Notes and Links #2 for Talks on “Digital Humanities and Academic Change,” Rutgers U., 2 May

Suggestions for a 21st-Century English Department
  1. English Departments should hire to clusters of topical or project-centered interests (e.g., literature and global media, literature and science, literature and terror) that have the potential both to foster collaboration within the department and to link up to campus-wide initiatives. Considerations of historical or field specialization should be secondary (such considerations should not be a priori, but should be generated as part of robust topics and projects).
  2. Every three years, each senior faculty member should be asked to teach a new course on a period, topic, or approach in which they are complete novices or are very uncomfortable.
  3. To foster a more genuine relation between research and teaching, one or two courses in a faculty member’s load each year should be workshop- or lab-style courses in which faculty work alongside students (grad, undergrad, or both) to produce something (e.g., an essay, a web resource, an edition, a conference, a film). At the extreme, such a course would start with no syllabus.
  4. Using teleconferencing or virtual-immersion information technology (e.g., Second Life instructional spaces), English departments at major research institutions in the U.S. should co-teach classes (if not whole courses) with instructors from significantly different areas of the world or different kinds of educational institutions. What do the topics and approaches that matter to “us” (e.g., identity, ethnicity, aesthetics, theory, culture, popular culture) look like when brought into dialgue with the needs and assumptions of students in Europe, Africa, or the East, students at a different grade level, adult students, students from a different social class, etc.?
  5. Today the assumptions that divide, and unite, “literary interpretation” and “creative writing” in a literature department should be rethought in a larger social context that privileges over both poles of that binary such desiderata as “innovation,” “collaboration,” or and “entertainment.” In the globally competitive age of innovate-or-die and critique-by-radio-talk-show-or-blog, scholars entrenched either interpretive critique or avant-garde creativity seem to be fighting some past war.
  6. English Departments should borrow paradigms from such departments as Engineering to establish robust, proactive internship programs that place students in a variety of for-profit, non-profit, and other organizations. Such an internship program should have a high level of visibility and supervision in the department–e.g., supported by an adviser who visits area businesses, arranges field trips for students, etc.
  7. English Departments should have a “public humanities” initiative with public events and outreach missions. Such an initiative should be coordinated alongside an extramural fund-raising campaign of the sort that other disciplines organize.


Digital Humanities (1):
Selected UCSB English Department Digital Initiatives

Small-Team Projects



Collaborative Research or Curricular Development Projects



Selected Quotations and Concepts

  • Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005):

    Moretti collage“But within that old territory [of literature], a new object of study: instead of concrete, individual works, a trio of artificial constructs–graphs, maps, and trees–in which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction. ‘Distant reading,’ I have once call this type of approach; where distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Forms. Models” (p. 1).

  • Willard McCarty, Humanities Computing (2005):

    “By ‘modelling’ I mean the heuristic process of constructing and manipulating models: a ‘model’ I take to be either a representation of something for purposes of study, or a design for realizing something new…. Two effects of computing sharpen the distinction between ‘concept’ on the one hand and the ‘model’ on the other: first, the computational demand for tractability, i.e. for complete explicitness and absolute consistency; second, the manipulability that a digital representation provides…. Take, for example, knowledge one might have of a particular concentration in a deeply familiar work of literature. In modelling one begins by privileging this knowledge, however wrong it might later turn out to be, then building a computational representation of it, e.g. by specifying a structured vocabulary of word-forms in a text-analysis tool. In the initial stages of use, this model would be almost certain to reveal trivial errors of omission and commission. Gradually, however, through perfective iteration trivial error is replaced by meaningful surprise . . . either by a success we cannot explain . . . or by a likewise inexplicable failure” (pp. 24, 25, 25-26)

  • Lisa Samuels and Jerome J. McGann, “Deformance and Interpretation,” New Literary History 30, No. 1 (Winter, 1999):

    “The usual object of interpretation is “meaning,” or some set of ideas that can be cast in thematic form. These meanings are sought in different ways: as though resident ‘in’ the work, or evoked through ‘reader-response,’ or deconstructable through a process that would reinstall a structure of intelligibility at a higher, more critical level…. In this paper we want to propose–or recall–another way of engaging imaginative work…. The alternative moves to break beyond conceptual analysis into the kinds of knowledge involved in performative operations–a practice of everyday imaginative life. We will argue that concept-based interpretation, reading along thematic lines, is itself best understood as a particular type of performative and rhetorical operation…. In an undated fragment on a leaf of stationery, Emily Dickinson wrote what appears to be one of her ‘letters to the world’: ‘Did you ever read one of her Poems backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you? I sometimes (often have, many times) have–a Something overtakes the Mind’ (Prose Fragment 30)…. Our deformations do not flee from the question, or the generation, of ‘meaning.’ Rather, they try to demonstrate–the way one demonstrates how to make something, or do something … that ‘meaning’ in imaginative work is a secondary phenomenon, a kind of meta-data, what Blake called a form of worship ‘Dependent’ upon some primary poetical tale. This point of view explains why, in our deformative maneuvers, interpretive lines of thought spin out of some initial nondiscursive ‘experiment’ with the primary materials. ‘Meaning’ is important not as explanation but as residue. It is what is left behind after the experiment has been run” (pp. 26, 48).

  • The unstable continuum between modeling and interpreting:
    • Model
    • Adaptation
    • Rendering
    • Translation
    • Simulation
    • Deformance
    • Edition
    • Interpretation


Larger Thesis

Global Humanism

Global humanism is not an older classical or Enlightenment universal humanism–the idea that, as Sir Joshua Reynolds said, there is a “central form” of humanity. And it is also not the modernizing ideal of melting-pot or fusion humanism. Global humanism is not universality or fusion but, as we now say, diversity; not culture but multiculturalism.

(Of course, these latter terms are overused today, but that does not mean that they are just cliché or banal. They are very much alive because the larger social and semantic frameworks that give them meaning are still in the process of collision and adjustment. Diversity and multiculturalism as understood in the academic humanities today, for instance, abuts uncomfortably with the usage of those terms in such other frameworks as neo-corporatism, neo-nationalism, and even neo-regionalism.)


Diversity as Interdisciplinarity

But understanding global humanism requires a diversity rather than harmonium of disciplinary methods capable of revealing the seams between alternative understandings of the “human”–e.g., economic, social, political, historical, cognitive, cultural. Indeed, it may be that we do not have meaningful diversity unless it comprises lived experience refuses to fit in any single, stable organization of the various human knowledges. A case in point would be so-called “marginal” peoples who have almost no global economic or political presence but enormous local cultural, aesthetic, and historical presence only uneasily meshed with the institutions and laws of the new global world order.


Digital Humanities (2):
The Difference That New Media Technologies Make

Evolutionary Changes

  • Authorship ➝ collaboration, open-source, anonymity, piracy, Wikipedia
  • Refereeing ➝ not peer-review but after-the-fact-review
  • Publication ➝ not publishers but databases and search engines; not proprietary but open-access or mash-up (open-API)
  • Reading ➝ blogs, wikis, social networking: social computing)
  • Interpretation ➝ data-mining, data-visualization, etc.
  • Critical Judgement ➝ reputation, trust, information credibility
  • Teaching ➝ Co-building

Revolutionary Changes

  • New media is changing every single discipline I know both instrumentally and to the core in ways similar to the humanities.
  • New media is thus bringing each discipline’s basic paradigm of knowledge into fundamental (not just superficial) collision. (Science: interface as metaphor.) (Art: engineering.)
  • This collision of paradigms occurs across not just intra-academically but across social sectors: business (e.g., spreadsheets, team collaboration).
  • Hence: “Literature+”
  • Hence: reshaping the profession (see my “Suggestions for a 21st-Century English department”).


What the Humanities Offer in Return
  • Ambiguity: areas where qualitative judgements have to be made based on data that in which there are crucial quantitative gaps due to technical or social reasons.
  • Big Humanities:
    • KAREN (Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network)
    • Cathy Davison on “Big Humanities” (e.g., Shoah Foundation visual/online testimony project with its 200 terabytes of data).
    • NEH/DOE Humanities High Performance Computing Program (“The goal of the program is to provide opportunities for humanities scholars whose research requires high performance computing to collaborate with computer scientists and others at centers already familiar with the challenges of intensive data mining, visualization, and other demanding applications.”)