Education and the Digital Humanities Community

In response to our introduction to digital humanities, our class has expressed shared concerns regarding the social edition, including a desire to preserve and protect the roles of editors, experts, material texts, and close reading skills as valued parts of continued scholarship. When reading “Toward Modeling the Social Edition” by Siemens et al. this week, I was particularly struck by a concern for the implications of the social edition on the idea of a scholarly community. The article emphasizes the social edition as collective and democratic, and refers to a “digital humanities community” (7), but my immediate response was to question exactly who is included within this group.

It’s obvious right away that a person is unable to participate in the digital humanities without access to a computer. Regular, active involvement in the digital humanities community requires specialized knowledge and skills. Beyond new modes of reading, as mentioned by Sydney and Laura, there is also software knowledge, coding, and more to contend with, none of which is taught to the general public. It is also possible for a person to achieve expertise in their field without any close interaction with the digital humanities. Although I’m far from an expert, my own undergraduate degree strongly discouraged the use of secondary sources in favour of close reading, making this project my first real foray into the world of digital scholarship. Despite its current prominence, and despite its claims otherwise, the digital humanities community is fairly exclusive. This can be attributed at least in part to a lack of opportunity for education on the subject.

Although this gap in education may be rectified for future generations, it is affecting current scholars in concrete ways. In some cases, experts in particular fields are suddenly also expected to have digital skills, without being offered the chance to acquire them. In her post, Julie spoke to the idea of a hierarchy of knowledge. I agree with her that the social edition could possibly remove this hierarchy entirely, but I would add that even amongst experts, the existing hierarchy of knowledge can be rearranged by the government or other outside bodies to privilege digital skills. This is exemplified by this article, which Claire linked to in response to Julie’s post. The article describes how the Library and Archives Canada has had to downsize its staff by twenty percent in response to the 2012 federal budget cuts. The Library and Archives website features a specific section called “Modernization” which frames the changes as a necessary response to the digital age. In this case, more than two hundred individuals lost their jobs despite their expert status, leaving me to wonder if having digital skills would have spared at least some of them. While the connection between technological advances and modernity is evident, as we learned in our first class, there is no way to digitally replicate the guiding presence of a well-trained librarian. At the same time, there is no way for education to perfectly match the accelerated invention of new information technologies. The path towards modernization taken by the Library and Archives epitomizes the important roles of education and economics in determining who is included in the digital humanities community.

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2 Responses to Education and the Digital Humanities Community

  1. jason.boyd says:

    While digital humanities practice does increasingly require specialized technical and other skills, there is still a broad spectrum of scholars with a wide variance of digital skills who work under the umbrella of DH. The fact that such a wide range of skills are required in many DH projects usually means that these projects are highly collaborative, bringing together people whose skills sets, combined, can meet the needs of a project.

    The challenge of embedding “electracy” as a key component in education at all levels and in all subjects and disciplines is a significant one, not least in the humanities, where there is often fear and resistance to DH. Much DH learning takes place in alternate educational forums rather than in the traditional classroom. This is unfortunate, because, as Douglas Rushkoff warns (in Program or be Programmed) if we cannot understand how digital technology works, we adapt ourselves to it rather than understanding that it can be adapted to address our concerns.

  2. Pingback: Wikisource and the library | The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes

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