Commentary on our readings

Response from Laurie Osborne:

My reading for our workshop included Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?” Katherine Rowe’s “Crowd-Sourcing Shakespeare,” Brett Hirsch’s “The Kingdom has been Digitized,” and Julia Flanders’ “The Productive Unease of 21st-century Digital Scholarship.” To these items directly from our bibliography, I added Whitney Anne Trettien’s “Disciplining Digital Humanities, 2010,” which reviews an array of digital resources and assesses their strengths and weaknesses.

I had varying responses to these different materials, although they consistently provoked the impulse to seek out the links to other articles, other arguments, other websites or programs. For example, while Kirschenbaum’s article provided a nice starting place for thinking the wide array of practices that the humanities have begun to gather under the umbrella of digital humanities and the role that English departments play, its assessment did not provoke a lot of useful questions but did lead me to seek some intriguing linked materials. The mental image of Rosemary Feal using Twitter to broadcast ongoing comments about the MLA convention amused me, but the account of Brian Coxe’s absent presence at MLA and blog/presentation paper going viral sent me off to participate in that phenomenon and read the paper that Professor Cavanagh read for him at the conference.

Because of this excursion, I began to wonder how we should understand the reach and endurance of digital events. The number of recorded hits (including now mine) that led Kirschenbaum to argue that the paper was “by many orders of magnitude the most widely seen and read paper” from the convention did not explain fully enough to me the significance of this paper/event. The paper’s viral spread right after the conference does not actually reveal what, if any, actual influence the arguments in it have had. Coxe’s presentation directs our attention most forcefully to the constrained tenure-track hiring and the bulk of teaching (and perhaps new digital work) done by members of our profession who lack reasonable salaries or job security yet teach many, many of our students. In response, Kirschenbaum suggests that the digital interactions that developed from this paper/post and its circulation might offer the mechanism for “real resistance or reform” (59). Yet here we are three years later – so what were the long term gains from the event? The paper is obviously still available since I found it, and Coxe himself is still blogging; however, the larger effects of work that emerges or even persists in the digital realm are not necessarily clear. Can digital encounters/talks like this one successfully drive real reform in the universities, which remain in financially tough straits and continue to produce PhDs for whom few academic jobs exist? How does this kind of paper/event/buzz differ from or improve upon the articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, published articles in more conventional venues, or other MLA talks? One question we might consider is what conditions are necessary for digital humanities to create change in the structure of the university itself.

In different ways, Rowe, Trettien, and Hirsch are all most interested in how digital humanities can revolutionize scholarly work, particularly in terms of expression, modes of inquiry, and collaboration in research. Rowe uses several sites within Second Life to explore the advantages and disadvantages of the kind of “nonhierarchical relations” that Kirschenbaum envisioned as potentially helpful for reform. Trettien advocates for webwork that enables the richest uses of the medium, arguing that “if digital humanities is to change the way that we think about Shakespeare, it must embrace the Web not simply as a content delivery platform, but as an expressive medium in itself” (392). Hirsch’s article sketches out the significant complexities and challenges that thwart self-evidently valuable digital work, like creating online editions for lesser known Renaissance dramatists. All three implicitly raise the question of whether the new digital representation of Shakespeare (and others) actually alters or should alter the substance of our scholarly work.

Rowe and Trettien both assess the sites and structures they explore in terms how visitors can interact with the materials offered and the degree of creative use of the web-based interface these sites employ in exploring Shakespeare and Shakespearean performances. Their articles raised questions about what levels and kinds of interaction we are seeking in web-based digital projects. Rowe identifies issues I would find interesting to engage in our workshop when she interrogates how academics might “approach immersive, affective, and practical modes of interpretation as equal, perhaps competing frameworks for thinking, not as opposites” to critical thinking (60). Can taking advantage of the immersive and interactive potential of web-based explorations of performance, for example, be seen as offering valuable insight and engagement with Early modern drama comparable to the more traditional forms of academic analysis? Her essay explores performance in Second Life and emphasizes “the build,” the creation of an immersive space that the designers plan as “what’s felt to be an authentic Shakespearean space” (62). That authenticity takes different forms, even in Second Life, and these sites, authentic or not, could provide insights as transient as the experiences themselves.

Trettien’s review of several Shakespearean sites, including both university-based projects like the ones at MIT and Luke McKernan’s Bardbox, underscores how these sites too often present themselves only as content delivery systems. Just as Rowe promotes the validity of insights drawn from affective, immersive environments, Trettien advocates the use of “the Web’s revolutionary potential as a medium – that is, its unique ability to mobilize historical thinking through participatory learning” (393). Like Rowe, Trettien favors sites that most fully engage the capabilities of Web for interaction, for example, Bardbox. She envisions a “new digital humanist [who] uses his or her expertise—in combination with social media, library partnerships, and other scholars—to curate roving collections of a mobile Shakespeare(s) that traverses multiple audiences” (400). This vision prompts me to wonder just who these new digital humanists will be and what might be the long term utility of “mobile Shakespeare.” How will the impulse for preserving materials implicit in the idea of curating an archive interact with the constant revisions of multiple audience interactions and continuously, quickly evolving technical capabilities? What exactly do we achieve by “mobiliz[ing] historical thinking”?

Of course, both these articles, with their emphasis on Shakespeare, support Hirsch’s arguments that we need to develop new digital editions (not just digital texts) of non-Shakespearean Renaissance dramatic works. His data sets about the Shakespeare-centric and text-centric editions of the last several years are daunting in their disproportion and underscore the underlying financial drivers of textual production. But what about the financial considerations involved in digital editions? Disk space, band width, cloud computing, internet access, etc. all actually cost someone something, and the cost of the scholar’s time and energy, when both suffer increasing demands on several fronts, is also considerable.

At the same time, Hirsch’s detailed account led me to wonder what the profession can do to negotiate the technical, professional, and disciplinary obstacles that impede this kind of work. Editions have ranked for so long as second or even third tier academic achievements in hiring, promotion, and tenure, that revising that assessment would require a real sea change in university practices – even though work in the field NEEDS editions of works by different Early Modern dramatists and benefits intellectually from the collaborative model in the original works and their digitized counterparts. However, internet based edition also pose technical challenges – how and when are they complete? Can they EVER be complete? Are they complete when they have become too outdated to access or when software has been updated to the point that resources disappear? What about the ongoing changes and shifts in software and hardware which potentially render such work inaccessible while editions printed on paper remain valuable? (I looked for and could not find the source for Julia Flanders’ evocative characterization of the “culture of perpetual prototype” [Hirsch 578]). Could there be advantages to this evolving status and constantly threatened erasure? After all, printed texts have always only had the illusion of stable continued existence, since both the linguistic and literal contexts in which they exist persistently change. While scholars may recognize in the abstract the likely obsolescence of their current work in future intellectual moments, embarking on scholarly projects where the rate of technological change basically guarantees your work will become inaccessible, invisible, or even outmoded could be much harder to accept. Also such erasure limits the value of editions representing less available dramatists.

As Hirsch points out, the disciplinary challenges grow in part from these work status issues and in part from other issues related to technical training in both editing and computer science. Certainly this kind of work could appeal more to those for whom computers “are not a specialized tool but part of the tissue of the world” (2), as Julia Flanders puts it, but pre-tenure and visiting faculty members are even more vulnerable to the status questions associated with producing editions. The members of the professoriate who risk the least by pursuing the creation of internet editions are those in secure tenured senior positions, yet these folks (I would include myself) typically do not have either the editorial training or the computer skills to embark on the task of editing less accessible renaissance texts and are often too involved in administrative tasks to embark on extensive retraining. So my questions here involve grow from Hirsch’s concerns about how we will find these new digital humanists, much less persuade them to create the rarer edited dramatic texts.

I actually found Flanders’ analysis of “productive unease” within digital humanities to be the most broadly intriguing and thought-provoking of these articles – it helped me move beyond the very interesting, but local concerns that others were addressing. For example, how can “the mutual pressure of image and text, of alphabetic and figural modes of representing meaning” in digital humanities projects bring to our understanding of performances, both live and recorded, past and present? In addition to pointing to the issues raised by the formal appearance of representations, Flanders also notes that the underlying form requirements – and expansiveness – have important implications. Since, as she puts it, “storage is cheaper than decisionmaking,” necessity does not drive choices for representing or annotating or limiting variations of the text or performance. How then does this apparent freedom of space enable or disable our critical faculties in engaging with Hirsch’s digital editions, for example? Do our own constrained views of use or value then become the drivers of decisionmaking? Flanders’s article also takes on directly how the profession values and assesses work in the digital humanities, particularly in or even against the current standards driving academic hiring and promotion in the humanities. What opportunities might digital humanities work enable beyond academics and the university is also an issue worthy of consideration. What and where are the larger, more varied audience members who might immerse themselves in the digital work built for and around literary works?

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