The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Laura Mandell

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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.” 

Laura Mandell acknowledges that the digital humanities is a varied field, but throughout our conversation, challenged this perception of indefinability. Mandell, who serves as both a full professor of English and the director of the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture at Texas A&M, has had an expansive career in the digital humanities. She describes the field as part of a symbiotic relationship with the traditional humanities, with both the digital and the humanities collaborating and confronting each other in an endless feedback loop. Though seemingly only a semantic difference, Mandell’s definition gets to the very heart of this series and its exploration of the digital’s impact on humanistic inquiry. Through conversations with both leading practitioners in the field and vocal critics, this series is a means to explore the intersection of the digital and the humanities, and its impact on research and teaching, American higher education, and the increasingly tenuous connection between the ivory tower of elite institutions and the general public.

Mandell, who began her exploration of the digital and its potential impact on the humanities in the early 1990s, has accumulated numerous poignant anecdotes pertaining to the evolution of the field and its current place within the academy. Throughout our conversation, she generously shares these stories, mixing the humorous with the frustrating, the absurd with a determination to keep moving forward. These are the stories that only a leader in the field could amass. Mandell is one of those rare academics who has carved success for herself in two distinct fields — first as an 18th-century scholar (Misogynous Economies, 1999) and then as a digital one (Breaking the Book, 2015). But rather than keep these two specialties separate, she has remarkably combined them through her formation of the Poetess Archive and 18thConnect. She is a vocal supporter for female inclusion in all digital fields and actively advocates this position through her research. I was lucky enough to see this in action at a talk Mandell recently gave in which she subtly, yet powerfully, connected the field’s sexism to insufficient search returns and biased data sets — not an easy feat. This expertise, sharp critique, and varied interests inhabit each of her answers in this interview and offer practical insight — more than 20 years in the making — into this vast field.


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

LAURA MANDELL: In 1994, I went to the NASSR [North American Society for the Study of Romanticism] conference at Duke, and Stuart Curran was on a panel talking about putting things up on the internet. At the time, I was the panel’s materials person and I had brought a packet with me, which included a chronology of the Romantic era that I had made as a graduate student to help me keep historical events and names straight. Alan Liu — a pioneer in the digital humanities and creator of the online table of contents for humanists called “Voice of the Shuttle” — was in the audience and had received the packet. Alan suggested that we put the chronology online, to which I agreed. But working with Alan, I didn’t think he should have to do all the coding, so I learned HTML and continued on from there, later learning TEI and XML. I was also put on a lot of digital humanities committees, most notably in 2004 when Jerome McGann started NINES and needed a steering committee. From here I expanded my coding knowledge and created the TEI-encoded Poetess Archive and my digital career has grown organically from there.

So then do you consider your work in the digital field to be “digital humanities”? If not, do you care?

So the digital humanities was originally called “humanities computing.” And humanities computing often involved stylometrics, so I usually thought of myself as a digital editor more than anything, because I was working in TEI and not using programming languages to algorithmically analyze texts. With the publication of the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, the common name for the field has switched from humanities computing to its now better-known name. And the field has since taken off. I am not so interested in participating in the digital humanities debates — although you will see in the answers to my questions that I very much am engaging with some of them. The real reason for me for talking about the digital humanities is that we need to realize the humanities never were the humanities. They are the print humanities and they are conditioned by print. So the question the term “digital humanities” poses is: How must humanities disciplines change if we are no longer working in a print world? This question, to me, is crucial. It is an intellectual question. And the question being proposed is: What happens to the humanities when digital methodologies are applied to them or when they start to interrogate digital methodologies? Both of these questions are crucial and that is what this term — “digital humanities” — keeps front and center.

So you have mentioned stylometrics, text encoding, and computation, but are there any digital or media subfields in particular that you think yield the most benefit to the humanities?

I do. Part of the reason I am so interested in working on and thinking about infrastructure is that there is a fundamental difference between scholars going to the archive and reading through materials, and all of the archive being made available digitally. There are, of course, only things you can do by reading, and the book — especially the paperback — is a fantastic technology. However, if you take a look at the print critical edition, you can see that at times the footnotes threaten to obscure the text itself, especially poems. Even in critical editions that have provenance and variants in the apparatus, the apparatus is difficult — if not impossible — for the average human being to read. The critical edition broke the book format. It simply doesn’t work in print format. So I think that the TEI-encoded digital edition promises to fix this problem in some way. It hasn’t yet. We still need some really good critical edition software, but it is getting there and the Whitman archive is probably the best example.

Another area of importance is research into data visualizations. With everything in our cultural heritage being digitized the question is: What can you do that you couldn’t do before when you have that much digital material? One of the first things you have to be able to do is to adequately visualize search returns and data mining results. Visualization is a way to amplify cognition, but it is not easy to do. We need to figure out not only how to visualize our data, but also how to read it. We know how to read texts, but we don’t know how to read statistics or data visualizations and I think some of the ways in which data mining results are being read — even at the Stanford Literary Lab — are not correct. There are whole fields in statistics and visual studies that we need to take advantage of. We need to get involved in learning these disciplines in order to understand what we see.

As you know, people often speak of digital work (and more frequently the digital humanities) as a means of making the humanities relevant in the 21st-century 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?

I don’t think it’s fair. I think that the digital humanities at its best furthers humanities questions. I just saw this interview on television on the future of work, and one of the amazing things said, and something humanists ought to trumpet, is that to prepare for jobs in the future, which will require working with digital tools, people need a humanities background. So the humanities themselves are and have always been relevant in a profound way. I think the digital humanities can demonstrate to computer scientists and statisticians how the humanities can help them understand things. Insofar as the digital humanities can insert itself into discussions on computational methods and can insert the humanities into that discussion, it gives people a sense of the value that the humanities already have.

So it seems that one of the values of the digital humanities to the broader humanities is that it enables humanists to speak to other disciplines in a shared language and by doing so articulates the value of humanist inquiry. 

Yes. In fact, when I first started in the field I would go to the computer science department at Miami University and introduce myself as working with the digital, and I was met with disbelief and uncertainty. At a certain point, however, there began to be textual data, and a lot of it. And suddenly the computer scientists started knocking on my door and asking for me to speak to their department about data — textual data that humanists know well, but was new to the field of computer science. Here at Texas A&M, I am currently collaborating with a natural language processing professor in computer science to work on analyzing plot structure. For me it’s important for the study of novels. For her it’s important for natural language processing. We have roughly 100 years of narratological analysis that we can marshal to help people understand things. Some of it is structuralist and some of it is archetypal. But we have a lot of skills and knowledge that can really help the computer sciences and textual people who are trying to analyze Twitter streams, etc.

Another topic that is hotly debated in the digital field concerns the ties the digital humanities have to neoliberalism. In a C21 post titled “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities,” media scholar Richard Grusin famously draws connections between the emergence of DH and the increased “neoliberalism and corporatization of higher education.” Do you think such a comparison has merit? Is there something about the digital humanities’ desire to produce that creates an alignment with neoliberal thinking? 

This is really a sore spot for me. Grusin starts the published version of “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” with the line, “I am not now, nor have I ever been, a digital humanist.” And then he goes on the blame the digital humanities for adjunctification. In my book I mention that the humanities were already becoming precarious in the 1970s. The MLA has done research on this and the problem of adjunctification is not to be laid at the door of DH. But there is something else that is going on here that is more important and intellectually interesting. That opening gambit is really disingenuous because Grusin works for a neoliberal corporation, if that is what the university is. What I mean to say by that is that Grusin is not being sufficiently skeptical. If you want to attack neoliberal corporatization then let’s look at the conditions under which you yourself are speaking. For example, Richard Grusin, like all faculty, has moved from university to university marketing his own cultural capital to get a higher salary and is in a position where he is using and relying on neoliberal corporate money. The same thing happens in a lot of critiques of DH and a lot of these scholars are not sufficiently questioning their own institutional position and the position that makes possible their speaking at that moment. People attack the racism of UNIX systems, which is absolutely right to do, but we also need talk about the racism of print, in which these critics are writing.

So nobody is being sufficiently skeptical. What I would say to the “dark side” people is that if you want to figure out neoliberal corporatization of the university, first look at your own institutional conditions. First interrogate your own position. And then, let’s start putting all the pieces together. I don’t object to critique itself, but I do object to critique that says, “you are part of the neoliberal corporatization, and we are not.” By using the “I’m an outsider” stance, you opt out of crucial discussions with the administrators, board of regents, government officials, and venders that we need to be participating in.

Of course one of the subsets of the neoliberal complaint has to do with money. To put together a solid digital humanities research group, a fair amount of funding is needed. In your experience, 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?

I do think the digital humanities is capable of attracting funding to the humanities in a number of different ways. Universities, outside funding agencies, businesses, and donors don’t really know how to fund the humanities. They know they care about it, but they don’t really know how to fund it. They can give money to a professor who takes a leave to write a book, but that is just not a very compelling way to spend your money to promote research. And I think this is for good reason. One-offs are just not impactful enough. So a lot of the donors and external funders I deal with are not just interested in a published book, but in a database that will allow many people to write books. Publishing the source materials and making them available to citizen scholars and professional scholars alike is very interesting to outside funders. This is a way to make the humanities broadly available. So when digital humanists show a desire to create something that will allow multiple people to conduct scholarly dialogue, the funding request is more compelling.

In my own experience funding methods have been diverse. When I worked at Miami University there was an opportunity to get presidential funds. I was part of a grant team that proposed building a humanities center with a digital center component. As the application moved through the upper administration, it began to be called a “digital humanities” center, rather than just a humanities center. We got the money, a traditional humanist was put in charge of the center, and the result was that a traditional humanities center — without the DH component — was built. So in this example, the digital and traditional humanities were in a way competing for money. Texas A&M, on the other hand, already had a well-funded humanities center, so when I came in, nobody saw me as taking their money. And I wasn’t. I came in to start a digital humanities center that was funded by the Provost’s office and the VP of Research. I was taking money that otherwise would have gone to the sciences and not the humanities. But I think this question is really institutionally specific and to generalize across all institutions is dangerous.

In the past there has been a line 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?

This has been hotly debated ever since Stephen Ramsay made that statement. I do think people need to have experience, if not with coding, then with infrastructure development, with making things work. There is a critique of DH, primarily from Wendy Chun, that says we should be making code break, that the radical thing to do is to disrupt. If you are involved with the making of a tool or with infrastructure you are not going to sign on to that program because you are trying to make something work. The term “work” is loaded. Is work a neoliberal production term? I don’t know. I think there are other ways to look at work. Michel Foucault has said that you don’t analyze who has power or where power is held, you ask how does power work. It is this kind of “work” that I am interested in. The notion of working is crucial. So someone involved in the digital humanities who actually engages with production — knows how hard it is to make things work, knows how hard it is to design software — cannot so easily make such blanket statements like all software is ideology. This is, again, to deny one’s own position. These blanket statements about making things break come from not being immersed in this world of making and not thinking about making in many ways. There is a wonderful critical making movement led by Kari Kraus, which is about thinking about ideological questions as you are making things work. But just breaking them isn’t the answer.

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? How has your own work tried to challenge this lack?

There is severe underrepresentation. An article just came out saying there is no underrepresentation of women in the digital humanities, only in tech fields, and there was a really strong reaction against that. There is undeniable institutionalized sexism across STEM and the tech fields. I recently took a statistics course and the course textbook and class began with analyzing a data set composed of male versus female mathematical GRE scores and how much lower the female mathematical GRE scores are. You start taking that class and you’re a woman, the first thing you’ve been told when you walk in the door is, “You’re going to stink at this.” That is part of this culture. I do, however, think the major digital humanists in my field are women — Julia Flanders, Bethany Nowviskie, Melissa Terras, Susan Schreibman, and Susan Brown. They are the movers and shakers in this field and they are doing amazing work. From this perspective, the digital humanities has been more hospitable to women, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. There is a major problem that women are being overlooked in the field of DH, despite the fact that there are these amazing women leaders in the field. There is just this institutionalized sexism that we can’t break through. And I have this internally. I am not only blaming men for it, I too internalize it. So one of the things I am going to do to help remedy the situation is to hold a summer workshop on programming for women. It is going to have all women teachers and all women students, programming, and yoga classes.

Programming and yoga — I would sign up for that!

I will send you an invitation!

You have spoken some about infrastructure, but I’d also like to think about physical space – 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?

This is a hard question and I think there is a lot of work being done on whether digital humanities centers should be in libraries or not. I think there are a couple models for digital humanities centers. I started a center that adhered to one model, which is to have a DH center within the college of liberal arts. This model hires a professor who is both a full professor in his or her discipline and also does digital work to run a DH center. These are hard animals to find. Another model is the one that Princeton is following now, where you have a faculty director but you hire an alt-ac person to run the DH center. The faculty member is in a specific discipline, but the alt-ac person and DH center, in the Princeton example, is housed in the library. That is a great model too; in fact, it may be the better model. To me, however, the biggest problem that we confront – and nobody has solved this — is the infrastructure question. And this problem still exists whether it is in libraries or colleges. I have an amazing infrastructure system here at Texas A&M. I am running 20 VMs on four servers, but I got it by hook and crook. Across the digital humanities we have had huge infrastructure issues and nobody has solved them. Libraries are struggling to create infrastructures for what they have to deal with. And universities are trying to centralize their infrastructures, and you can’t do that with digital humanities servers. So this is a big issue and I think it really doesn’t matter where the center lives, as much as what kind of infrastructure you can develop to support big data research.

I’d like to now turn to a couple questions concerning the relationship between the academy and the public, and how the digital component fits in. 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 think it is a hell of a thing to try to explain to people! In fact, I am trying to develop a degree for digital humanities, and if you call a class “digital humanities” there is not a student on earth who takes it, because they don’t know what it is. But if I call it digital publishing, then students will expect to have courses in Illustrator or Desktop Publishing. My elevator speech when people ask me about the digital humanities is, “we put Shakespeare on iPads,” and I get every kind of hostile response you can imagine. But the best definition of the digital humanities, I think, is bringing digital methods to bear on humanities research and then interrogating the digital humanities by humanities research. This is the definition I most care about and it is difficult to relate to the public.

Another concern that has come up deals with public intellectualism, which many scholars and journalists alike have described as being in decline (for example, Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times essay last year). 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?

I have a story to tell about this. I was at the digital humanities conference at Stanford one year and there was a luncheon at which Alan Liu spoke. His talk was a plea to have the digital humanities help save the humanities by broadcasting humanities work — in other words, making it public. It was a deeply moving talk. But to her credit, Julia Flanders stood up and said something along the lines of, “We don’t want to save the humanities as they are traditionally constituted.” And she is right. There are institutional problems with the humanities that need to be confronted and those same humanities have participated in criticizing the digital humanities. Digital humanists would be shooting themselves in the foot in trying to help the very humanities discipline that discredits us. In many ways Liu wasn’t addressing the correct audience, because he was speaking to those who critique DH and asking that they take that critical drive that is designed to make the world a better place and put it into forging a link with the public — making work publicly available. Habermas has said that the project of Enlightenment is unfinished until we take specialist discourses and bring them back to the public. This has traditionally been seen as a lesser thing to do in the humanities. For Habermas, it is seen as the finishing of an intellectual trajectory. This is a trajectory that we have not yet completed and it is something, I think, the digital humanities can offer.

We are going to end with a question posed to me by Franco Moretti, who pointed out — 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 could you look backward and speak to what you think the digital in the humanities has accomplished so far?

I think a lot has been accomplished, but I have been living in the digital humanities for many years now. One of the most exciting things to me was being on the NINES committee. Every meeting was mind-blowing — the things that we are looking forward to being able to do, the ways of understanding that have already opened up. I will just give you some examples. I teach XML in my sophomore “Writing About Literature” course. I have the students code poetry for metaphor and personification and repetition and all kinds of literary figures using an XML schema. I then take an XSLT and transform it into webpages, so that when you click on a highlighted colored word, a window will pop up with the literary term and the student’s interpretation. This work has an amazing impact on student writing: those who couldn’t write about literature at the beginning of the course write beautifully about it by the end. The digital realm is an opportunity for us to figure out other ways for students to learn about humanistic discourse that involves visual and physical learning. I also think that the TEI part of the digital humanities has turned people into editors and is modifying the prestige of editors in our field for the better. I think the data mining part has shown people that verbal literacy is not enough, that we need mathematical literacy as humanists. We need humanists working in, and having an impact on, tech and other industries. The digital humanities is getting graduate students into other fields of work outside of the academy where they can have substantial impact. For me, the digital humanities has a kind of energy about it which is exciting and revitalizing.


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).