Digital Humanities and Stardom

January 1, 2011

Recent MLA conferences seem to be a privileged venue for the Digital Humanities community to look into the mirror (which actually means that a lot of people wonder if what they’re seeing in the mirror is themselves, the other, or something in between). The effect has obviously been amplified by the embrace of social media – and especially of Twitter – and the special way that ideas and opinions can reverberate and spread at unprecedented speeds and with the input of a wide range of individuals.

Two articles in by William Pannapacker in the Chronicle of Higher Education have attracted a lot of attention in particular, last year’s The MLA and the Digital Humanities (that generally resulted in self-congratulatory glow for the digital humanities) and this year’s Digital Humanities Triumphant? (which has been considerably more controversial within the digital humanities). I have to admit that I think that Pannapacker is generally accurate in his portrayal of digital humanities, and it’s fair enough that he draws attention to the tension between builders and theorists, coders and non-coders, and even the cool, “connected” folks and others. In fact, I suspect that Pannapacker may feel a bit surprised by the reaction to his post and a bit misunderstood. The problem is that he scratched a perennial sore spot of digital humanities that relates to our perception of ourselves as welcoming and egalitarian. Please read his entire post if you haven’t already because it’s disingenuous to reduce it to the following, but this in particular is what has rubbed many people the wrong way:

But the field, as a whole, seems to be developing an in-group, out-group dynamic that threatens to replicate the culture of Big Theory back in the 80s and 90s, which was alienating to so many people. It’s perceptible in the universe of Twitter: We read it, but we do not participate. It’s the cool-kids’ table. So, the digital humanities seem more exclusive, more cliquish, than they did even one year ago.

Criticizing the warm, fuzzy feeling of the digital humanities is a bit like if someone decided to criticize Canadians for being impolite: Canadians have a profoundly entrenched notion of ourselves as polite, which is largely true, but it’s very often untrue as well. It’s inevitably problematic to lump all Canadians together just as it’s inevitably problematic to lump all digital humanists together. The digital humanities are very often amazingly welcoming and down-to-earth, but there are some aspects to the digital humanities (and possibly some individuals) that are far less welcoming. Still, Twitter is an open door, and if people refuse to step through, I don’t think the people inside can be blamed. Twitter is a paradoxical tool in many ways: yes, anyone can join and it is a meritocracy, but yes tight-knit communities do form and can appear exclusive. Dude, it’s social networking, of course there will be cliques. Deal. But I can tell you that my Twitter community includes an incredibly heterogenous group of people, from students to faculty to staff to non-academics. That’s a clique I’m happy to be a part of.

Do those who participate in Twitter need to be aware of the perception of exclusivity? Yes, of course (thanks for the reminder Pannapacker, though it is something we discuss regularly already). As one of my tweeps aptly pointed out, many of our colleagues don’t agonize too much over this and they just get on with their work (and so much the better).

In any case, Pannapacker goes on to say this:

There are identifiable stars who know they are stars. And some of the senior figures in the field, like Alan Liu, seem like gods among us.

I’m with him for a good part of the post, but I think here he’s completely wrong. For one thing, I’ve been doing digital humanities for over 15 years, and it’s not at all clear to me who the stars are. Moreover, I don’t think the so-called stars perceive themselves as such. The people I most respect and admire in digital humanities – the folks I’m assuming Pannapacker is referring to (I’ll deliberately avoid naming names) – are truly among the most humble and down-to-earth colleagues I can imagine. These are people who love doing their work and who spend an unbelievable amount of their time contributing altruistically to the community. These are people who volunteer huge amounts of time working behind the scenes on committees, advocating for the digital humanities at various levels, helping to provide support and expertise for other colleagues, mentoring junior colleagues formally and informally, and the list goes on.

Also problematic is Pannapacker’s suggestion that academic stardom functions the same way in, say, literary criticism as it does in the digital humanities. The difference is that the digital humanities are conducive to all kinds of recognition, some of which are less common in other disciplines. Here’s a sampling that jumps to mind:

  • authors of well-respected publications (some monographs, though many journal articles and even blog posts)
  • leaders of scholarly associations and consultation committees
  • editors of germane journals and collections
  • highly appreciated compelling speakers
  • pioneers and long-time members of the community
  • moderators of online discussions
  • leaders of high-profile and large-scale projects
  • talented developers
  • effective leaders of research centres
  • enthusiastic and engaged funding officers
  • prolific or incisive (or both) members of social networking communities

Some of the higher items are naturally associated with academic communities, but some of the lower items are maybe more characteristic of digital humanities at this point in time (they may become more pervasive in the humanities as time goes on). You can be a star (or something like that) in this community without having founded a school of thought or having written a pile of influential books. You can excel in the digital humanities in a variety of ways – I really like that about our discipline. I also really like that most of my colleagues don’t seem to strive to be stars, they strive to be good at and enjoy what they do.

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