Bethany Nowviskie

on capacity and care

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[This is the blended and edited text of two talks I gave last week. One, titled “On Capacity and Care,” was the keynote presentation at the 2015 Office of Digital Humanities project director’s meeting at the National Endowment for the Humanities. The other was titled “Grand Challenges in/and Graduate Education,” and was presented at the University of Michigan, to inaugurate a series of “Mellon Conversations on the Future of the Humanities Doctorate.” Want the tl;dr version? It’s here, as “Capacity Through Care,” a brief provocation for Debates in DH 2017.]

Let’s see the merest edge of a glacier—stable, renewed through deep time—quickly bow to pressure, calve, and rush with a roar to join a flood that rises six thousand miles away. Let us see (we have seen; we could hardly bear to see) a child face down in the surf of an unforgiving sea, its waters connected with those you bathed in this morning: one among thousands cast off from political and economic systems through which we are likewise linked. Let’s see a human gesture, a characteristic crooked smile, a passing thought typed into a search engine, any one of a dozen unthinking transactions of a morning—the purchase of an apple, a novel for the train. Let’s see all of these things become tiny points of data in a surging ocean of data in which we may feel increasingly alienated and lost, and yet—happily or with un-wished-for accuracy—be found.

We are educating new cohorts of students of the liberal arts, both graduate and undergraduate, perhaps best positioned to discover, interpret, and build upon a growing species of understanding—one that may be deeply uncomfortable, yet has been more deeply, fundamentally, and long desired in the humanities: the knowledge of relationships among the largest and smallest of things. It’s my belief that the sobering environmental and social challenges of the 21st century—our grand challenges, global challenges, even extinction-level challenges—will require a more capacious humanities. By that I mean one that understands its history and possible futures broadly, and that has organized itself to work effectively, simultaneously, and in deep empathy and interconnection with other fields and disciplines, across multiple, varied scales. And this is why I took the invitation to speak to you on graduate education reform—as an opportunity not just to address the sorts of tactical steps one might take at a university like yours, in response to the more immediate issues that often provoke this conversation (issues like the employment placement of grads, their funding streams, future prospects for the professions of literature, history, and so on within the academy), but to address some much larger frames outside it, through which I think we need to look. So, among my major themes tonight will be the complementary notions of capacity and of care: two ideas that rarely appear together—particularly as they seem to work on different ends of the scale, and are so differently gendered—in our discourse about the humanities in the digital age.

Warm and Capable

Ray Collins seascapeSo-called “big data,” as no-one in this room needs telling, is here. We are generating contemporary scientific, social, and economic data at an almost unthinkable clip—and we are also remediating and opening up lost or formerly inaccessible humanities information from our recent and our distant past: more of both, every day, and at scales that would shock researchers of just a few decades ago.

The digital tools and platforms for bringing coherence to these data are here, too, and are developing rapidly in sophistication, nuance, stability, and ease of use. Sense-making systems are in the hands of humanities scholars who—now, only a few years back—might never have expected their major interpretive work to hinge on, say, the algorithmic analysis of mass-digitized text corpora—or on social media visualization, or on deep layers of spatial data stacked one upon another in an online map. Maybe even more exciting, these interlocking tools are now in the hands of so-called data journalists. Of schoolteachers. Of museum and library professionals. Of advocates for government transparency and open science. In the hands of artists. Social workers. Community organizers. Increasingly, user-friendly data-driven, algorithmic sense-making systems have become accessible to the general public, too.

This means that it’s time for more of us to get serious about interpretive, cultural information-processing, and about sharing capacity, and about the infrastructures that support the humanities alongside other fields. The United States plays catch-up in these areas, where we have fallen somewhat behind—as those of us know, who have long worked in the GLAM sector (in galleries, libraries, museums, and archives), or engaged as digital scholars with our international peers. My off-the-cuff estimate is that we are something like 10 to 15 years behind Europe, Australia, and New Zealand—not in technological capacity per se, but in serious, coordinated investment in what one of our American funders, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, has smartly begun to call a “national digital platform” for cultural heritage: “a way of thinking about and approaching the digital capability and capacity of libraries across the US.” We are certainly far behind in terms of general scholarly awareness of the need for such a thing and in widespread, grassroots coalition-building around it.

A national digital platform like this would not just improve public library services and access to information: it would radically increase our country’s academic research capacity, across humanistic, scientific, educational, and cultural heritage fields. It would demand, in turn, widespread support for a few crucial things: for digital collections and publications oriented toward sharing, in robust, open access repositories; for the linked and rich metadata that make them discoverable and interoperable; for usable but lightweight VREs or virtual research environments, filled with integrated, interchangeable toolsets; for the coordinated policies and agreements that help to shape practice and establish norms; and—at the most basic level—for a strong investment in building and sustaining the workforce needed to create and maintain and advocate for it all: for everything that would constitute a true national digital library.

You might attribute the tardiness of the humanities community in this sphere to American individualism and the systems of academic reward that work against collaboration in the liberal arts. You might also look to the entrepreneurial, experimental, playful (“everted” and fertile and admittedly fun) character of humanities computing during the period of the tech boom and its transition to the “digital humanities”—or to the failure of some hegemonic and airless visions for research infrastructure. But I believe we must primarily locate it in the conditions for sharing cultural and scholarly content: in the deliberate, step by step de-funding of the commons in this country, including the starving-out of its major drivers: the humanities in secondary and higher education, our public cultural heritage institutions, and our local, state, and federal agencies for public history and the arts.

We can catch up, though. Private humanities funders like the Mellon Foundation (which I know is supporting your explorations here), and public funders like the NEH, where I gave an abbreviated version of this talk a few days ago, are placing more considered emphasis on capacity-building. They’re doing this by supporting follow-through after start-up, implementation and sustenance and curation alongside technical innovation, and by offering incentives to all of us to pay more attention to professional and scholarly career paths. Likewise, key players in Washington grow in appreciation that, in order to build real cross-cultural capacity and solve pressing human problems, humanities organizations must be at the table with scientists and engineers by default, not as an afterthought. This is true for anything like a new Congressional initiative about technology and innovation, a White House OSTP conversation, or a court case or policy hearing on access to information. (Here you might think of federal research funding allocations; sunlight initiatives in government data; the development of open science and open access policy; copyright law; net neutrality; privacy and surveillance; and so forth and so on.) But it’s also true for work on human migration, mitigating climate change, creating more resilient cities, preserving and expanding democratic values, and preparing for the world to come.

We also see a blossoming of non-profit catalysts to the use of humanities data and collaborative cultural heritage for the common good. These include (among many others) funders like the Mozilla and Knight Foundations, and organizations like the Digital Public Library of America, the Center for Open Science, Educopia, CNI, the HathiTrust, and the two I work for: CLIR—the Council on Library and Information Resources—and the DLF, the Digital Library Federation. All of these, and organizations like them, public and private, are rewarding and interesting places where people with humanities training can make a difference. In my most optimistic moments, I imagine the growing energy they bring and consensus they build could crescendo in a practicable call for a new New Deal, a new age of public works.

So far, I’ve discussed external factors that have implications for the future of the humanities and for graduate education and that, importantly, draw our attention to the concept of capacity. Again, these are: the need to grapple with the emergence of data at vastly greater scales; to channel, deepen our investment in, and put to use the tools and infrastructure that are growing to meet it; and the imperative to connect cultural heritage concerns with larger conversations and grand challenges in the public sphere. But there are also internal, intellectual factors—new theories and research directions—that drive humanities scholars to engage with the concept of capacity and explore digital tools and methods for working “at scale.”

Some of these are contained (if heated), scholarly conversations, in which fields like history, literature, or linguistics grapple with the implications of particular new techniques or the appearance of larger and more diverse, relevant datasets. In other cases, they are big, open re-framings: invitations from outside the humanities to formulate and voice more capacious understandings, or to meld approaches into an inter-discipline with a wider potential readership (as with media archaeology, or the environmental humanities). And some of these re-framings hinge on metaphors that seem particularly well-suited to our current scene: ways, for instance, in which we might begin to position culture and human production as just one part of a huge, complex, and long-term data-processing system—a system that’s biological and ecological and evolutionary and geological in nature, as well as social and historical.

As an example of two such frames or metaphors, consider these: scholars of the digital humanities and of library and information science are listening as genomicists begin to figure everything organic on Earth as its “biocode:” 50 billion tons of interlinked DNA crunching the numbers everywhere—a 3.5 billion year old mainframe with computational power, one paper estimates, 1022 times that of Tianhe-2, the fastest supercomputer ever built. What do we do with an idea like that? What might scholars interested in (say) the virality and promiscuity of textual production do? Another rubric for a capacious line of thought comes to archivists and philosophers (and to the rest of us) from geology: the contested “Anthropocene.” This is a label for a new epoch and for a conception of humans at two scales at once—both infinitesimally small, fragile, and transitory, and as a grim, planetary prime mover, capable of producing a lastingly visible moment in natural history—human traces in deep time and rock.

Humanities interests in areas like these often relate to our philosophical and moral obligations in the face of ecological crisis, globalization, or biomedical advance, and work to theorize the position of little, individual people or animals or inanimate things within large systems. In considering them, scholars sometimes dwell on concepts of resilience or on tipping points and the relation of past stemma to possible futures—and they always, always bring special humanities skillsets to bear. (This is why we see new research on how, for instance, iterative sketching, narrative and storytelling, and the creation of verbal, speculative design scenarios can serve as a strong complement and sometimes even a superior technology to statistical and algorithmic methods of prediction.) And many humanities scholars engaging with issues of scale, or advocating for—as Jo Guldi and David Armitage put it—a “return to the longue durée,” approach capacity itself as a theme: the capacity of ecologies, social systems, or rhetorical and economic and philosophical and even aesthetic systems. This is fascinating, far-reaching work.

But a problem has emerged in the scholarly community. It’s relevant to the way we train and prepare graduate students, and I’m afraid it hinders both the theoretical and practical, worldly sides of the work I’ve begun to describe. Too rarely do humanities scholars active in data-driven research (which I hasten to add is only one of many areas of DH, and not particularly my own) escape the sticky, exhausting trap of having to defend an attraction to capacity and scale to their peers, within their own narrow disciplinary spheres. They seem to do this to the exclusion, in many cases, of making one simple and valuable point. And that is that the new skills and datasets we’re building in the humanities—and, more importantly, the generation of students we’re educating for new humanistic literacy in more empirical methods—can give us powerful scope and reach beyond our disciplines, beyond some of the walls that have grown up or been placed around us. I refer here to the humanities in its institutional expression: to its departments, professional societies, specialist journals and publishers, methods for advancement, and so forth. These are often beautifully suited to perpetuating themselves as a coordinated system and to deepening the internal richness of humanities scholarship, but perversely less good at making the humanities diffuse, accessible, attractive to collaborators, expansive in conception, and permeable to entry by under-represented groups.

#FindtheGirlsontheNegativesThis is concerning for three reasons. One is simply that operating in a defensive mode holds the research back—holds it back from doing good in the world. Another is that it makes the predominantly junior scholars working in these areas—areas like text and data mining, digital mapping, or 3d and visual analysis of large datasets—feel too exhausted and timid to help build coordinated infrastructure and reform graduate education at the same time they struggle to make their own new work look enough like their forebears’ old work to earn a modicum of employment stability. Finally, it’s concerning because many humanities-trained people who build significant digital skills and have practical, project-based experience to offer—yet who don’t see value in undertaking a wholly intra-disciplinary fight (people like me) or who might have done, but who gave up on seeking a stable academic appointment to fight it in (like many I know)—tend to make one of two choices. We either stay deeply involved in higher ed and the design of humanities infrastructure from the inside, but in undervalued and often unheeded service roles, or we move out of the academy entirely, and contribute elsewhere without much looking back. In either set of cases—with much of the alt-ac crowd and among tenure-line DH scholars distracted by an internal, disciplinary fight—vital voices, energy, and insight are lost. And that’s a problem, because these are often the people most capable of contributing to a re-shaping of graduate study and cultural infrastructure to meet the demands of a globalized information society, a rapidly-changing American demographic, a political tinderbox on every corner, and an ailing planet.

One root of a distracting and unproductive disconnect between (to put it grossly) extraverted digital and introverted non-digital modes of scholarship is expressed as anxiety about “big data,” or the concept of “distant reading” in the humanities. This is an anxiety you may have tried to assuage or perhaps have felt acutely yourselves. As I move into the next section of this talk, I want to suggest that this anxiety points to discomfort with the very notion of increased capacity in the humanities. Obviously, there are other issues in play, to make smart humanities scholars skeptical about big data: like problems of surveillance and privacy, the political ends to which data mining can be put, structural inequities in access to information, and disparities in representation: in which communities are visible in our datasets and through whose filter or lens. And I’m sure I could say more about the roots of that discomfort as it applies to interdisciplinarity, our continuing “two cultures” problem, and a number of other factors. But because addressing all of these issues requires a humanities more apt to engage with data-mining, not abdicating from engagement with it and encouraging our students to shy away, I want to muse a little on an underlying “big data” concern that I think rests in our special discomfort with capacity and scale.

This is a discomfort we can well understand and respect in a humanities that has, most particularly over the past half century, focused intently on the little stuff—on small data, working in bits and bobs and (as a mentor of mine once titled a book) “in small things forgotten.” In other words, the concern is deep-seated and it is valid. Humanities scholars have made major theoretical advances and practical advances in the cause of social justice, by bringing forward carefully observed and exquisitely described little examples. Our small data add nuance and offer counter-narratives to views of history and the arts that would otherwise fall out along blunter lines. The finest contribution of the past several decades of humanities scholarship has been to broaden, contextualize, and challenge canonical collections and privileged understandings, by elevating little examples of neglected and alternate human experience—experience that often turns out to reflect the mainstream.

It’s worth noticing, though, that our reluctance to engage “at scale” arises on polar sides of the political spectrum. On the one hand, we see it among our smart liberal arts colleagues who rightly view methods of close reading (or close observation of visual sources, or individual ethnography, or physical archival research—pick your magnifying glass) as a path to social change. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, the same reluctance appears in elite conservative and reactionary rags that mourn the digital death of the English department and (arguably) overly fetishize the literary classics and the reading experience of the printed book. Both fear that we could lose what is special about our training in careful humanities observation if we set aside those magnifying glasses and spend too much time with what some of my DH colleagues have begun calling our “macroscopes.”

Is it humanly possible, both groups seem to wonder, to build an appreciation of the small and situated at the same time that we increase our observational capacity? The underlying concern is a pedagogical one, and that’s why I think it’s important to keep in mind as departments and schools consider new ways to structure the humanities PhD. The concern is that, in keeping pace with the trends and opportunities that I’ve outlined, and in a rush to work with supposedly alien methods and at scale, we humanities faculty will forget to teach our students to read carefully, closely, and well.

An Ethic of Care

You may note I have used the word “careful” several times in the last few paragraphs. That’s because I see a strong connection between the notion of humanities capacity and its discontents, and the concept of care. So I want to turn now to some questions that motivate this talk. I won’t answer them all, but I want to hear more people asking them: Can an ethic of care help us build the kind of capacities we need in the humanities right now? Can it help us integrate the macro- and micro-attention that humanities work requires in the digital age? What would the technical platforms and digital humanities communities of practice we are building look like if they were more self-consciously predicated on a something the humanities values deeply and performs well?—that is, on care, in its many manifestations across our fields. How might taking care—and taking the concept of care more seriously in graduate education and cultural heritage infrastructure-building—serve to expand our scope?

Like the digital humanities, an “ethic of care” is better understood as a set of practices than as coherent theory or unary stance. It was first articulated by feminist scholars like Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, and Virginia Held in the 1970s and ‘80s, but continues to develop as a school of thought today. What is meant by “care?” I like Joan Tronto’s definition, from a 1993 book called Moral Boundaries. She sees care as something performed collectively: “a species of activity that includes everything we do to maintain, contain, and repair our world, so that we can live in it as well as possible.” I like this, because it puts me in mind of one of my favorite recent media studies essays, called “Rethinking Repair,” by Stephen Jackson. In it, Jackson makes a call for what he calls “broken world thinking.” He sees acts of maintenance, disassembly, and mending—particularly visible in the global South—as hopeful and generative: a virtuous complement to fresh manufacture and in fact ever-present in embodied human interaction with technology. These acts become more important than ever in hard times—but they’re occluded by our dominant, Western tech rhetoric, which instead values words like “innovation” and “development.” Jackson wants us to think not so much about making things new, as about making do, and of thereby engaging what he calls—referencing this line of feminist thought—“an ethics of mutual care:” care, that is, for each other, for the world around us, and for our devices and instruments: what I might call the literal objects of our affection.

It’s easy for me, as a person trained in the study of material culture, to see these objects of affection as the texts and artifacts that humanities scholars, museum workers, and librarians recover, conserve, share, and tend. But of course a feminist ethic of care has generally been more focused on people than on things. Its major domains have been teaching, parenting, nursing, social work, and librarianship.

Nel Noddings identifies the roots of care in what she calls “engrossment,” and here’s where I think we find another valuable analogue to humanities work and to what our graduate training has always tried to foster. Engrossment is the development of empathy, the kind of close attention and focus on the other that provokes a productive appreciation of the standpoint or position of that person or group—or (I would say) an appreciation of the qualities and affordances of an object or system. It’s a profound skill that humanities scholars hone. We experience engrossment in archival research and close reading, and perform it when we explicate subjectivity and lived experience. One concern in the literature of the ethics of care has been whether engrossment can become too deep. I think the answer is the same for caregiving as it is for humanities scholarship: real expertise lies in developing deep empathy while still maintaining the level of critical distance necessary to see and describe systemic effects and avoid projection of the self onto the other. (And that, my friends, is a 21st-century skill!)

But let’s make it very simple. At its heart, an ethic of care is meant to reorient the practitioner’s understanding in two ways. The first is toward an appreciation of context, interdependence, and vulnerability—of fragile, little things and their interrelation. The second is an orientation not toward objective evaluation and judgment (as in the philosophical mainstream of ethics)—not, that is, toward criticism—but toward personal, worldly action and response.

Now, how does this relate to notions of capacity in the humanities? To the humanities in a big-data age, and to what we might train our students to do? Well, care ethics—like many a digital humanities research agenda or platform for visualization and analysis—seeks to illuminate the relationships of small things to each other within great systems. And (like the post-New Critical, historicist and poststructuralist strands of humanities theory that evolved alongside it) an ethic of care might love a well-wrought urn, but will always seek to understand its context: the networks of interrelation that create it and in which it participates.

After all, the major contribution of the emergence of a feminist ethics in the 18th and 19th century, over the moral philosophy that preceded it, was to see the self as most complete when in deep connection with others. Prior modes of thinking, like Kantian morality and utilitarianism, demanded a kind of impartial stance and posited that, as a man grew in judgment and developed ethical understanding, he separated himself from others—that one mark of the fully-developed self was its capacity to stand apart from and reason wholly outside of familial systems and social bonds. It’s worth noting that those theories of rational moral understanding grew in concert with economic systems that valorized a private profit motive and circumscribed the participation of women and the servile under-classes. A competitive capitalist marketplace depends upon but does not assign much value to things we create through networks of reciprocity, compassion, generosity, mending, and care.

And this brings me to acknowledge that the ethic of care shares in problems that have plagued the digital humanities and cultural heritage fields—another reason, perhaps, that we can learn from its development. A primary criticism of care from within the feminist community is that it perpetuates what has been called, in deliberately provocative terms, “slave morality”—that is, that over-identification of caring praxis with the social and professional roles that have been afforded to women and brutally assigned to people of color frames oppression as a virtue and perpetuates unjust systems. This concern emerges in the alt-ac community (obviously in a less acute way) in conversations about the service role of professional and so-called “paraprofessional” librarians, digital scholarship center staff, adjuncts, and other university-based knowledge workers, in their relationship to the more privileged positions of the tenured faculty. It emerges in the typical demographics of those various roles as well. It’s therefore a critique worth bearing in mind—especially if we find some of the more abstract principles of care useful in conceptualizing and peopling macroscopic humanities systems and tools.

For digital humanities practitioners, another danger in wholeheartedly embracing an ethic of care is it might induce us further to internalize and become overwhelmed with—rather than to thoughtfully weigh and evaluate—the unreasonable expectations that are cyclically placed on our field. Many of us have felt susceptible to moments when the wielding of what Matthew Kirschenbaum has called a digital humanities “construct” distracts us from hard-won, relational, and embodied self-knowledge about our own work. The construct, in Matt’s terms, is a projected, often single-issue monolith. It is used for rhetorical purposes and embeds expectations that the DH community will respond instantly and in unanimity to whatever issue the writer (often quite rightly) sets forth as important. But this elides the reality of the digital humanities as a complex system made up of individual actors undertaking varied scholarship and service—what Rita Raley has referred to as “actually existing projects:” real work, done by people with different goals, orientations, interests, talents, and contributions to make. The extent to which a monolithic “DH” is laden with expectations not placed on other scholarly fields is truly remarkable. And—as a small number of academic entrepreneurs have found profitable to exploit—caring digital humanities practitioners have a difficult time recovering from accusations that they, individually or as part of the construct-du-jour, do not care.

The biggest danger here, of course, is fatigue, which I have addressed in the context of weariness about always needing to justify one’s methods and research interest in work “at scale.” It’s an issue I articulated a long time ago, too, it seems, in a one-hit-wonder blog post called “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities,” and which, eternally, Septembrally, recurs. But the problem of fatigue has also been usefully examined by scholars of care ethics. Here’s where they posit the value of “networks of care” as a way for the practice to leverage its own strengths toward the increase of capacity and resilience at a personal and systems level. Ethically, individuals should provide care if they have the ability to do so; but the most ethical actors may become exhausted in their resources. Operating within self-conscious networks of care provides individuals the leeway to recover (in what pop culture calls “self-care”), and also to receive the kinds of attention and systemic service they need from others. This would be a digital humanities—a research, publishing, and scholarly communications field, a cultural heritage sector, and an overall educational enterprise—that does a better job of charging its own batteries.

Building for Capacity and Care

All right, “it charges its own batteries,” but to what end? In its orientation toward response and action, a feminist ethic of care would always be asking the same thing we should ask with regard to the creation of a national digital platform and to efforts in graduate education reform: what do we have the capacity for, the capacity to do in a wider world, as individuals and networked collectives? I began tonight by talking about the major challenges, domains, and systems in which we desperately need to place more people with humanities training. I want to end this section of the talk with a few notes on how we might implement a capacity-building ethic of care in the humanities—particularly in the areas where the majority of humanities graduate students may seek work: in libraries, archives, museums, and galleries; in DH labs and centers; in publishing, communications, and allied fields; and in organizations that work for the future of the liberal arts or that build on humanities understandings toward the public good at the local or national level. I’ll talk about people first, and then platforms, before I close with pragmatic questions and considerations we might use to open a conversation about alternate forms and futures of the PhD.

About the people: it should be clear from what I’ve shared here that I think we’d better foster digital cultural heritage communities of practice if we more self-consciously built them as extensible, self-perpetuating networks of care. That’s not merely the kind thing to do. Please do not mistake it for something idealistic and motherly and sweet. I offer care as a hard-nosed survival strategy, and as a strategy to increase the reach and grasp (which is at the root of the word “capacity”—the “capture”) of the humanities. We must take practical steps to prevent fatigue at the individual and community level in digital humanities and cultural heritage fields and to promote, in Noddings’ terms, the kind of happy yet critical engrossment—in each other and in the stuff—that I’ve seen develop in the best collaborative teams. This isn’t the place to discuss them all, but I’ll mention that two of the simplest and most powerful tools of care I employed in the Scholars’ Lab, the digital humanities center I ran for eight years at the University of Virginia, were 1) the baseline provision of a goodly measure of self-directed “R&D time,” to ensure that all of my staff had the regular, restorative opportunity to move out of service mode and into curiosity-driven knowledge creation, and 2) the drafting of project and community charters—something we did both with graduate student teams in our Praxis Program and among our faculty and staff at the departmental level. (Charter-writing is a practice meant to help a group articulate its shared values and understand its individual members’ needs—in other words, to make real peer-to-peer collaboration possible across the boundaries of academic status and rank.) I also attempted to put in place management practices—including the crafting of budgets and, when needed, MoUs with collaborators—that could promote the professional advancement and lifelong learning of all my people. Since leaving the Scholars’ Lab for the Digital Library Federation, I’ve taken every opportunity I could (including this one) to tell humanities and library funders that professional development should be a required line item in any digital project grant.

Making the sorts of practices I’ve described here more widespread in the staff and alt-ac sides of the academy would have the valuable effect of bringing our digital labs, humanities centers, university presses, libraries and museums and admin offices, and all the other extra-curricular entities in which we may place our humanities grads into deeper connection with the educational mission of the institutions in which they sit. It’s crucial that we do a better job of that—a better job of connecting research and administrative arms of the humanities with the core teaching and community engagement functions of higher ed—because we’re in political fights we need to fight together. Furthermore, academic digital humanities will never partner effectively with the public-oriented cultural heritage sector until it can more openly embrace and reward work undertaken toward the public good. Finally, I believe that orienting our broader humanities personnel practices toward care—policies that impact faculty and staff alike—would align them more with valuable work on sustainability, resilience, & repair than with the Silicon Valley logics of disruption, innovation, and endless churn. And we need to do this, not just because we scholars and librarians fear what they might do to our stable, valued institutions and find those logics distasteful—but because larger, environmental circumstances suggest their dominance is soon to end. We should be laying the groundwork in our communities of practice for what comes next.

So much for the people. Now about the tools and the stuff—returning to the subject of humanities infrastructure with which I opened. (But of course this, as any interface or infrastructure conversation does, relates to the people as well—to scholarly users and to the disposition and welfare of our sorely needed cultural heritage workforce.) Here I’ll simply say that I am interested in considering the principles of an ethic of care among basic design desiderata for a national digital platform.

What if we did that? What if we more self-consciously drafted DH design specs to center on care? What if we did a better job of placing key humanities interests and concerns at the very heart of big-data humanities infrastructure? Doing so might help ensure our digital tools are truly open and more sustainably constructed, so that anyone with a reasonable level of training (the level I think our graduate and even undergraduate humanities programs might usefully provide) could look under the hood, change a spark plug in a moment of need—and build her next conveyance, to go further than we have imagined. It might ensure that our devices and interfaces embrace humanistic goals of accessibility and respect the needs of people who benefit from multilingual or lighter (lower bandwidth or more machine-readable) design approaches—thus opening up humanities resources to more users and cultures and regions of the world. We might be inspired to create preservation systems, both digital and physical, with a greater care for climate change and other environmental concerns. And, most of all, we might work more seriously on interfaces that facilitate close reading and promote deep, humanities engrossment. This is admittedly a challenge when snippet views prevail and so-called “non-consumptive reading” is a policy compromise we’re having to make—but solving the problem of engrossment is core to humanities appreciation in digital platforms, and that in turn is necessary to the health of the humanities in a changing media landscape. (There’s much to learn here from gaming and storytelling systems, including about how they scale.) Meanwhile—and toward the application of an ethic of care—let’s create more cultural heritage platforms that promote an understanding of the vulnerability of the individual person and object. Let our visualization systems more beautifully express the relationship of parts, one to another and to many a greater whole. Let our open data finally be linked.

I don’t know exactly how to do all of these things, but I do understand the first step, which is to educate more students of the humanities to enter (and create, and financially and politically bolster) the fields that will. We must better prepare them to engage with big ideas, big datasets, big problems, and to apply humanities skills to the construction of platforms of great capacity, predicated on care—which is to say on an appreciation of vulnerability and interconnection and an understanding of the self as most whole in relation to others. I say we must do this, because we desperately need our national—and international—digital platforms. We need online communities and cultural data collections that stand out as safe and welcoming, deeply interesting and productive places for the exploration of human problems and the human condition. As I imagine them, these are platforms that expand the co-creating audience for the humanities—places where scientists, engineers, architects, cultural heritage workers, and specialist researchers from disparate humanities fields meet members of an engaged and educated general public, come to look clear-eyed and work hard, on grand challenges together.


[These are my very rough notes for opening one particular conversation on graduate education reform, with an audience of humanities faculty, most of whom did not self-identify as DH scholars. I share them in the hope they’ll be useful to others, and that they’ll serve to contextualize parts of this talk.] 

So, how do you insert humanities concerns into vital national conversations and decision-making processes? How do you place them at the heart of 21st century infrastructure? How do you embed them in the national and international digital platforms we need to create? (And I ask this, whether you think of that infrastructure in terms of data collections, technologies and tools, collaborative research and publication networks, political systems, or the structure of the many institutions that organize knowledge and make it matter in the world.) Well, the first step is to place more students of the humanities where they can build and tend and interject.

This has all been very hi-falutin. As we move into what I hope will be a much more practical discussion, grounded in your goal to reimagine the humanities PhD and in the particular situation at the University of Michigan, I want to share ten nuts-and-bolts questions:

  • Does any of what I’ve described require a PhD? (Depends on how conceived! Better baseline question: how long should training like this take?)
  • What is Michigan’s stance on widespread calls to shrink the numbers of humanities PhDs? (This talk implies we need many, many more people with deep humanities training, not fewer. The MLA’s Task Force on Graduate Study, on which UM’s Sid Smith and I participated, made the same controversial recommendation.)
  • What existing labor and training markets are being disrupted by the placement of PhDs into the fields I describe? (This is an issue that must be addressed by humanities departments and external agencies working toward more expansive futures for doctoral students. What are those labor markets like already? (Often, not rosy.) What can humanities programs learn from the special ways in which, say, LIS or museum studies or public administration students are prepared to enter these markets? How can departments broaden their notion of “placement” in an informed and collaborative/constructive—not colonialist and disruptive—way?)
  • Is there a special role for a school like Michigan, with digital ambitions, strong humanities programs, and a vibrant iSchool, to create a collaborative, cross-school curriculum in fields like humanities data curation, cultural heritage digitization, etc.? (Yes.)
  • What’s the place of teaching in a PhD training program that produces digital humanities scholar-practitioners? (How much teaching experience should graduate students on an alt-ac trajectory get—and how will departments whose financial and faculty-research models have traditionally depended on graduate teaching labor adjust if the answer is “much less?”)
  • Where can we look for valuable, non-exploitative examples of internship placements and graduate credit offered for practicum experience? (This is a leading question. Don’t exploit student labor.)
  • How can we make sure humanities PhDs learn to collaborate? (Note I didn’t say: “learn to code.” This has been a red herring in DH discourse. My own hiring practices have assumed that students can pick up many of the evolving tech skills they will need within my shop, if they have shown aptitude to learn and can display some practical experience in DH; it’s humanities skills of close reading and interpretation and empathy that are harder for management to provide.) Sadly, experience in collaboration is typically entirely absent from the humanities PhD.
  • Do the ideas I’ve shared here have implications for the humanities dissertation? (What’s the function of a capstone project for a PhD student not seeking to enter the tenure-track academic market or needing training in the writing of monographs and a head-start on the first book?)
  • As a humanities faculty member, how do you teach what you don’t know? (In other words, what would it take to shift academic departments from narratives of replication to those of transformation? What sorts of opportunities and resources should we provide to humanities faculty to better prepare them to redesign curricula, collaborate across departments/divisions/schools, and network their students into the communities that will land them first jobs?)
  • What resources do you have already that you may have overlooked? (Look to the library and, where present, to your schools of information and design. Also talk with and include alt-ac professionals working all over your campus. Example: one ulterior motive of UVa’s Praxis Program was to demonstrate that many of the humanities-trained people most able to teach useful DH skills were not part of UVa’s regular teaching faculty, but rather worked in entities like the Scholars’ Lab.)

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.