Being Digitally Humane

In the latest issue of Ploughshares, Viet Thanh Nguyen states “literary change at the structural level will not happen without quantification. We will not be able to see how prejudiced our tastes are if we do not track who we are publishing and who we are hiring.” He recognizes, of course, that qualitative considerations have long held the center of literature and the humanities, but quantitative work allows us to recognize patterns of practice at scale.

It’s striking to me that he has to say this and that his admission still feels so jarring today (even to me as a scholar who move between qualitative and quantitive work in my own research). I suspect it’s because many in the humanities at present find themselves between the twin pinchers of funding models that privilege STEM programs and the growing reach of the modern assessocracy who seeks to reduce all aspects of campus life to numbers (and then, at the end of the day, dollars). I have heard the subtle grumbles from my own editorial board when it comes to assessing the submissions and contributions to NDQ by the numbers. I remain committed to tracking gender and genre across our submissions (race is harder, but national origin is relatively easy). I also recognize that a journal like NDQ needs to have a certain number of subscribers to survive, that the length of the journal is reckoned in the number of characters, and our webpage statistics are important to understand our reach, submission patterns, and readership. (Facebook and Twitter drive most of the traffic to our site, so you should follow us there!) In most cases, my editors just ignore my quantitative ramblings, but some send snarky little emails. It’s fine. I get it.

Earlier this month one of may favorite scholars, Jeremy Huggett at Glasgow, published a piece in the Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology titled “Resilient Scholarship in the Digital Age.”  In it, he faces head on the tensions between the digital practices that have lately come to dominate the quantitative culture of our neoliberal universities and digital practices that we embrace in our academic work (and, in Huggett’s case, digital archaeology, but the broader digital humanities and social science apply here).

The same digital tools that I employ to monitor the performance of the NDQ website and the diversity of our authors are used to assess the popularity of majors, rank the performance of faculty research and teaching, and distribute funds to programs. More than that, the blog on which your reading this piece, our digital archive, and even the digital version of NDQ that critiqued the university in this age of austerity, all offer a compromised experience compared to the paper copy of the Quarterly that is set to arrive in your mailbox later this fall. Even as I write this, I’ve been interrupted by emails, tracked down a wayward citation, and checked the time of the Phillies game tonight. My attention is regularly so divided through my digitally mediated work that while many things happen, few things get done, despite the ease with which I can communicate with publishing partners, co-authors, and my growing body of “born digital” data. As Huggett notes, the same tools that allow us to connect with our professional lives more easily also contribute to the “always on” culture and professional burn out.

Huggett’s paper doesn’t stop at critique, however. He concludes his article by asking is whether we can use the same tools and practices to build more resilient academic and professional communities. A similar question has haunted us as we have persisted with NDQ even after it seemingly terminal budget cuts. By leaning more heavily on digital tools and their relationship with quantification and, ultimately, the market, we have tried to create space for the journal to continue. In fact, we’ve argued that the persistence of NDQ serves as a kind of statement of resistance to the practices of the 21st century university and contemporary ways of measuring social and cultural value (see my essay in NDQ 85).  The humanities can not only play the commercial, digital, and market-driven game, but we can subvert it even as university administrators and public officials attempt to pull the rug out from under us.

There are risks to this approach, however. As we increasingly use bits, bytes, and digits to mediate our world, I feel increasingly concerned that we not confuse these things with the experiences, people, places, and relationships that the are supposed to represent. Our willingness to demonstrate that we can survive in a market driven economy might well be read as an endorsement of that economy.  These are complicated times in the humanities. 

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