The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Bethany Nowviskie




Click here for the complete series of The Digital in the Humanities.

FOR AT LEAST THE PAST DECADE, the term “digital humanities” (DH) has captured the imagination and the ire of scholars across American universities. Supporters of the field, which melds computer science with hermeneutics, champion it as the much-needed means to shake up and expand methods of traditional literary interpretation; for most outspoken critics, it is a new fad that symbolizes the neoliberal bean-counting destroying American higher education. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies a vast and varied body of work that utilizes and critically examines digital tools in the pursuit of humanistic study. This field is large and increasingly indefinable even by those in its midst. In fact, “digital humanities” seems astoundingly inappropriate for an area of study that includes, on one hand, computational research, digital reading and writing platforms, digital pedagogy, open-access publishing, augmented texts, and literary databases, and on the other, media archaeology and theories of networks, gaming, and wares both hard and soft. As Franco Moretti said to me in the first of these interviews: “‘digital humanities’ means nothing.”

For Bethany Nowviskie, the digital humanities means a great deal, although she states that defining what this meaning is exactly has been a “distraction” and “detraction” from the work itself. As current director of the Digital Library Federation at CLIR (the Council on Library and Information Resources) and a Research Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Virginia, Nowviskie brings a unique perspective to this series that is informed by years of work within the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the library. Perhaps more than anyone in this series, Nowviskie speaks to the tremendous interdisciplinarity and public power of the field, however it comes to be defined. Because of this, she is an exciting addition to the series, which aims to explore, through conversations with both leading practitioners in the field and vocal critics, the intersection of the digital and the humanities, and this intersection’s impact on research and teaching, American higher education, and the increasingly tenuous connection between the ivory tower of elite institutions and the general public.

When I first crossed over into more digital research in my own work as a CLIR fellow and PhD in literature, Nowviskie’s blog nowviskie.org was a tremendous resource, and it has been ever since. Both humorous and insightful, Nowviskie takes on some of the most significant and taboo topics in the academy, including alt-ac, a phrase she popularized in founding #Alt-Academy, an open access publication on “alternative” academic careers; the lack of female representation in data mining; the role of digital humanities in an era of climate change and environmental degradation; and, most recently, the need for a feminist-based ethic of care in both digital and humanities fields. Nowviskie’s CV also reads like a who’s-who of digital projects, including SpecLab, the Rossetti Archive, Temporal Modeling, Neatline, and NINES, to name a few. She has published and spoken extensively on the digital humanities and was notably the director of the Scholars’ Lab at Virginia and president of the Association for Computing in the Humanities before beginning her tenure with DLF. This breadth of experience makes for an interesting perspective on the digital in the humanities as it exists both within the realm of higher education and without. 

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MELISSA DINSMAN: How did you first come to enter what I am broadly going to call the “digital” field?

BETHANY NOWVISKIE: I’m tempted to tell you I was simply in the right place at the right time, but that would elide all of the hard institutional and administrative work that went into creating that place — of which I was fairly oblivious at the outset. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia at two important moments. The first was the creation of UVA’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) — a pioneering enterprise, one of the first such things of its kind. I was lucky enough to have mentors and advisors in both my major fields of study — English and Archaeology — undertaking research projects there. The second was, really, what we might call the birth of the web: the moment when it became possible for almost anybody (I did it with zero formal training) to buy a “Teach Yourself HTML” book and suddenly, with no mediation, no formal publisher — for better or worse, with no editor — to begin creating online resources, to begin writing and publishing and collecting and curating content online. So I graduated and went away for a bit to train as a teacher and do other things, but I kept tinkering and learning on the side. I created what I believe was the first real website on the poet John Keats, in 1995, and I learned enough rudimentary programming to design sonnet generators and give a literary twist to early chatbots. I was basically creating toys, with the vocabulary of Romantic poets, just for fun, but my heart was at IATH, where Jerome McGann was starting his great Rossetti Archive project. So it didn’t take me long to go back there for graduate work and throw myself headlong into what we called “humanities computing.” It was obvious to me that we were at the start of something big.

So it seems pretty obvious that digital work has been a part of your research trajectory for a substantial period of time. Do you think your work qualifies as “digital humanities”? Do you care?

I am really uninterested in the definitional stuff. We’ve gone through, as I’ve seen it over the past 20 years, two major phases of effort to delineate a “field.” Both have tended to distract or even detract from attention on the work itself. The first was a long period — already underway for decades when I came in — in which the very small international community doing humanities computing was struggling to have its output recognized as scholarship at all, rather than service or something completely oblique to the disciplines. So we worked hard to replicate institutional structures that would signal seriousness: journals, professional associations, guidelines for tenure and promotion, and we evolved a crazy level of rigor (not seen elsewhere in the humanities) in peer review just to get into our conferences. John Unsworth and I organized a lecture series in 1999 called “Is Humanities Computing an Academic Discipline?” By the early 2000s, I was working with McGann and others on NINES, a project meant to legitimize digital scholarly editing in 19th-century studies. That was all good infrastructure-building and self-examination, but I look back and wonder what we might have done as a community if we had been less concerned with fitting to preexisting molds.

What was the second phase?

Well, then, in more recent years, the public profile of DH work skyrocketed and it came to be seen by some as a pathway to academic success in a bad market. That prompted job seekers and faculty reevaluating their graduate curriculum and newer practitioners, trying to map their training against what felt like shifting sands, to become intensely interested in the meta-conversation of where you draw the boundaries around the digital humanities. So there’s a lot of DH punditry out there, and some of the loudest is not especially embedded in practical experience. But there have also been occasions when open discussions about the core skills, findings, and interests of the long-term practitioner community have come across as not just provocative, but exclusionary. Not: “We have found deep, hands-on engagement with knowledge representation and the defamiliarization of arts and letters that comes when you try to mash them into unambiguous computational systems to be valuable: you might, too,” but rather, “If you only use but don’t build humanities toolsets, you’re not part of our research field.” And that has been unproductive.

Despite the ambiguous boundaries of the DH field, do you think there are any digital or media subfields in particular that yield the most benefit to the humanities and why?

Oh, it’s library and information science all the way, especially in terms of broad benefit to the humanities and helping it intersect with other fields. This is increasingly evident now that there’s such crucial work to be done in interdisciplinary, data-rich areas with deep implications for human lives, like the environmental humanities. And now we’ve moved into an era in which the library itself — which has always been a kind of laboratory for the liberal arts — takes on that function in new ways and at a vastly greater, networked scale. This potential and centrality and need is part of what attracted me to my new role at the Digital Library Federation. And by library science I’m talking about work in digitization, data curation and digital stewardship, metadata and description, search and discovery interfaces, visualization and analysis, embodied interaction like augmented reality and physical computing, leveraging linked open data so as to help scholars make meaning across a variety of disparate datasets — all the things that libraries are and do today — plus the ways they interact with and serve the communities (and not just academic research communities, but also larger publics) that they’re embedded in.

People often speak of digital work (and more frequently the digital humanities) as a means of making the humanities relevant in the 21stcentury university. Do you think this statement is a fair assessment of digital work and its purpose? Do you think it is fair to the humanities?

Relevant within the university? I’m much more interested in the place of the humanities outside it. And there I do think technology plays an important role — for a lot of the same, simple reasons I cited before, in describing my own early attraction to the work. It’s the ability for anyone — not just scholars but citizens, community organizers — to get a message out to a wider audience in fairly unmoderated ways. Maybe even playful ways, which are sometimes the most engaging and viral in raising public appreciation for arts and culture, which should remain a core mission of the academic humanities — or to bring powerful techniques like data mining and visualization, which are being developed and refined in scholarly contexts, into politics, social commentary, journalism, and activism.

So how can we reconcile the digital humanities benefit outside the academy with critiques of the field that connect the emergence of DH to the increased “neoliberalization and corporatization of higher education”? (I am quoting media scholar Richard Grusin here from his C21 post “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities.”) Do you think such a comparison has merit? Is there something about the digital humanities’s desire to produce that creates an alignment with neoliberal thinking?

Well, sure, DH is complicit in the modern university in the same way that every other practice and part of the humanities that succumbs to certain logics and economies of production and consumption is complicit. So, part of that struggle to enter the mainstream academy I was telling you about succeeded insofar as we, too, in DH now participate in screwed-up metrics and systems of scholarly communication along with everybody else. I’m talking here about how almost everyone in the academic humanities is caught up in the provision of free labor and content to monopolistic, private journal and database providers that then sell us our own content back to us at exorbitant prices. And I’m also thinking of humanities scholars’ general complicity with mismatched demands between what we know might really benefit scholarship and open inquiry and the public good versus what our disciplines ask early-career scholars to produce — and of how parochially we measure their output and impact. In many ways, I think you could turn around and look to the digital humanities not as a sign of the apocalypse but for paths out of this mess. Here’s a field that has been working for years on open access research and publication platforms, on ways to articulate and valorize work done outside of narrow, elite channels, and on how to value scholarship that’s collaborative and interdisciplinary — instead of done solo, individualistically, and only made legible and accessible to fellow academics in little subdisciplines, which is still the M. O. of the broader field. And on a conceptual level, the data- and text-analysis and visualization strand of digital humanities is pretty much all about finding ways to nuance mechanistic quantification and turn it on its head — to better value and appreciate and elevate the ineffable, not in spite of numbers and measures but through them. I mean, that’s our research field.

As you know, the type of work you are talking about takes a fairly good-sized team of skilled people, which usually costs a good amount of money to put together. How is this funding typically achieved? Are universities willing to pay for DH projects despite massive cutbacks elsewhere, or is funding most likely to be found from external sources?

It’s actually always been a mix of external grant funding and institutional investment. And grants have typically been project-based, but our funders (both public and private) are now increasingly and rightly interested in issues of sustainability and interinstitutional collaboration and reuse — trying to invest more wisely over time and prevent the reinvention of too many wheels. They want to help motivate scholars to build on each other’s work. When it comes to internal, institutional investment, it’s unevenly applied, of course, depending on the focus and ambitions and resources of any given university or college. Of course there’s some stuff that should just be there now, for everyone, provided by institutions — general computing support as a given, like plumbing. But just like you wouldn’t question why not every institution chooses to fund a top-notch art history program, or German department, it’s no surprise that some schools have built amazing DH programs and others haven’t. One thing I think it’s cool to notice is how, in the United States, anyway, the longest-standing and best-respected institutions for digital humanities work are public ones, including some under-resourced land-grant institutions that saw the potential early on — not the wealthier and high-status private universities. DH has its Ivies-come-lately.

Richard Jean So also noted the leading role of large public institutions in the digital humanities. Of course, these are still R1 schools we are talking about. What do we do about less-funded institutions or liberal arts colleges? How do we make the digital humanities playing field more even? Or should we even try?

Oh, that’s a great question, and kind of a dangerous one, in that it tempts me to say something I know could be easily misconstrued — which is that I’d hate to see a completely uniform landscape here. (I’ll explain why in a minute.) But yes, resource disparities are real, and painfully felt. Possibly the greatest of them is not the most visible, like cluster hires and expensive equipment or gleaming new spaces for DH work. It has to do with time: the amount of time that librarians and tech staff and scholars across the board are given to devote to contemplation and learning new things, and to developing productive collaborations with each other as peers, which doesn’t happen instantly and is absolutely essential to creating a healthy research team. And that’s a need at every institution. But honestly, I see a lot of the most creative and provocative and publicly engaged DH scholarship and practice coming from smaller and less wealthy institutions these days — specifically from places that seem to me less concerned about trying to match the scale of projects and the style of practices that you may see in the larger labs and centers, and more about building on the things they know they’re richer in. Sort of embracing their constraints as part of the operating system. And a lot of these riches I’m talking about are relational: the closer involvement you see in liberal arts colleges with students as co-creators and with the teaching mission of the institution; sometimes a better relationship with the towns and cities in which they are physically located, or — as in the case of, say, HBCUs — a more focused and credible relationship with the broader, distributed communities they engage with; and very often, whether by virtue of size or the necessity for collaboration in a more constrained environment, you see a healthier set of relationships among faculty, staff, and administrators at smaller schools. There’s a lot for a big, R1 institution to envy right now in the way DH plays out elsewhere.

You talked earlier about the line between those who make and those who use, which could be applied to the line that has frequently been drawn in the digital humanities between those who code and those who don’t. Do you think full engagement with the digital humanities requires programming skills, and if so, should programming become a requirement for humanities students?

I guess I did gesture at that, in talking about the tensions that have arisen around defining the digital humanities. And “programming” or “coding” is so broad a concept and differently understood, across this community, as to become almost meaningless. It rapidly loses specificity. Therefore we’ve had a lot of tussles about this among people who actually agree but are speaking at cross-purposes. That said, I do think that students of the humanities should be required to take a steady look under the hood of digital media. We’re doing them a disservice if we’re only teaching them to operate or contemplate these platforms from the outside — or worse, if we’re pretending like there’s no difference between new media and old. I’d say the same thing about someone studying 18th- and 19th-century literature, or TV. Time spent in a letterpress shop or in the studio would be invaluable.

We also hear quite a bit about the significant underrepresentation of women and minorities across digital fields, including the digital humanities. I know your own work touches upon this disparity as seen in both those who practice and those who are the subject of digital humanities research. Is there a remedy to this?

That’s true. In terms of participation, it’s an ongoing problem that has its roots way back in K-12 education and gaming and pop culture, which is where — not just girls and people of color — but anybody who doesn’t present as the stereotypical cis hetero young white male who is assertive in STEM classes and tolerant of depictions of casual violence may have a hard time seeing herself in technology for the long haul. Too many people have a hard time finding a nurturing environment in which to build the skills that will one day lead to significant work in DH — but movements like Black Girls Code, or Teen Tech Girls in my own hometown, are making a difference. My 9-year-old daughter recently told me that shaking the hand of the woman who runs systems engineering for NASA’s Mars missions was “the greatest thing that ever happened to her.” So a lot of it is about having visible role models. Now, in terms of diversity and representation in the subject matter of the digital humanities, there has actually long been a clear and thoughtful thread of work in DH concerned with remediation of the archives of underrepresented groups and the use of digital tools to get at questions of alterity. I’ve seen the variety and volume of that work increase in recent years as the field itself has become more diverse and, in some ways, more inclusive. (Those are not the same thing.) It has also become increasingly sophisticated, as more humanities scholars are learning from information scientists who study how cultural bias is embedded in algorithms and databases, or from curators and anthropologists who have worked with indigenous communities to repatriate collections or organize and describe them in more appropriate ways.

You have spoken about the library and its crucial role in digital projects already, but can you expand a little to discuss the future of DH locations — namely, does the future of digital work lie in individual departments or libraries? Do you have an opinion on the best physical place for digital scholarship, and what does this say about its future role in the university?

There’s a lot to be said for the academic research library as an interdisciplinary corporeal space as well as a conceptual one, a virtual lab. It’s a place where everybody on campus is welcome, so a lot of fruitful interchange and cross-pollination can happen there. I know I’ve been involved in a number of projects over the years that would not have gotten started but for serendipitous hallway conversations in a library. The funny thing is that it’s not always the most slick and beautiful, well-designed open spaces that attract people to the degree that they want to stay and put down roots and get in the position to have those conversations. Dedicated office space for interprofessional DH project teams has the desired effect. It’s probably easy to think that a shift to digital work means that place and space matter less. But even if many of the resources they use are online, digital humanities scholars still need to live alongside physical library collections — especially rare and unique materials, but the “medium-rare” books, too — and in easy, regular contact with librarians and programmers. They need to get comfortable and settle in physically so they can open up intellectually, particularly when the work itself crosses boundaries. Some library design and renovation projects that overemphasize multipurpose or flexible, nomadic space really miss this point. The architecture is inspiring-looking — and vacant. I used to be able to judge the health of the intellectual community of our graduate fellows at the Scholars’ Lab — a wildly interdisciplinary bunch — by the level of noise and grubbiness in the grad lounge.

You have also talked a little about the potential of digital work to engage the public. But do you think the general public understands the term “digital humanities” or, more broadly, the digital work being done in the humanities (if at all)?

I don’t think they need to, or at least I’m not concerned about recognition of the term or even a lot of reflection on our projects as DH projects. I’d rather people get excited about the humanities content itself — the historical datasets they can explore, the art that they now have direct access to, or the new discoveries and fascinating methods that they hear about in the press. We’re finding new archaeological sites, reading manuscripts that were thought to be illegible, discovering historical trends in art and literature, and just plain putting things online for straightforward reading and enjoyment or for data analysis in ways never thought possible before. I’d much rather people (and by people I mean everyone from my kids’ age to my grandparents’ age) start thinking about how to apply digital humanities methods to problems or histories that matter to them, personally. And that’s happening.

Part of public access is also made possible through public intellectualism, which according to many (including Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times) is in decline. What role, if any, do you think digital work plays? Could the digital humanities (or the digital in the humanities) be a much-needed bridge between the academy and the public, or is this perhaps expecting too much of a discipline?

It might be asking a lot of any one discipline (if you consider DH a discipline) and even more of a loose band of practitioners from multiple professions who are still sewing their own sails while the ship’s underway — which is more how I see this community. But again: The publication platforms, the new datasets, the analytic and visualization tools, the digital megaphones the field is producing and refining — those become more robust and available to humanities scholars across all disciplines, and to journalists and writers inside and outside the academy, every day.

To conclude, I would like to ask you to look back at the field. In my interview with Franco Moretti, he pointed out to me — and he was right — that all my questions focus on the future of the digital in the humanities. Perhaps it’s a sign of my own optimism or perhaps it reflects a certain anticipatory tone that is used in media and DH circles. But can you speak to what you think the digital in the humanities has accomplished so far?

Well, I could talk more about the arts and humanities material that’s now online and open for interpretation and public enjoyment, or about specific discoveries and the tools and systems we’re experimenting with for generating insight — or I could go into how digital work has helped broaden the career paths for emerging scholars — but I feel like all that’s adequately understood, so I actually want to take Franco’s prerogative and pose a question back to you! Is that okay?

Sure, go ahead.

One thing I noticed about your questions is that, while they are definitely forward-looking, they kind of run in a channel in which the humanities is an academic enterprise, concerned with its own disciplinarity, firmly embedded in the university, and focused — or at least I’ve taken you to mean — focused on fairly traditional departments and subject areas. Is that fair to say? If so, why do you think that is? Is there something about the “digital humanities” that makes us think we know what that latter word should be and do, and it’s just the digital that’s the modifier, up for grabs?

This is a fair question, and one I don’t know I can fully answer. For me, these questions stemmed from my own curiosities, and are, of course, a reflection of my position and education within the academy. They are also a reflection of my interviewees, who, for this series, are largely people within the academy. Laura Mandell talked about these two terms being in an endless feedback loop with one another, which is an image I very much like and troubles the assumption that we know what the humanities are. I suppose as the newer entity, though, the digital is the term we wrestle with in thinking about its relationship to a discipline that many of us have existed and worked within for many years. This isn’t to say it’s right. I think it’s a means of making the ambiguity of these two giant terms a little easier to deal with. I do think the digital should trouble our understanding of the humanities and that the humanities should trouble our understanding of the digital. How is it that you grapple with the juxtaposition of these two terms?

I like that! I think Laura’s right about the feedback loop, and absolutely agree with your sense of mutual “trouble” between the two domains. The fact that both of them are advancing, themselves, while simultaneously orbiting around each other like a kind of double star — the humanities on the trajectory of what they can mean and become in a digital age, on the one side, and technology with how it is continually inflected by human lives and understandings on the other — is, I think, why I’ve found this an endlessly fascinating field.

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Melissa Dinsman is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II (2015).


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