Hist 696: “Digital Scholarship”

This weeks readings focused on the creation and evaluation of digital scholarship. Both the type of work being created and the ways that work is evaluated differ from what has become the standards for academic production and for tenure and promotion.

Looking at the creation of digital scholarship, William Thomas’ “Writing a Digital History Article From Scratch” provides in informative reflection on the process of creating something new. Two pieces that I found very interesting and discussion worthy come from Thomas’ use of Mindy McAdams and Stephanie Berger’s work in the Journal of Electronic Publishing. The first is the claim:

“We defend two arguments here,” they began, “1. The writer does not give up control in hypertext. 2. The reader has always had a large degree of control. If the reader’s experience of agency is heightened in hypertext narratives, does it follow that the writer relinquishes authority over the text? That’s the control paradox: We contend that the author gives up very little—perhaps nothing at all.”

This claim hits to the heart of one of the concerns repeatedly expressed about creating digital arguments – the concern that we cannot control the interpretation of non-linear arguments. I have hinted at my concern that control over linear arguments might be something of a false security. Here McAdams and Berger take another approach to the question – while the reader has control, the author still has authority over the text. Just as in print, the author of a website still sets the parameters, still presents the argument, still chooses the evidence and how to link those pieces of evidence. Thinking back to last week and Manovich’s distinction between open and closed interactivity, a digital scholarly article is a great example of a closed interactive piece, and rightly so. The author chooses the information being considered, the hyper-link connections between those pieces of information and the like. I think our concern about being unable to control the audience’s experience with our digital “texts” is a red herring, both in the sense that we both have more control over the digital material than we realize and in the sense that we have less control over the print material than we hope.

The second claims: “McAdams and Berger explained that electronic text and narrative could not be written in the same way as print text and that this difference could not be reverse engineered. In other words we could not write in the standard way for print publication and then cut the text up for digital publication or vice versa. “‘Broken apart’ is perhaps a poor metaphor,” they warned, “it implies a whole that has been damaged. We assert that components ideally are written discretely as components from the very beginning of the process. Extracting components from a pre-existing unilinear text not only proves to be equally (or more) difficult but also appears to produce inferior components.”

Thomas agrees with this opinion and so crafts his digital article in a way that is entirely different than a print article, though using many of the same broad categories of information. Just as in a print article, the site has pieces of evidence, supporting pieces of historiography, and connections between those pieces of information being made by the author. I spent a good amount of time poking around the actual site (The Difference Slavery Made) and it was quite thought provoking in its non-linearity. Each item could be accessed from multiple directions, with each piece of evidence corresponding with pieces of historiography and with its place within the argument of the article. To grasp what Thomas, et al are arguing, the site actually requires a large amount of focused attention, something that is not always the case for the print article. Because of its organization, the site requires the reader to be very active and to navigate through the material intentionally. This is a very interesting and challenging picture of what the digital article could be.

“Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian,” is a study that I found very encouraging when I was applying for programs with the intention of focusing on digital creations. It will be interesting to see how many of the recommendations will be implemented by universities, but it is exciting to see that this conversation is already well under-way before those of us in the class hit the academic job market.

One final thing I wanted to draw attention to from this weeks reading was the difference in the state, or at least the description of the state, of a cyberinfrastructure between “Our Cultural Commonwealth” in 2006 and “Working Together or Apart:Promoting the Next Generation of Digital Scholarship” in 2009. Where “Our Cultural Commonwealth” offers a plea for serious investment in a digital infrastructure, both for the preservation of cultural items and for the expansions of scholarship, “Working Together” speaks of inheriting “a cyberinfrastructure of systems, data, and services” from the sciences and the need for over-all coherence in infrastructure (1, 12). While I understand and appreciate the desire and need to create digital works that can communicate with one another and can be used by others, the effort to create a coherent infrastructure, as we have discussed in other classes, is challenging and costly. To what extent does infrastructure come out of projects and to what extent is infrastructure necessary precondition for projects? And do we need to rely on grants and similar funding models to create infrastructure and projects? As noted in “Our Cultural Commonwealth,” there has been little contribution to infrastructure for work in digital humanities and, given the current political climate, looking for federal support seems to be problematic or at least unreliable. How can we create digital scholarship in ways that are beneficial to the community and that are sustainable?