach of the sort that centers very often do — sponsoring activities for other parts of the university and for the wider community is a wonderful thing for any research group to do, and we need to do more of it. I mean the evangelical role that all digital humanities centers are expected to have. For most centers, it was just part of the deal; we’ll give you the center if you agree to act as the helpdesk for the legions of scholars who would like to create their own blogs and wikis. What’s that you say? Those legions don’t exist? Well, you can create them. In fact, we’d like you to spearhead our technological march into the twenty-first century by acting as catalyst for the “digital campus.”
I wouldn’t want to suggest that digital centers should become little ivory towers in the wider fortress. But I would suggest that Deans and Administrators preparing to establish Centers ask themselves why the Center for Peace Studies is not expected to ensure peaceful meetings in the German Department or why the Bioinformatics Initiative is not saddled with the task of assisting anyone who expresses an interest in their family history. Are we finally ready to create centers in the Digital Humanities that are valued not because of the services they provide, but because of the culture they represent — a culture that has always been about the two things we value most: the advancement of knowledge and the education of students.
Years ago, while working at iath, my dissertation director (Jerome McGann, one of the cargo cult founders) stopped me in the hallway and said, “Steve, be sure to treasure this experience. I’ve worked in this field a long time, and I can tell you: you may never see this again.” I think Jerry was right and wrong about that. He was wrong; I’ve managed to see it several times since leaving iath, most especially at the center I’m now involved with (The Center for Digital Research in the Humanities). But he was also right. It’s easy to treasure the wrong thing about digital centers: to see the excitement brewing in a community of teachers, students, and researchers as a new opportunity for what we might do, rather than a way to affirm an amazing thing that has already happened.