Digital Humanities and the Alt-Academy

The emergence of Digital Humanities (DH) has been contemporaneous to the ‘crisis’ in the humanities, spurred by changing social and economic conditions which have urged us to rethink traditional methods, locations and concepts of research and pedagogy. This blog post examines the emergence of the phenomenon of the alt-academy in the West, and examines the nuances and possibilities of such a space in the Indian context.

 

From a brief exploration of the problem of new objects and methods of research in the digital context, we have come to or rather returned to the problem of location or contextualising DH, and whether it may be called a field or discipline in itself.

As some of the previous blog posts have illustrated, most of the prominent debates around DH have largely been within the university context, or have least focussed around the university as the centre, and therefore emphasise the move away from more traditional ways of doing humanities, or at a larger level the more established and disciplinary modes of knowledge formation.

In the context of pedagogy, DH seems to be developing in a very specific role, which is that of training in a certain set of skills and areas which the existing disciplines have so far not been able to provide. The university or more specifically the traditional classroom offers a specific kind of teachinglearning experience which may not always have within its ambit the necessary resources or strategies to foster new methods of knowledge production, and a lot of DH work has been posited as trying to plug knowledge gaps in precisely this area.

The notion of a ‘digital classroom’ has been made possible by the proliferation of new digital tools and the internet; with increased access to open access archives and dynamic knowledge repositories such as Wikipedia, there is a move towards a more open, participatory and customised model of learning based on collaboration.

DH has been characterised by many as a space, or method that intervenes in the traditional ‘hierarchies of expertise’ [1] —– not only in terms of people but also spaces, methods and objects of learning — to present a significant ‘alternative’ that is now slowly becoming more mainstream. A rather direct example of this is the growth of a number of ‘alt- academics’ [2] who now inhabit what previously seemed to be a rather nebulous space between academics and an array of practices in computing, art and community development among many others. However, it is the in-between, or the liminal space that holds the potential for new kinds of knowledge to be generated. The connotations of this notion however are many and problematic, as seen particularly in the emphasis on new kinds of skills or competences that is now required to inhabit such a space, as also the narrative of loss of certain critical skills that are part of the disciplinary method and the resistance from certain quarters to the university to acknowledge such a trend. Conversely, it is also reflective of how certain kinds of skills in writing, reading, visualisation and curation have now become essential and therefore visible. It may be useful to explore this change further to arrive at some idea of whether such a space exists in the Indian context, and how it informs the way we conceptualise DH; as practitioners, researchers, teachers or the lay person.

This state of being within and to a certain extent outside of a certain predominant discourse is a peculiar one with several possibilities, and DH, owing to its interdisciplinary content and methods, seems to be a suitable space to foster these new and alternate knowledge-making practices.While the early DH debates in the Anglo-American context seemed to be dominated by certain disciplines like English, media studies and computational and information sciences, practitioners and researchers alike have branched out significantly, with research focussing more on questions of data-mining, mapping and visualisation with an increasing focus on processes and design, and using a diverse range of texts or objects.

In India, which significantly borrows the discourse from the same context, and also is still a multi-layered technological space very much in a moment of transition to the digital, the debates remain largely confined to the English and History departments and to some extent library and archival spaces. Outside of the academic circle however, there are a number of initiatives, such as online archival efforts, media, art and design practices and research (some discussed in the earlier blog posts as well), which would be likely spaces where one may see DH–related work being done. An important part of the discourse in the context of education is the access to and a more substantial and critical engagement with technology in the classroom. Educational or instructional technology has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade or so in India, as evidenced by the number of initiatives taken to introduce ICTs in the classroom, and this has been supported by several large-scale digitisation projects as well but the digital divide still persists, as a result of which these initiatives come with a peculiar set of problems of their own (as discussed in the earlier blog post on archival practice) the most important being the lack of connection among such practices, research and pedagogy.

While education technology is a separate field which works on better interactions between teaching-learning practices and technology, it does form part of the context within which DH is to develop either as a discipline, practice or a pedagogic approach, and the two areas are very often conflated in some parts of the discourse in India. While moving beyond the ICTs debate — which is premised primarily around access to knowledge, DH has been posited as making an intervention into prevailing systems of knowledge — so that the mode of understanding both technology and the humanities, and the interaction between the two domains (assuming that they are separate) undergoes a significant change.

What then goes into promoting more institutional stability for DH, in other words, in teaching and learning it — will be a question to contend with in the years to come, as more universities take to incubating research around digital technologies and related components and incorporating this into the existing curricula.

Dr. Abhijit Roy, Assistant Professor at the Department of Media, Communication and Culture, Jadavpur University speaks about the changes he sees in pedagogy and research with the advent of digital technologies, particularly in traditional humanities disciplines like History and languages.

While some of these changes are elementary, such as the use of digital technologies in classroom teaching and learning exercises, it is in the practice of research, which he sees even with his students now, through the use of blogs and social media and the possibilities to publish and engage in discussions with other researchers through platforms like Academia.edu or Scalar, that he finds a vast change. It not only makes the process more transparent but also encourages an ethos of constant sharing, dissemination and a network of usage and storage online. This has transformed the way research and pedagogy can be imagined now, and opened up several possibilities.

It is in realising this potential for new research and pedagogical models that universities have slowly begun to adopt digital technologies but the institutional efforts at building curricula specifically around DH-related concerns have been few with the prominent ones in India being the courses at Jadavpur University and Presidency University in Kolkata.

Curriculum development in DH comes with its own issues too, and they stem largely from the fact that one is still unable to understand fully the nature of the digital and its facets — we also inhabit a time when there is a transition from analogue to digital — but the rate of change is faster than with other domains of knowledge, so much so that the curricula developed may often seem provisional or arcane, which makes it doubly challenging to demonstrate its various facets in practice, particularly in the classroom. A useful distinction would be between DH being brought in as a problem-solving approach to address the extant issues of the humanities (thus also seen as a threat to the disciplines themselves), and having its own epistemological concerns which may be related to but also distinct from the humanities - in short to help us ask new questions, or provide new ways of asking old ones.

What this essentially refers to is the alternate modes of knowledge production that an increased interaction with digital and internet technologies now engenders. Wikipedia is an existing example of this, and illustrates some of the core concerns of and about DH as it calls into question notions about authorship, expertise and established models of pedagogy and learning. Lawrence Liang describes this as a larger conflict over the authority of knowledge, [3] the origins of which he locates in the history of the book, and specifically in the print revolution and pre-print cultures of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. He likens the debate over Wikipedia’s credibility, or more broadly over technologies of collaborative knowledge production ushered in by the internet to similar phenomena seen before in early print culture and how it contributed to the construction and articulation of the idea of authority itself. He says: “The authority of knowledge is often spoken of in a value-neutral and a historical manner. It would therefore be useful to situate authority in history, where it is not seen to be an inherent quality but a transitive one 6[4] located in specific technological changes. For instance, there is often an unstated assumption about the stability of the book as an object of knowledge but the technology of print originally raised a host of questions about authority. In the same way, the domain of digital collaborative knowledge production raises a set of questions and con­cerns today, such as the difference between the expert and the amateur, as well as between forms of production: digital versus paper and collaborative versus singular author modes of knowledge production. Can we impose the same questions that emerged over the centuries in the case of print to a technology that is barely ten years old?”

He further goes on to elaborate that the question of the authority of knowledge should ideally be located within a larger ‘knowledge apparatus’, comprising of certain technologies and practices, (in this case that of reading, writing, editing, compilation, classification and creative appropriations) which help inflate the definitions of authority and knowledge even more.

The above argument throws into sharp relief the notion of the ‘alternate’— often posited as the outlier or a vantage point, or even as being in resistance to a certain dominant discourse or body of knowledge.

While resistance itself is discursive; the ‘alternate’ has also always existed in various forms, such as the pre-print cultures illustrated in the argument above, and particularly in India where several kinds of practices and occupations are but alternatives — from alternative medicine to education — to the already established system in place. As mentioned earlier, these practices may just be increasingly visible and acknowledged now.

The attempts to subsume these alternate practices, which began as and may perhaps have been relegated to the status of a sub-culture for long within academia then seem to be one way of trying to circumvent the authority of knowledge question. Another aspect of this is the invisible ‘technologised’ history of the humanities, which therefore prompts us to rethink the separation between the humanities and technology as mutually exclusive domains. By extension then, the term DH itself therefore may be a misnomer or yet another creative re-appropriation of various knowledge practices already in existence. This is perhaps the underlying challenge to the ontological and epistemological stake in the field.

At best then DH may be seen as the result of a set of changes in the last couple of decades, the advancements in technology being at the forefront of them, whereby certain new and alternative modes of knowledge production have been brought to the foreground, which have also challenged the manner in which we asked questions before to a certain extent. As the field gains institutional stability, it remains to be seen what the new areas of enquiry that emerge shall then be in the years to come.

References:

  1. # Alt-Academy: 01 - Alternative Careers for Humanities Scholars, July 2011 Accessed July 27, 2014 http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/
  2. Davidson, Cathy N. & David Theo Goldberg, The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning) ( Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010) Accessed March 15, 2014 http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/future-thinking
  3. See Liang, Lawrence “A Brief History of the Internet from the 15th to the 18th century” in INC Reader#7 Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader, Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz (eds), Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011, p.50-62

[1] . See Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo. Goldberg, The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010

[2] . For more on this see # Alt-Academy: 01 - Alternative Careers for Humanities Scholars, July 2011 http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/

[3] . See Lawrence Liang, “A Brief History of the Internet from the 15th to the 18th Century” in INC Reader#7Critical Point ofView: A Wikipedia Reader, Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz (eds), Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011

[4] Adrian John’s as quoted in Liang. See Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998.

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