Digital Humanities Initiative

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The Genius of the Tinker

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    Hi all-

    Popular science writer Steven Johnson recently wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal on source the of innovation. He describes the need for open access to ideas as many innovations come from recombining them from a variety of sources. Also he emphasizes the need for creativity and an assemblage of knowledge over time vs. the romantic notion of the “breakthrough innovations.”

    But ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.

    The article focuses mostly on the hard sciences and technology, but I found myself thinking a lot about our discussion last week of lone scholar (traditional humanities) vs. collective community (digital humanities) research.

    At the meeting there was the feeling that as the digital humanities mature as a discipline, inevitably we’ll see more solitary work. In a sense, fall in line with tradition.

    I personally hope this will not be the case, though this may be blind optimism. Open source, collaborative editing, and globally networked learning are examples of research techniques being used in NEH funded digital humanities start-up grants. These efforts represent a networking of minds to solve various research problems.

    Steven Brier described his experience as a “revolutionary scholar” in his discipline of history decades ago. There were feelings that the old guard holding the keys to the academic castle would fall. The revolt was based on perspective on content, away from the epic and onward to a social science approach (sorry Steve if I’m incorrect in paraphrasing). But this new approach was eventually assimilated and fell in line with traditional academia.

    I’m not sure how “revolutionary” the digital humanities are – either insurrectionary or disciplinary. But I hope it doesn’t ever lose it’s collective “tinkering” mentality.



    Steve Brier

    Thanks for this, Michael. Revolutions in scholarship always involve content AND form, and this was true in the context of the social history “revolution” in the historical profession 35 years ago. We didn’t get sucked into a social scientific approach so much as we allowed social history to become institutionalized in the profession and forgot the more radical origins that drove the movement in the first place: an emphasis on broadening access to scholarship to include a broad, public audience; a more radical, inclusive approach to the appropriate subjects of history, including previously ignored or excluded groups; and a transformation of standard forms and principles of academic practice. I’d say that these three radical approaches are also very much up for grabs and relevant within digital humanities as well. If DH ends up being simply the latest fad within various humanities disciplines then we will miss out on an opportunity for a more fundamental, radical reorientation of our intellectual work. Tinkering, for sure…but much, much more.


    Hi there,

    Thanks so much for kicking this off!

    Michael, at the end of this post I’ll be joining you in the optimist corner, but these are very real issues, and the connection to Steve’s experience in the history of history is very valuable. Some of us here have probably read Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature too, which makes some chilling points – he argues that the discipline of English has successfully neutralized a whole series of disruptions (feminism, Marxism, deconstruction, post-colonial studies) by incorporating them into the “field-coverage” model, i.e. just tacking on another field. And interdisciplinary efforts (like ours : ) don’t fare any better on his view: “Since interdisciplinary programs tend to be assimilated into the university as add-ons, instead of building bridges between the disciplines such programs tend to reproduce the fragmentation they were invented to counteract” (xiv).

    And, really wearing my miserable old bastard hat now, that might not even be the worst outcome. How about this from Jim Groom, founder of EDUPUNK, as he stares down the barrel of the movement’s work being held up as a model for the “DIY U” by critics of public education: “the framing of EDUPUNKS as the romanticized destroyer—or necessary idiots—who pave the way for the edupreneurs… an EDUPUNK that devastates public education in service to the unregulated promise of free markets and capital is possibly the worst vision one can imagine” ( Anyone want to see DH in the classroom as “service training for the new de-humanized economy”? No wonder that some, on the one hand, are protective of DH, and others find that the label makes them queasy.

    This second nightmare future of DH could even, in some horrible perfect storm, be combined with the first.

    OK, so now we’re all depressed. But it doesn’t have to be that way, right? Actually, I really believe it doesn’t, and what’s inspiring about this group as an insurgency, unsupervised, is that it can be sui generis. We can mix our own flavor of DH here at CUNY – if we think it should have more of a focus on pedagogy, ed tech, the fine arts, do more outreach to our colleagues in the traditional humanities, to the public, we can do all those things. But we’ll need to make thoughtful choices too, with the help of the people who’ve been through this before.

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