Undefining #DigitalScholarship

I would like for this to be the first in a series of reflections about my engagement with and considerations of the digital in research and pedagogy. It seems like I should be making time for this navel-gazing.

I've spent most of the summer thinking about Digital Scholarship. What constitutes digital scholarship? What does it mean viz. humanities and pedagogy? What does it mean at Bucknell? And what does it mean in terms of what I practice and how I write about it. When do I capitalize it and when do I use the lower case?

All right, that last bit is just silly.

A cursory environmental scan suggests that the term Digital Scholarship is being used more frequently (at least in the U.S.) in place of Digital Humanities. There are more centers and more positions, like mine, dedicated to considering and implementing *digital scholarship* at an institutional level. It reflects what most of us have known for a long time - that DH is not particular to the Humanities, and that now that phrase is (or should be) little more than a placeholder for the broad, truly interdisciplinary work that we do. OK. Great. But for those in the Natural Sciences who still see our work as rooted in Humanities and Social Sciences departments, just calling it Scholarship doesn't change what we privilege1, and for those in the Humanities who have got used to invoking the Digital to reassure administrators and the broader public that what we do continues to be relevant learning2, we need to do more than just rebrand, don't we? I can't lie and say that now I'm a Digital Scholar, when my work is so strongly rooted in the Humanities. And I'm sure as hell not going to call myself a Digital Pedagogue (which is just plain creepy.)

I've written and spoken before about my belief that the Digital in DH/DP/DS will ultimately be bracketed and absorbed and we'll be talking about Humanities, Pedagogy, and Scholarship in the ways we always have. I've also said that the reason we're struggling with definitions and associations and inclusions is that we're going through some sort of evolution and that at some point we will no longer have these hand-wringing sessions. And maybe that's when the current tension about who's in, who's out, and who should have a place at table will just wither away. But because I've come from a position of tool use, and an historiographical consideration of media and the ways in which we articulate our intellectual engagements, I wonder now if my position is a wrong one - or at least I'm coming at the question from the wrong direction.

This summer I've been listening to a lot of people tell me what they think Digital Scholarship means to them. Some think of it in terms of analysis; for others it's curation; yet others consider it a form of media studies. At Bucknell, which describes itself as a liberal arts college that focuses on undergraduate student experience, the scholarly emphasis is on what happens in the classroom and/or how students participate in faculty research. In this environment the sciences have created a model for faculty/student interaction, and some in the humanities faculty are trying to graft a "lab" component onto their course design.3 There's also the question of how students develop literacies and competencies (maybe not synonyms?) that better prepare them for a post-Bucknell life that will probably not involve them going on to grad school and engaging in DH on a scholarly level. That, of course, brings me back to the multimodal communication program in which I was steeped at Georgia Tech - teaching students to communicate effectively in digital writing environments. Hmm.

I taught three Digital Pedagogy workshops this summer in three different environments, and have done my best to push back against the "just give me my toolkit" mentality. I've tried to demonstrate that the Pedagogy must come before the Digital, and that the challenge is really in articulating to ourselves and our students why we do what we do in the classroom. We need to be thoughtful and consider why we're choosing to include digital assignments in our courses and whether that inclusion is even necessary. At one workshop I worked with an historian who wanted students to engage with cartography through digital tools, and we came all the way around to designing an assignment in which students draw locations and topographical features onto a paper map. Ah. There's a lesson here: in spite of all the pressure to incorporate things digital into what we do, we need to develop the confidence to decide when and in what ways we want to engage with the digital in our work. And that means, sometimes, that the digital doesn't do for us what we need. Sometimes  we don't have to reinvent any wheels in order to accomplish something that has a digital component.

That should make me feel better, but it doesn't, because it creates too great a difference between making and using. What happens when digital pedagogy means that teaching  doesn't necessarily take place in the classroom, where "flipping" and "distance" and "hybrid" forms of engagement define DP? If the ways in which the student accesses the learning space is through digital media - if s/he  prepares for a class session by watching an enhanced online multimodal lecture in advance in order to spend classtime in more focused discussion (whether or not that lecture is prepared by the instructor); if that student is taught that rigorous research involves delving into online databases and journals; if a class is conducted by means of discussion fora and polls and hangouts and real-time connectivity with other students and instructors in other places - what are the parallels there with digital scholarship? I rely on the work that others have done in electronic spaces such as EEBO and the Holinshed Project: by engaging with that work aren't I engaging in digital scholarship? I collaborate with colleagues to write articles and essays using Google Docs: by writing in those collaborative online spaces isn't my articulation of that scholarship in a real way digital? And even when I dump a set of dates into ArcGIS Online to see if I can make a better case in a traditional volume essay for an argument about 16th-century touring practices: what is that but digital scholarship? Can the center hold?4

I feel I have a responsibility to articulate what all of this means - certainly to, but also for the Bucknell community. And so I've started calling these articulations "Digital Scholarship at Bucknell." The DS here is not the DS at an R1 institution, or even at another liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. But I clearly don't know what IT is, and that makes me nervous, although I suppose that as a good Humanist I should embrace the not knowing. How do I embrace that nervousness in a public way and use it to be thoughtful and considerate of what is going on here and more broadly. How do I acknowledge to the people who hired me that I don't know what IT means? (I guess I just have ..) I was hired to shape a program that would reflect Bucknell's mission and institutional goals. OK. So if I can't do that by dictating to the administration and faculty, but rather by interpreting individual, departmental, disciplinary, and institutional needs and expectations and guiding those individuals and groups toward something that they will feel is representative of trending forms of access, engagement, and practice, then will I be successful in some way?

I talk a lot about pushing back against silo mentality. The preliminary outreach and networking that I've engaged in is designed to provide best-practice examples to my bosses about how we can engage in the larger digital community without going on with the assumption that we're the first, or the only, to be considering these things. I need to internalize that and so I'm asking, friends, for you to help me better articulate what digital scholarship can and should be. Do you see lines of demarcation between Digital Humanities/Scholarship/Pedagogy and Humanities/Scholarship/Pedagogy that are effected through electronic platforms? Is it reasonable or dangerous or ignorant to fold all of those into one space? Can the makers and breakers and users (and abusers) all participate in such an indefinable galaxy? I look forward to reading what you may think.

For the next reflection I hope to consider what I've begun thinking of as "digital exceptionalism." I'm not yet sure what I mean by this (here we go with the definition struggle again) but it's coming from some impish voice that challenges me to break down what I've built up. 

  1. such as critical reading, visualization of historical and ethnographic and environmental research
  2. such as critical engagement modal literacies
  3. This is not actually a bad thing: if we're going to learn with tools, we need to establish times and places in which to learn the tools.
  4. Sorry to conflate the modern with the early modern, but it was too cute to pass up.

One thought on “Undefining #DigitalScholarship”

  1. Good questions, all of these. As someone working to help create a new inter-institutional group calling itself a society for “digital scholarship” (despite the fact that most of us work in the humanities), it seems particularly pertinent to me right now.

    I have some concerns about talking about “scholarship.” What should be the strength of the “humanities” element of the “digital humanities” has always seemed to me the weakest link: we’re very good at talking about practices, and building tools, and not so accomplished at explaining the implications to our disciplines of the use of these. There is, I think, a tacit assumption that that is what “media studies” does. I think that’s a mistake.

    It’s an acknowledged truism that the translation of tools, texts, modes of publication and teaching, etc. to a digital medium represents a radical transformation of the “content” that we are translating: the history of reading, and of books, tells us that much at least. So, how much of the “humanities” remains in the wake of that translation? Or, more fundamentally, how are we re-imagining what the “humanities” might mean? I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of asking such questions, yet alone answering them.

    And fundamentally this is why talking about digital “scholarship” makes me a bit nervous. I think that there is some danger that it will encourage us to neglect, if not actually discard, the insights that we as scholars trained in that specific area, the humanities, can bring to the digital transformation. What makes this particularly important is that it is these insights that we most urgently need to communicate to our more traditional colleagues in our fields. Before we can encourage them to undertake digital practices and use digital tools, we need to make it absolutely clear how these impact upon, preserve, enhance, or modify how we understand humanities.

    Until that happens, we can’t pretend to be trustworthy guides, and what we have to offer will continue to be viewed by many, I suspect, as a digital Trojan horses.

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