Monday, June 3, 2013

Identity Crisis

As I've alluded to in the past couple of posts, what I will be doing with this blog is delving into the purpose and usefulness of the digital humanities as I see it. This isn't an easy question to answer -- it's not really an easy question to ask either.

To broach the topic and provide a sounding board, I think it's necessary to reference the essay by Paul Jay and Gerald Graff entitled "Fear of Being Useful." The essay is an attempt to dispel the attitudes many have about the achieving a humanities degree in a world run by corporations and an overarching business-oriented mindset. As published on Harriet, The Poetry Foundation's blog, "Who cares if you can recite the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English when we’re in the middle of a recession?" In the same article, Staff actually offers a very good summary of Jay and Graff's essay. You can find it here.

Jay and Graff begin by dividing the defenders of the humanities into two broad categories:
"Traditionalists argue that emphasizing professional skills would betray the humanities' responsibility to honor the great monuments of culture for their own sake. Revisionists, on the other hand, argue that emphasizing the practical skills of analysis and communication that the humanities develop would represent a sellout, making the humanities complicit with dominant social values and ideologies."
So, there are the lines. They argue, however, that one of the few things each camp agrees upon is that, "... the humanities should resist our culture's increasing fixation on a practical, utilitarian education. Both complain that the purpose of higher education has been reduced to credentialing students for the marketplace."

After giving several examples, they call out the digital humanities specifically:
The emergence of this field calls attention to how old 20th-century divisions between science and the humanities are breaking down and gives those of us committed to defending the practical value of the humanities a tremendous opportunity. The digital humanities represent the cutting-edge intersection of the humanities and computer science, the merging of skills and points of view from two formerly very different fields that are leading to a host of exciting innovations..."
In closing, Jay and Graff call for the end of lamentation and the beginning of relevance for the humanities:
"We believe it is time to stop the ritualized lamentation over the crisis in the humanities and get on with the task of making them relevant in the 21st century. Such lamentation only reveals the inability of many humanists to break free of a 19th-century vision of education that sees the humanities as an escape from the world of business and science. As Cathy Davidson has forcefully argued in her new book, Now You See It, this outmoded way of thinking about the humanities as a realm of high-minded cultivation and pleasure in which students contemplate the meaning of life is a relic of the industrial revolution with its crude dualism of lofty spiritual art vs. mechanized smoking factories, a way of thinking that will serve students poorly in meeting the challenges of the 21st century.
And then, the kicker:
Humanities graduates are trained to consider the ethical dimensions of experience, linking the humanities with the sciences as well as with business and looking at both these realms from diverse perspectives.To those who worry that what we urge would blunt the humanities' critical power, we would reply that it would actually figure to increase that power, for power after all is the ability to act in the world."
I completely agree with Jay and Graff. One of the biggest struggles the humanities are facing deals with the fact that most of the other disciplines look upon them with outdated disdain. Sure, you're knowledge of Shakespeare's sonnets may not come in handy during your interview with a large marketing firm. But if those sonnets shaped your perspective in a way that is unique and valuable -- if you have taken apart the words, studied the historical context, developed arguments, and performed in-depth analysis -- have you not benefited?

I wish that Jay and Graff would have discussed more of the digital humanities. I understand that the purpose of the piece was a defense of the humanities overall, but I feel like the topic was glossed over. The "exciting innovations" they observe are indeed exciting, but they seem short-sighted. They observe the digital humanities are for:
students who want to enter fields related to everything from writing computer programs to text encoding and text editing, electronic publishing, interface design, and archive construction. Students in the digital humanities are trained to deal with concrete issues related to intellectual property and privacy, and with questions related to public access and methods of text preservation."
Is that all? Don't get me wrong: those fields didn't exist until fairly recently, and they are just now becoming involved with the humanities. But the digital humanities encompass much more. What about graphic design, photography, and film? What about digital education, online marketing, and the music business industry? What about international relations? It may be that Jay and Graff didn't need to mention all of that, and so they didn't. It occurs to me, however, that mentioning something so specific as "methods of text preservation" isn't an accident. Are the digital humanities really confined to coding, interfaces, and archives?

To me, the digital humanities represent a broad field that embraces, engages, and utilizes a variety of disciplines and other fields of study. Linguistics, graphic design, coding, e-publishing, and videography are just a few I can name. It's not that these fields fall under the umbrella of the digital humanities, rather, by studying the digital humanities, all of these fields (and more) are utilized.

Perhaps, I am wrong. Hopefully, I'll find out.

Next time: thoughts on digital literacy.

No comments:

Post a Comment