A Digital Insurgency? Mapping the Transformation Continuum
The democratization of academia is not a new idea, as pedagogical theorists such as Louise Rosenblatt and bell hooks have been advocating for student-centered leaning since the 1930s. Rosenblatt in particular paints a decentralized picture of the meaningful literary classroom, asserting that “The teacher’s task is to foster fruitful interactions—or, more precisely, transactions—between individual readers and individual literary texts” (26). Much in line with hooks’s philosophy in Teaching to Transgress, her student-centered learning more effectively fosters a personal “imaginative experience” as compared to hierarchical teacher-student relationships in which the student becomes an inactive receptor of the ideas of the teacher (24). Hooks captures this approach to education though the metaphor of the “rote, assembly-line” that elucidates the unfortunate passivity it entails on the student’s part (13). Her vision for transformative education, then, focuses on the student’s spiritual self-actualization through “engaged pedagogy” that leaves space for his or her intellectual initiative (15). Both of these theorists aspire to create more lateral environments for literature classrooms through resistance to the hierarchal power structures that render teachers the ultimate authority.
literary archives, and make these projects available to a much wider audience outside of the academy, theorists hail digital humanities as a beacon of liberation in the enduring tradition of democratic pedagogy.
Kirschenbaum supports his “social undertaking” thesis with similar transformative rhetoric: “the digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed, a scholarship and pedagogy that are bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people that live an active, 24-7 life online” (NP). The fundamental notion driving today’s problematic academic hierarchies, as defined by digital humanists, centers on individual authority—and an inevitable sense of ownership—within the literary experience, “a lone reader facing a stable text provided by an author who dictates the shape of reading by doling out information in a sequence he controls” (Fish NP). In this context, then, Kirschenbaum’s—and countless other digital theorists’—projections of the digital humanities’ functions indicate the field’s clear value in ameliorating those qualities of academia specifically identified as problematic.
The answer to this question is undeniably nuanced. In the context of the goals of literature classrooms, the digital humanities may or may not foster students’ ability to engage with the world around them. The role of these new technologies in producing Louise Rosenblatt’s “active readers,” bell hooks’s scholarly “liberation,” and general humanities’ critical thinkers is yet unclear. On a larger scale, decades after theorists’ rhetoric hailing the digital revolution, a simple Twitter search reveals hashtags such as #TransformDH and #dhpoco, calling for more radical approaches to literary studies and implicating the emerging field for becoming complicit in the very structure it claims to undermine. These social media grievances, as well as smaller scale analyses targeting specific aspects of digital tools, indicate the overwhelmingly complex environment within which the rhetoric of disruption operates. What, then, do literature classrooms and academia as a whole have to gain from the digital humanities?
The first electronically published edition of Digital Humanities Quarterly contains multiple case studies aimed at capturing digital humanists’ transformation theories in practice. This collection of articles comments on the field’s role in the university, and its potential for disruption within problematic scholastic settings. Clifford Wulfman, in Part II of Humanities Computing and the Digital Humanities, defines these academic settings as “social and power structures whose formation can be traced in the history of institutions and whose shape and persistence derive from self-perpetrating networks of authority” (60). Here, the overarching quality of traditional academic structures that digital humanists target becomes apparent. In the context of the university’s self-perpetuating authority, then, the new, democratized rhetoric of digital humanities scholarship is made necessary. One obvious place to look for corresponding transformative effects is the classroom. As might be expected, when we examine digital initiatives in university instruction, we find a mix of transformation—both rhetorical and in practice.
project with the purpose of reexamining the student’s role in the scholarly process. He defines the project’s objective as “the pursuit of meaning as an active cognitive and imaginative enterprise rather than passive consumption, aimless social interaction, or uncommitted exploration of indeterminacy” (7). His goal, here, centers on active engagement and creation of scholarship, which ultimately combat the traditional structures of academic hierarchy that perpetuate static notions of authority and render students passive consumers of knowledge.
The theoretical transformation in this classroom experiment manifests itself in these digital tools’ ability to facilitate a deeper understanding of the scholarly material through commitment and investment in the production of knowledge. Implicit in this project is the notion that traditional academic structure—premised on hierarchy and authority—can arguably limit the level of meaning a student gains through the literary experience. As a response to these presumably stifling pedagogies, Howard’s assignment ultimately encourages the students to destabilize the text in a way that opens its interpretive possibilities, thus liberating the students from traditional forms of knowledge acquisition, which he defines as “passive consumption” (7).
their own interpretations of Pynchon’s novel, one of his students wrote: “Through creating this game, I realized that the entire book, The Crying of Lot 49, was just a labyrinthine itself!” (Alonzo, 2005). The indeterminacy involved in designing a non-linear, interactive geospatial narrative, in this case, sometimes had the adverse effect of allowing the student “to rest complacently in this image [of the labyrinthine],” citing the novel’s capacity for multiple interpretations as the interpretation itself (25). This lack of interpretive focus highlights the practical danger of democratic, student-centered learning fostered by such digital transformations, as students’ own personal scholastic inclinations drive their engagements with texts. To combat this idea, Howard postulates that “this tendency in some students’ essays serves as a reminder that simulated space is only one part of a well-designed quest, which must also pose goal-oriented and rule-based challenges to the player in order to produce an immersive game and allow the enactment of meaning” (25).
equates knowledge and scholarship with discursive products, relegating his classroom use of digital tools to traditional modes and values, a notion that largely undermines the transformative claims associated with digital creation.
Another point of contention between the rhetoric and practice of Howard’s academic disruption is his decision to focus on quest narratives specifically. He admits that “this lineage of literature is indeed only a selection of possible works,” but his counterargument perpetuates the exclusive nature of the traditional canon, as he claims that his quest narratives occupy “a rich, broad selection that is relevant to almost anyone in the humanities with an interest in canonical literature” (6). Here, Howard’s experiment becomes contingent upon its relevance to the canon, a notoriously narrow selection of literary works; The Crying of Lot 49 can be found on countless syllabi for any lecture-based undergraduate class. This experiment, then, risks complicity in the very hierarchal structures it aims to dismantle. Howard successfully undermined the authority of the lecturer, but certainly not of the discursive text as an entity, or even the specific texts that comprise the canon.
established, reader-response literary theory in order to expose “the ways current theoretical approaches to interactive electronic hypertext environments succeed or fail to revolutionize pedagogy and actual classroom practice” (150). The MOOs allow for maximum academic democracy as they foster genuine textual interaction between multiple users, readers, and writers within a “relatively fixed and hierarchal textual landscape” (150). In the case of Sonstroem’s analysis, then, the FrankenMOO experiment highlights ways in which hypertext theory succeeds or fails to reconcile digital humanists’ revolutionary rhetoric with its actual use in undergraduate literature classrooms.
the textual and hypertextual spaces of the MOO. Additionally, users can interact within the MOO space, engaging with objects or with one another.
[Figure 1.] Source: http://lmc.gatech.edu/~broglio/rc/frankenstein/commands.html
readers. In the FrankenMOO, users read blocks of text—obviously taken from Shelley’s original novel—but must actually type short commands in order to move around the various locations in Frankenstein. Within these locations, the MOO transcribes Shelley’s original text from first person—for example, of the monster’s experience in Ingolstadt— to second person present to elicit a heightened sense of participation: “You find a fire which has been left by some wandering beggars, and are overcome with delight at the warmth you experience from it. . . .” (153). Users must also, for example, engage in the novel’s dialogue, as the characters are programmed with short excerpts from the text that are ultimately triggered by key words (from the user). In this sense, the way in which the text unfolds in the MOO is completely contingent on the user’s participation. Indeed, active engagement is imperative in the FrankenMOO, as readers must actually participate in the novel’s plot in order for it to progress: “Narrative cannot exist in a MOO simply by reading; a user must also write to make the narrative move forward at all” (153).
Rather than reading a text in solitude, students can approach and experience the text in solidarity.
A problematic phenomenon arises, however, in digital humanists’ rhetorical tendency to situate conventional text-based theory in the context of digital environments, portraying an illusion of mutual exclusivity between the two pedagogical practices of traditional and digital projects. This rhetorical trend ultimately detracts from digital projects’ transformative potential. As we increasingly become interested in how ideas such as Louise Rosenblatt’s “active readers” and bell hook’s “engaged pedagogy” can be used in support of digital undertakings, it is safe to say that we distance ourselves from the fact that these ideas originally targeted traditional engagements with text. Sonstroem points to George Landow, who falls victim to this fallacy at one point in his book Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, which draws on critical theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes to assess the value of digital literary projects. He asserts that “Using hypertext, critical theorists will have, or already have, a new laboratory, in addition to the conventional library of printed texts, in which to test their ideas,” a statement that simultaneously acknowledges and diminishes the reality: that these theoretical goals are not limited to digital “laboratories,” to which they rhetorically appear singularly applicable (3).
hyperbolic rhetoric of the digital often overlooks. The fact that traditional discussion-based literature classrooms can also promote the values digital tools aim to facilitate undermines the utopian rhetoric that hails digital humanities as revolutionary. More specifically, these tools’ digital nature becomes less important when the same goals can be achieved in traditional settings. For example, as participation is imperative to any seminar-like environment, the format of any literary discussion already anticipates the danger of students becoming passive consumers of knowledge. According to Sonstroem, “Student responses to discussion in the MOO seem to indicate that students actually felt safer in the virtual environment to explore and express their opinions,” but that does not indicate any lack of opportunity for active engagement in the traditional classroom (160). Some students are obviously more adventurous than others in terms of voicing their opinions, as Sonstroem acknowledges: “…an undergraduate . . . puts him or herself at risk of rejection every time he or she ventures a critical interpretation,” but the FrankenMOO cannot be considered revolutionary when the same opportunity for students to express their interpretations already exists in traditional classrooms (160). The discussion classroom boasts collaborative aspects, too, as students’ responses become largely contingent on the responses of their peers. Perhaps the presence of a professor mediating class discussions undermines the more thoroughly democratized environment the FrankenMOO fosters, but that professor’s purpose is often simply to guide the students in their own interpretive journey.
seize this opportunity in traditional literary classrooms as well. Within the FrankenMOO, the student becomes an author as his engagement is imperative to the progress of the plot itself; similarly, students writing essays are presenting lenses through which to view the novel, lenses that would not exist without their personal interpretations, “communicating their insights about Frankenstein, making the novel tell their story” (161). These arguments are undeniably intertwined with, for example, Rosenblatt’s vision for the future of students; what is especially significant about this parallel is that her ideas were —and still are—applicable to text. This fact largely undermines digital humanists’ rhetoric hailing projects like the FrankenMOO as revolutionary to literary studies in that it defeats the necessity of such projects being grounded in the digital realm.
Data Mining and the “Problem of Abundance”
A key concern regarding hierarchies in academia—particularly in literary studies —is, of course, the classic concept of the canon, which remains essential to any traditional literature classroom, and thus problematic to the digital humanities’ claims. The transformative aspects of both Howard’s and Sontroem’s projects are, in a way, limited by the authority of the canon. In his piece “Canons, Close Reading, and the Evolution of Method,” Matthew Wilkens offers a provocation: “canons exist, and we should do something about them” (NP). Current notions of canons may have evolved over centuries (we are thankfully not using the exact same booklists as eighteenth century literature classes) and our definition of the canon has arguably adapted according to smaller genres, but we still encounter the problem of hierarchy in our most progressive classrooms.
describes as “text-based data processing,” offers a potential solution to the problem of abundance (NP). In applying quantitative analysis to “piles of text much too large to tackle ‘directly,’” the digital humanities offers opportunities to expand the body of literary knowledge, thus rendering it less exclusive (Wilkens NP). Although data mining markedly faces resistance from traditional scholars who fear losing the human element of literary inquiry, the method ultimately defamiliarizes texts while simultaneously widening the scope of content. Rather than replacing the work of serious critical interpretation, these tools allow scholars to view a more comprehensive body of texts in completely new ways.
of insight we gain in our literary pursuits. Data mining both undermines the canon as a gatekeeper, and simultaneously opens possibilities for more profound cultural interpretations.
One large caveat Wilkens highlights, however, is the basic trade off of quantity versus quality that becomes inevitable in the pursuit of data-driven literary analysis: “For one thing, we’ll almost certainly become worse close readers” (NP). As we move away from our current practice of devoting most of our attention to one single text in order to understand it in great detail, our skills in this area will surely deteriorate. In terms of digital disruptions, close reading (of a small number of validated texts) succinctly embodies our current literary pursuits. As Wilkens points out, “the decay of close reading as such is a negative in itself only if we mistakenly equate literary and cultural analysis with their current working method” (NP). Herein lies the digital insurgency that threatens to dismantle the roots of academia’s hierarchy, for at the center of Wilkens’s argument is a plea to alter not only our methods, but our mentality. To achieve the values advocated by the digital humanities, we cannot simply change how we do literary analysis; we must also change how we perceive and prioritize familiar modes of literary analyses. Wilkens’s piece, in this sense, offers a theory intent on genuine change with methods of text-based data processing as its vessel.
establishing a dichotomy between statistical data and critical interpretations of texts, Ramsay argues in favor of supplementing literary interpretations with statistical data in a way that actually influences our interpretations, a difficult feat in the context of arguments riddled with anxiety regarding the fate of the interpretive element within overwhelming technological pursuits. Tanya Clement anticipates this concern in “Text Analysis, Data Mining, and Visualizations in Literary Scholarship,” noting the concern that “digital tools seem to take the ‘human’ out of literary study,” and arguing that a closer look at data mining’s implications suggests otherwise (NP). For Clement, quantitative analyses and critical understandings are not mutually exclusive. Similarly, the use of statistical data, in Ramsay’s opinion, should not undermine the validity of any critical interpretation, as “no computer in existence is capable of generating a critical paper on gender dynamics in King Lear, or the figure of the flaneur in the nineteenth-century French novel…We would be within our rights to consider such feats among the hardest of the AI-hard problems now extant” (170). Ramsay and Clement both settle on a view of data mining that presents the reader as the ultimate interpretive agent, a conclusion that (in continuum fashion) highlights the transformative power of the method in transcending the canon’s small scope of content, while maintaining the quality and creativity of literary studies.
[students] to re-articulate those patterns in narrative form,” a form that comprises our ultimate critical interpretation (171). Data mining directly influences these re-articulations in its capacity for recognizing latent patterns within much larger textual collections, patterns and scales completely inconceivable to individual human efforts.
For example, Ramsay speculates about possible literary endeavors only plausible with the help of digital programs: “Instead of concording nouns in a text, we might create machines that might cleave off all words except the nouns; instead of flagging the gender terms in a text, we could reverse them; instead of generating word frequency lists, we can alter typography by order of frequency” (172). These possibilities embody the pattern of innovation that underlies the digital academic insurgency, for here we see the manifestation of rhetorical and potential transformation. Data mining does not merely work in conjunction with the reader and an already stable hypothesis; it ultimately destabilizes the text in a way that renders the reader much more of a machine-assisted producer than a consumer. By allowing the reader to visualize the text in countless ways —a feat that, without computers, would be all but impossible—these digital tools could actually play a role in the ways in which we view the literary process itself, and how we create meaning within it.
of limited usefulness; a visualization that provides many ways to interact with the data, viewed from different perspectives, is better; a visualization that contributes to new and emergent ways of understanding the material is best” (NP). Wilkens, Ramsay, Sinclair, Rueker, and Radzikowska have illustrated how data methods in particular can threaten the current academic norm. If we view the digital humanities not as a means to an end— the end being critical interpretations that have been the norm in academia for ages—but as an end in itself, we should be highlighting the qualities of digital methods that successfully alter the way we think about literature.
texts. In Moretti’s “Style, Inc,” we ultimately see a successful merging of the theory and practice with respect to text mining and its transformative potential, a concept that both Wilkens and Ramsay highlight in their own articles.
Figure 2. Source: Moretti, 193.
within the academy. Such backlash stands as a testament to the enduring academic traditions that shape what is considered valuable scholarship; even with innovative methodologies, digital humanists must still adhere to academic expectations for interpretive products. Furthermore, although data mining successfully expands the scope of textual collections, public domain and copyright laws greatly complicate their availability; texts are considered public domain—and thus widely available for intellectual use—only if they have been published prior to 1923 (Cornell Copyright Information Center, NP). These limitations largely determine data mining’s place on the transformation continuum; despite the method’s transformative potential with regards to specific projects in literary inquiry, it remains contingent on the academic and institutional structures that shape its capabilities rather than reforming the structures themselves.
Publishing and Filtering
exclusivity with respect to those generating scholarship as well as the scholarship itself, yet another potential transformation.
Dan Cohen’s “The Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing” elucidates the core problem involved in scholarship dissemination, one that ultimately links publishing with social expectations and privilege. Despite the fact that an abundance of innovative works have materialized “as topical portals, interactive maps, deep textual databases, new kinds of presses, primary source collections, and even software” at a remarkable rate, the public “demand”—in terms of viewer participation—is still “deeply related to questions of academic value and reward” (NP). The potential for transformation here is in stark contrast to the deep seated tradition of print publication, well represented in John Updike’s lament of the digital:
The printed, bound and paid-for book was—still is, for the moment—more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.
and “consumer” that even micro level digital tools—like the ones I have focused on earlier in this paper—aim to undermine. This separation works to uphold the authority implicit in print publishing, as certain authors are validated by strict gate keeping strategies that render them established producers, and everyone else, consumers. Clay Shirky, in Here Comes Everybody, worries that “we have historically relied on the publisher’s judgment to ensure minimum standards of quality” and that this practice is exclusive and limiting (NP). Separating producers from consumers reinforces the traditional hierarchies within academia, and through these subsequent practices universities become, as Wulfman posits, “self-perpetrating networks of authority” (60).
NINES and Romantic Circles exemplify the changing publishing practices heralded by the digital age. Romantic Circles, for example, includes multiple forms of scholarship, all focused on literature from the Romantic period. Not only does this website allow for a wider range of scholarly criticism within its specific field, it also includes an array of supplementary materials that undeniably enhance the literary experience, including primary source text, images, and audio samples. Much in line with goals of flattening publishing hierarchies, Romantic Circles defines itself as “the collaborative product of an ever expanding community of editors, contributors, and users around the world” (NP). This website values inclusion in many respects, not only of authorial voices in that it facilitates public recognition of emerging, untenured literary scholars, but also of vast amounts of literature formerly excluded by the canon. Here, we see a successful step towards the collaborative, democratic environment in the publishing realm that seeks to alter the structural rigor of the university.
of readers to accept these websites and what they have to offer as—remains focused on traditional notions of authority.
NINES, too, engages with a debatably hierarchal reviewing process, although its editorial policy demonstrates a critical self-awareness of the current academic structures within which it operates: “Digital humanities projects have long lacked a framework for peer review and thus have often had difficulty establishing their credibility as true scholarship” (NP). In response to demand for such scholarly validation, the site does employ “a robust system of review by some of the most respected scholars in the field.” This goal ultimately drives the site’s most stringent review to revolve around content, which NINES explicitly states will be evaluated “relative to existing quality and critical standards for print materials” (NP). Here, we see an outlet fully aware of its own role within academic hierarchy; however, it is precisely this awareness that could eventually contribute to a movement away from the current print influence over scholarship. The site’s editorial policy regarding interface design features goals that facilitate interoperability between new projects and other NINES scholarship, but outside of this overarching purpose, “scholars are free to organize and design their materials as they judge best” (NP). Again, similar to Romantic Circles, NINES aims to alter the format of scholarship, but it falls on a continuum in terms of transformation in its adherence to the print-influenced practices of publishing.
Boats/Books,” David Parry casts publishing in terms of commodification, and encourages us to ask ourselves “what scholarship would look like if it were not designed to end up in books” (NP). What we realize in analyzing the book as the singular form of scholarship, Parry suggests, is that print form has come to represent knowledge as a product. This ideal so thoroughly permeates our current approach to scholarship that the book has come to symbolize the completion of knowledge on any given subject. Parry extends the analysis to the classroom syllabus, as he cites its coherent beginning, middle, and end as a linear journey “where the traversal (completion of the weeks of reading of all the pages) promises to deliver the knowledge product” (NP). In the context of Dan Cohen’s “social contract,” viewing knowledge as a commodified product becomes an all too appropriate metaphor for print sources. The success of a product is largely based on scarcity, and books imply a limited amount of knowledge. In this sense, publishing becomes a means of filtering the availability of knowledge and implies that learning equates to consuming books. As Parry puts it, “books tell us that one learns by acquiring information, something that is purchased and traded as a commodity” (NP).
Romantic Circles as transformative compared to traditional publishing agencies, is still based on the problematic notions of scarcity and authority: “Given the cost of producing knowledge and the fact that academic journals and academic presses could only afford to produce so many pages in each journal, peers are established to vet, and signal that a particular piece is credible and more worthy than the others” (Parry NP).
incremental steps toward increased participation, but still must reevaluate their current editing practices, as “one thing we know is diversity of perspective enriches discourse” (Parry NP).
readers able to participate in the development of the text itself (as their engagement with various forms of comments indicates), they also enter into scholarly dialogue with one another, advancing the values of community and collaboration, as seen in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/
the dynamics of crowdsourcing, a concept that largely resonates with the rhetoric of the digital age. As the “self-policing nature of peer review” that is premised on exclusion threatens to perpetuate itself through its reliance on a small number of highly acclaimed voices, Fitzpatrick offers crowdsourcing as a corrective and inherently transformative alternative to traditional peer review (NP). Aside from the basic principle of inclusion, open peer review can prompt readers, “not simply to respond to the work under review but to engage with one another in the process,” to more deeply reflect on both the material sources themselves, and their larger contributions to the field as a whole (NP).
upheld through methodological transformation. Parry, Cohen, Shirky, and Fitzpatrick argue that crowdsourcing has the potential to undermine the structure of the academic process by trading the negative qualities of exclusion and hierarchy for those that more closely align with digital humanities’ larger social goals of community, openness, and collaboration.
What Counts as Scholarship?
personal philosophical processes, we inherently equate the act of writing with the act of experiencing and creating knowledge.
In Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like To Be a Thing, Ian Bogost elucidates the problems involved with scholars’ emphasis on writing. On a very basic level, Bogost argues that we are bad at it. Aside from the most obvious targets: the convoluted prose of philosophers, literary critics, and political theorists, Bogost reveals that even moderate intellectuals are suspect: “Many scholars write poorly just to ape their heroes, thinkers whose thought evolved during the tumultuous turn of the last century” (90). Discursive scholarship, in most cases, is notoriously void of precision. More relevant to the purposes of this paper, however, the discursive bias undermines alternative ways of experiencing the world. Bogost asserts, “so long as we only pay attention to language, we underwrite our ignorance of everything else” (90).
Language becomes only one vessel for knowledge with the emergence of other options. In a way, Bogost’s claim characterizes language as limiting to the point of undermining the experience itself. When we merely “pass . . . intellect over notions” with the discursive in mind as our ultimate product, we are presumably limiting our experience to that which can be captured by language. The fundamental instability of language itself should stand as a compelling testament to our diminished discursive experience, for its constantly changing nature cannot possibly encapsulate our precise experiences the way carpentry—actually handling any given entity first hand—is able to. For Bogost and others, this first-hand non-discursive experience is to be had primarily through digital building. Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell articulate this stance in their collaborative piece “Developing Things: Notes Towards an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanitites.” For Ramsay and Rockwell, “print is ill-equipped to deal with entire classes of knowledge that are presumably germane to humanistic inquiry” (NP).
articles” (88). Ramsay and Rockwell ultimately draw on this bias in order to highlight the ways in which digital projects could encourage a more creative and open approach to scholarly material, a transformative feat that can undeniably alter the structure of academia.
“contestable, defensible, and substantive” prototype is predicated on the discursive standards of the thesis statement, a premise that limits the project’s transformative reach even as it classifies it as scholarship.
With regards to the digital tools Ramsay and Rockwell highlight as problematic in debates concerning scholarly status, the issue lies with the opacity of these tools, the very foundation of their status as tools. Ramsay and Rockwell illustrate this contradiction:
For tools to be theories in the way digital humanists want—in a way that makes them accessible to, for example, peer review—opacity becomes an almost insuperable problem. The only way to have any purchase on the theoretical assumptions that underlie a tool would be to use that tool. Yet it is the purpose of the tool (and this is particularly the case with digital tools) to abstract the user away from the mechanisms that would facilitate that process (NP).
what happens when we substitute building for writing. Should we acknowledge that we discover, through building, things that are as profound as those we have learned through writing, transformation prevails.
used by digital humanists, a phenomenon that directly correlates with the methodologies outlined throughout this chapter. Still, Ramsay situates himself on the far end of the transformation continuum. In conversation with “Who’s in and Who’s Out,” Ramsay authored an additional piece, “On Building,” that illustrates digital creation as representative of both a way to separate the digital humanities from other humanities fields and simultaneously characterize the practice as an integral part of digital theorizing: “But to me, there’s always been a profound—and profoundly exciting and enabling—commonality to everyone who finds their way to DH. And that commonality, I think, involves moving from reading and critiquing to building and making” (NP).
fluid marker of transformative potential. When we reconcile building with familiar claims and argumentative modes, we reinscribe it with traditional academic values. When we discover the richness in grappling with the digital tools that alter our experiences with knowledge, however, building becomes its own form of scholarship, liberated from the confines of discursive biases.
As a final illustration of the varied relationship between the rhetoric and practices associated with digital humanists, I must first and foremost point to this very paper as a product—or lack thereof—of digital disruption. Although my writing about ideas that pointedly discredit the act of writing itself seems contradictory, the written Honors’ Thesis remains an integral part of an emerging scholar’s path in academia. This phenomenon does not entirely thwart digital humanities’ potential for transformative gains, however, as we have seen the complexities that form at the intersection of rhetorical idealism and the practical effects of digital methods in the context of academic structures.
are certainly many aspects of the digital humanities that put into practice exciting transformations worth celebrating.
Geospatial representations of canonical texts like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 allow students to play a more active role in the production of knowledge—representing these texts in a non-linear fashion effectively dismantles the plot in a way that fosters student participation. However, while the use of geospatial data may have altered the form of the texts themselves, requiring students to provide written analyses perpetuates a very limited vision of what counts as scholarship. Furthermore, even the most innovative of textual formats cannot seem to escape the canon, a phenomenon predicated on notions of exclusivity. Data mining effectively combats the authority of the canon, while simultaneously deepening our interpretive experience through arming us, not with a thesis, but with innovative patterns from a greater pool of sources. However, data mining does little to reform underlying academic structures and values. Digital publishing embodies a step away from the exclusivity characteristic of traditional publications. However, digital publishing’s efforts often fall in league with tactics that adhere to, albeit modify, traditional standards of print imprimatur. Further, the academy (and even its digital practitioners) has yet to arrive at definitions of scholarship that encompass the wide range of emerging digital tools and methods.
Further, both the rhetoric and effects of the digital humanities operate within well-established academic structures and behaviors, not the least of which are the discursive biases of those to whom digital humanities must cater in order to establish credibility. Rather than creating a comprehensive project that would embody Ian Bogost’s notions of building as a transformative means of acquiring knowledge, university protocol requires me to produce this piece of written scholarship. A topic such as this one possibly lends itself to a more interactive approach towards the digital tools on which it focuses. However, this project ultimately aims to reconcile the topic with the very structures it examines, structures that undeniably shape the intellectual processes underlying the discursive format of this paper.
Perhaps the ways in which the digital humanities respond to this emphasis on written scholarship—on the level of individual projects as well as overarching publishing practices and definitions of scholarship—will largely comprise its successes with regards to transformation. Although digital humanities is difficult to define, both additive—in assisting traditional scholars with traditional humanistic inquiry—and transformative, what is clear is its role in highlighting assumptions about how knowledge is produced and shared, and subsequently the larger structures of academia.
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