HASTAC V: DH Strikes Back

For my first “real” conference experience (read: first non-grad student conference as a grad student), HASTAC V was terrific. I met a ton of friendly, smart, and engaging people. I presented successfully (no major faux pas) and received many good questions, comments, and tips. I particularly enjoyed the format of the conference, which was essentially two days of lighting talks and keynote addresses. By keeping presentations very short, scholars (myself included) had to make sure they only selected the vital information. Audiences received the best, most provocative points of each presentation. Though I was often left wanting to discuss the many good points further, the quick-hitting format made the conference actually feel like an exchange of ideas, not merely a place where people came to give papers. HASTAC V was what a conference should be: scholars from many fields and backgrounds came together and discussed research, ideas, and the state of the field.

The provocative point of my talk, which I only fully realized when answering one of the final questions, was that I argued scholars, especially early career scholars, need to push the academic infrastructure so that digital humanists creating digital scholarship can get rid of the “digital” identifier. I want my digital scholarship not only to matter to other digital humanists, but for the project to “count” towards a job application for a 19th century Americanist position. I want a disciplinary reward for my interdisciplinary work, a traditional reward for innovative research.

Speaking of disciplines, I was struck by how few historians I met. This phenomenon may have simply been a fluke, a product of where I sat for lunch or the panels I attended, but I continued to notice that at the very least, historians were outnumbered, which again could be a fluke. (Putting my comments in further perspective, someone I talked to noted that there were even less scientists–though that’s the “S” in HASTAC). However, my largely historian-less (particularly in terms of early career scholars) experience at HASTAC V fed into concerns I have been having about my discipline and the digital humanities. Despite the explosion of digitally themed panels at the AHA, my amateur opinion still is that the MLA is a much DH-friendlier organization (I am probably getting in over my head here with speculation because I do not really know anything about the MLA and DH).

Yes, digital history is gaining attention. However, the field of digital history seems to be sliding down a dangerous slope. It certainly seems the majority of digital history projects are done by senior scholars many of who then write a book with the digital project. This method (large project, large book) sets a precedent unrealistic for graduate students and non-tenured scholars. Tenured faculty have the opportunity to take a decade or two and build both a book and a book-size digital project. I do not have that luxury. Either my dissertation is a book-length print project or it is a book-length digital project. This is not to say that I cannot build in a digital component or use digital methods, but I cannot complete two large book-length projects in the time it takes to finish a Ph.D., especially if I do not have an army of undergraduate and graduate research assistants. Yes, history needs tenured faculty to make big digital projects and write big books. However, history also needs graduate students to be able to create digital scholarship and still get credit. I worry about a future (or rather I worry that what seems to me to be the present will continue into the future) in which innovative graduate students end up having to compromise their digital scholarship until they are tenured, or at least until they complete their book, after which they can return to the “side project.”

An alternative, of course, to suppressing DH tendencies until tenure, is pursuing alternative academic (#alt-ac) positions. HASTAC V held a pre-conference workshop on #alt-ac careers. We were encouraged to read three articles (Bethany Nowviskie’s “Introduction: Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Tom Scheinfeldt’s “Toward a Third Way: Rethinking Academic Employment,” and Brian Croxall’s “Playing for Both Teams, Winning on One“) and bring copies of our CV and cover letter. While we did not use these materials formally, I found reading these articles and reflecting on my own materials (and actually trying to write a cover letter) very helpful for the workshop. In particular, I enjoyed the workshop’s practical nature. As a group we examined examples of cover letters, from which we gleaned “do”s and “don’t”s. Outside of a CV, I rarely think about what application materials I need before I have an application to complete, which of course is not the best approach. While scholars can talk about preparing graduate students for Plan B, this talk does not become real action until graduate students are taught the practical skills of finding job ads, replying to them with good cover letters and understanding the demands of non- and alternative academic jobs.

I look forward to HASTAC VI: Return of the Brian.

On #UNL_DHS & #hastac2011

Perhaps it was because I finished my reflection for Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together before hopping on my flight to Ann Arbor, but her argument and the UNL Digital Humanities Seminar was on my mind quite a bit during HASTAC V. Particularly Turkle’s argument that networked communication was making people isolated by distracting them from real relationships and giving them false relationships. Cathy Davidson began the conference with a wonderful talk in which she brought up a famous psychology experiment. (Check it out here before I spoil it)

Davidson noted that when she first saw the video at a public talk, she was distracted by other things going on, but because she was distracted from the “task” (counting the passes) she was able to see the gorilla. This anecdote struck me as counter to Turkle’s argument. By being distracted, Davidson was able to properly see experiment. In very much the same way I found being “distracted” by twitter during the conference enlivened my experience and I think made the conference a a more meaningful experience than it would have had I chosen to “pay attention.”

Choosing to tweet was a self-conscious choice I made the morning of Friday’s official start to the conference. I had attended the #alt-ac workshop the night before and only brought a pen and paper, so no tweeting. Friday morning, however, I grabbed my computer and cord, leaving the paper behind. My reading of Turkle’s argument was that online networks like twitter encourage false personas and false relationships. However, over the course of the conference I found twitter to enrich, encourage, and facilitate my “real” interactions with people.

Cathy Davidson’s talk had a small experiment, in which she gave instructions for the audience to write down a couple of things in a short amount of time after which she told the audience to share their answers with a person next to you. Afterward she revealed the activity was very much a gorilla in the room situation. We were not told to silently write down our answers, though the entire audience worked that way. We had to be told to collaborate. Davidson then began to describe the fascinating history of how the educational system conditioned people to default to quiet, individual work. That is a side note, however. Getting back to twitter, when discussing my answers with a neighbor, I met a grad student from the University of Michigan, who followed me on twitter and I later followed on twitter. Before networked communication we simply would have shaken hands, had a few words and maybe seen each other at another conference. However, the possibility for extended communication exists beyond the occasional accidental meeting.

Similarly, a senior scholar followed me on twitter after I briefly talked with her at the Friday night reception. Twitter does not guarantee any further communication. This senior scholar may never remember the UNL grad student she talked to at HASTAC V (I imagine she talked to a lot of people) but my name appearing in her twitter feed every so often certainly raises the possibility that she may remember me if we meet again. Are these relationships, which began with an introduction, but will now exist on twitter, “real”? They are certainly more real than having no professional relationship.

On Friday night I also met an early career scholar who had led the pre-conference #alt-ac workshop. Saturday morning after the first keynote, I began a conversation with him by saying I like his tweets about that talk. There are many ways to begin a conversation, but having a low pressure online relationship, the one that Turkle argues will lead to human’s reliance on robotic relationships in the future, does not erode person relationships. Rather, it helped to have a (in Turkle’s sense) “fake” relationship to begin a “real” relationship.

The same thing happened when I met another senior scholar. He mentioned he had heard of me through my blog (and I had certainly heard of him). While we did not have a real life relationship before meeting, networked communication allowed us to have familiarity with each others’ work and ideas. This sort of groundwork for in-person relationships does not have to happen online; I read the senior scholar’s work before meeting in-person. But what was this senior scholars going to read of mine before social media? Networked communication does not actually degrade “real life” communication. Rather, the online facilitates and enriches the “real life.”