The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Richard Grusin

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.”

To conclude this series, I want to give Richard Grusin, and the dark-siders, as they are called, the final word. Grusin, who has watched 11 people interact with his “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities” piece, very graciously agreed to speak with me about his 25-year history with the digital field. The result is an exploration of the history of the humanities at Georgia Tech and a thoughtful reflection on the significance of the digital to pedagogical experimentation and student connection. Grusin, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), is well known in media circles for his interdisciplinary breadth and his astute historical analyses of media objects. His book, Remediation (1999), co-authored with Jay David Bolter, heavily influenced the historical and theoretical study of media and guided my own understanding of the new media field. In his conversation with me, Grusin echoes sentiments made by David Golumbia and Alexander Galloway but also those made by Franco Moretti, Marisa Parham, and Ted Underwood, thereby encapsulating what I hoped this series would be: an exploration of the surprising lines of overlap as well as outright disagreement in DH and beyond.

Grusin approaches each of the following questions from the position of institutional history and the influence that Georgia Tech, Wayne State, and UWM have had on his career in the digital. Throughout, he maintains one of his key commitments as a new media scholar, which is to make visible the chains of mediation within which we live and work. Thus, he is the only interviewee to ask to see my Skype recording and also the only to ask how the sausage is made, so to speak — a process that included distributing the questions in advance, a Skype interview, transcription, my edits, interviewee’s edits, my final edits, and LARB’s copyedits. Grusin strikes an impressive balance between focusing upon the more theoretical that stems from his work on Remediation and Premediation (2010), and the practical, which has emerged from his years in the classroom and in administration. In this, his answers to some of the questions take a unique turn toward the nitty-gritty of the university and how the digital has impacted it over the last quarter-century. Grusin is very quick to point out that he is speaking from his own historical and institutional conditions, which most recently included a five-year stint as the director of the Center for 21st Century Studies at UWM. By doing so he highlights what this series has unintentionally done: explore the different institutional histories of the digital in the humanities as it has emerged across the United States.


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

RICHARD GRUSIN: I first entered digital work through institutional reform. In 1986, I was hired at Georgia Tech as an Americanist in the department of English. The department had no majors. In fact, the humanities and social sciences at Georgia Tech had no majors. But I became really interested in the nascent program in Literature and Science, which was the first in the country of its kind. In 1987, Georgia Tech hired a new president, John Patrick Crecine — the first non-engineer president at Tech — who came in and said that we needed to be at the forefront of the information revolution by becoming a technological university. His solution was to create degree programs in the humanities and social sciences. The board of regents agreed but said that the new degree programs had to be specific to the mission of the institution. So in English we created two degrees. In 1990, I co-created the undergraduate degree in Science, Technology, and Culture, and in 1991 the Information, Design, and Technology program, for which I taught, admitted its first students. This program was like a digital MFA with an element of technical and professional communication. Neither of these programs exists in these forms at Georgia Tech today. Our department, which was renamed the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture, created a continuing education program in the early to mid-1990s to teach business people how to use the web. I was one of the people who opposed this program initially, because coming from a cultural studies perspective it seemed a little corporate to me. (So I’ve been involved in the conversation about the corporate nature of education and the digital for a long time.) But eventually I saw the value of this program as a resource generator for computer labs, research, and teaching. By 1993, as undergraduate director, I began to help bring digital pedagogy into the classroom. I became chair of the department in 1996, a very different time economically. I remember going with colleagues from engineering and computer science to a meeting with HP representatives to ask for equipment donations. When I told them about our need for classrooms with computers in order to teach students digital writing, HP, without hesitating, agreed to furnish two classrooms for us.

So I’ve been on both sides of the digital debate. In the 1990s, I was really enthusiastic for this change because I was convinced that Western culture had undergone a major transformation in technologies of representation, communication, information, and so forth. It seemed to me that since education was not a natural form — it emerged at a certain historical moment under certain historical and technological conditions — and since those conditions were changing, we needed to change our response to it. My beginnings had a lot to do with the local historical situation. If I had not gone to Georgia Tech, it’s likely that I would not have become a new media scholar.

Fast-forward to now: what would you say is the current role of the digital in your humanities work? Do you think this qualifies as “digital humanities”? Do you care?

I open the “Differences” essay with this really tongue-in-cheek statement that says, “I am not now, nor have I ever been, a digital humanist. Yes, it is true that I have friends who are digital humanists.” But the answer is, no, I don’t do digital humanities. To me the role of the digital is as an object of historical and theoretical analysis. That’s where the digital has been crucial for me. At Wayne State — where I moved to be English Department chair in 2001 — the first thing I did with our composition faculty was to create a digital literacy initiative. We wanted all Wayne State composition students to be able to compose in digital environments, and we got internal funds for that. Similarly, as director of C21 at UWM, I’ve supported digital initiatives in a variety of ways. But primarily, in terms of my own research, it’s really as an object of critical, historical, and theoretical analysis.

Are there any digital or media subfields in particular that you think yield the most benefit to the humanities and why?

Let me answer this in two ways. First, in terms of the digital or media, I really think the question of mediation is a much more interesting and capacious question than the question of the digital itself. I think the question of the digital in terms of historical, critical, and theoretical analysis is a subset of the question of mediation. As I write in my “Radical Mediation” essay, media are environments and environments are media. Bodies are media. Mediation is really the question I’ve been interested in all along. But I’m not super comfortable talking about the humanities as a homogeneous entity. I think this is related to my being a historicist fundamentally. What’s most important when one thinks about these questions is what is the context in which these fields emerged? The digital has played itself out in really different kinds of institutions, and there would be different subfields applicable. So at Georgia Tech, because we were an engineering school, science and technology studies were crucial in yielding benefit for the humanities because this made collaboration across departments easier. But if you are at another kind of institution, say an elite private or a flagship state school, I think different kinds of digital subfields would emerge, as they would in community colleges. At Virginia, for example, as noted in the Allington, Brouillette, and Golumbia LARB essay, the discipline emerged very differently than it did at Georgia Tech. So I think we just need to be careful in how we talk about the humanities writ large.

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 will talk about this throughout the conversation. But again, the question becomes where and in what sphere? One of the things I found in my teaching at Georgia Tech — and I’ve done less and less digitally informed teaching since leaving there, partly because I have been in departmental-level administration and partly because I have been in different kinds of institutions — is that digital technologies in the classroom are really a way of engaging students, both in terms of talking to them about social media and in terms of objects of analysis. This is the life students lead. And as a teacher I think making what you teach relevant to your students is really important. So I am thinking about the relevance question from the perspective of making English and the humanities more attractive and engaging to students, but not at the expense of the canon or print literature. Digital media is not the only way to make the humanities relevant by any means. What was so interesting to us at Georgia Tech — and this is in part the remediation argument — was the way in which digital media allow you to reconfigure your understanding of the history of the humanities. In the same way that texts by women or minorities were ignored and feminism or multicultural studies allowed us to rethink the canon, we had hoped that there would also be a recovery of texts relating to technology due to the emergence of our attention to the digital. That authors who had been in the background would be brought to the fore due to their treatment of the coevolution of the technical and the human.

I have asked the past 11 interviewees to engage with your C21 post titled “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities,” in which you draw connections between the emergence of DH and the increased “neoliberalization and corporatization of higher education.” I’d now like to ask you to engage with your past work by asking why you think such a comparison has merit. Is there something about the digital humanities’ desire to produce that creates an alignment with neoliberal thinking?

Again, I think the way I would answer this is from a historicist point of view, and I think it’s important to think about the context of different institutions. But to think historically also means to think about the larger historical moment, and in higher education you have both local and national/global contexts. It is simply a fact that digital humanities has emerged at the same time as, and in part as a result of, this neoliberalization and corporatization of higher education. And, in fact, that movement in higher education has itself been enabled and intensified by the spread of networked digital technologies. This is not only true in higher education but also in the ways in which labor and employment have changed under a neoliberal regime that has been impacted by the spread of technology and the deskilling of labor. When I was talking about the 1990s at Georgia Tech, we certainly benefitted from the connection with the tech industry. As department chair I took advantage of that because I wanted our students to have the opportunity to compose and create and analyze in digitally networked environments. To do this we needed the technology. I don’t think that’s deniable. I think the question is: What’s the relationship between them? I think that what has happened, and I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, is that DH has served as a kind of brand. I think this has really allowed people interested in doing this kind of work to market themselves to foundations, such as the Mellon and NEH, and administrators — deans, provosts, chancellors, presidents — who themselves are part of this neoliberal transformation of the academy and the professoriate in particular. That is a connection I still stand by. Part of your question is also about the desire to produce, and I would say, yes, the desire to make products and to train students to develop flexible skills that will equip them for a changing workplace dovetails nicely with the neoliberal ideology of education. But this distinction between critique and making is also problematic because it just ignores the fact that writing is making. I find this distinction unhelpful and divisive, and for me this is a real confusion.

People who have been successful in DH understand that if funders and administrators think DH work is going to further neoliberal educational goals, it’s still worth it because they get to do other stuff too. The key questions are how much of the other stuff and what the other stuff is. I think some of the tensions that have emerged around DH have arisen because the “other stuff” has not moved to embrace a kind of political critique. In other words, DH people haven’t said, “Look, we’re getting this money, and we’re going to make sure that part of this funding includes someone to do history and theory of this project and maybe even to offer political or socioeconomic critiques of what we’re doing.” The reason I supported the continuing education program at Georgia Tech was because we pressured the departmental chair to use some of the resources we were earning in our web page development courses to fund critical and creative work. I think there are many places now that are beginning to do this kind of critical work. As your interview with Marisa Parham highlights, there are a number of interesting projects that are beginning to use DH to do critical multicultural work or are bringing underrepresented groups into the practice of digital humanities. And I think that the more those things happen, the better the field will be, and the closer we will come to what I would like to see, which is not the digital humanities as separate from the humanities, but the understanding of DH as the humanities under this particular historical formation of technology. This is a crucial distinction, which should at some not-too-distant point bring about the end of “digital humanities.”

You have already touched on the question of funding with regard to Georgia Tech and Wayne State, but can you speak further to how the funding of digital work is 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?

Digital work is interesting to administrators, and I do think there is a willingness to find money for the digital even in difficult times. So, for example, at UWM we have had cuts ever since Scott Walker was elected; nonetheless, our digital humanities lab, which isn’t large, has been established and has continued to get funding when other things have been cut back. So again, the scale is pretty small in comparison to many places, but I do think administrators are likely to fund digital work. In terms of external sources, I think there are analogies to what I was talking about in the 1990s when HP was happy to give computers as a sort of advertising ploy to get students to buy HP computers for their homes. And I think certain kinds of “synergies” like that are happening now as well with external funding. But mostly entrepreneurs are interested in using digital technologies to further decimate the university of the 20th century, as in the recent enthusiasm for MOOCs and other online “education” or “digital certificates.”

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?

I am not as expert as some people, so I can’t swear by this, but I will rely on Wendy Chun, whose technical chops seem pretty good, and she has said that programming is really not the best term for what digital humanists do, that really what they’re doing is scripting. The scripting that they are doing is written in programs that have been written in code by coders, so I think there is a distinction between programming and scripting. But I think the focus needs to be on the research problem or what you are trying to achieve. And if, in fact, to solve that problem or to accomplish whatever that research agenda is you need certain skills, then I think you should get those skills. Now that is a simple way of saying it. It is also the case that if you have a set of scripting skills, then certain kinds of research problems will present themselves that wouldn’t have otherwise. So there is a symbiotic process here. So, yes, that kind of education is important, and I think that the more you know about the technology, the more different kinds of problems you can see, just as the more you know about literary theory, the more certain kinds of readings or research problems will emerge.

We also hear quite a bit about the significant underrepresentation of women and minorities across digital fields — including the digital humanities — in both those who practice and those who are the subject of DH research. Is there a remedy to this?

If the digital humanities ends up going away and instead the digital becomes the means by which we do humanities work, then I hope that some of the advances that we’ve made — and there are still more advances to make in the humanities generally — will be applied and will find their way into the digital. And I think they will. In my administrative work I have tried to address the question of underrepresentation. As chair at Georgia Tech, seven of the eight hires I made were women, one of whom was the first African-American woman hired to the tenure track in our department. Similarly at Wayne State, I think one of my biggest accomplishments was queering the English department. I didn’t explicitly set out to do that, and it wasn’t that there weren’t queer faculty there, but working together in one year we hired four queer or queer-affiliated faculty, and it seriously made an impact in the department in terms of departmental culture and collaborative work. We also appointed five postdocs at UWM when I was director at the Center, and all five of them were women. So in my administrative work I have tried to be especially committed to underrepresented groups.

I think the administrative approach you are taking to this question is an interesting one. And certainly administrators have a great deal of power in the hiring process. Can you speak a little more about this?

I’ve been extraordinarily vocal and outspoken in the last few years here at UWM against what is happening in the University of Wisconsin system. My colleagues here, I think, just think that is who I am and what I do. But until now, I have never really been an activist, despite getting a degree at Berkeley. As an administrator, and especially as a department chair, you are really in a kind of liminal role where you have to simultaneously advocate for your faculty, but you also have to be on good terms with the administration so that if you want things from them you can get them. Here at UWM, I have begun to think of our administrators as the enemy, and this has often been from a faculty position. But I do think that a lot of important work has been done through administration, enabling multicultural or underrepresented hires, or allowing digital work to happen, or just hiring smart people who can work together. Administrators are crucial. I think it is probably more difficult to facilitate this work in administration now than it used to be because we are in this new managerial university.

Much of the talk around the digital in the humanities today also concerns physical location — 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?

I like this question. First, one of the problems again, if we think about it just in terms of the digital humanities, is it singles out the humanities as if the question of remediating higher education to accommodate these new technologies is unique to us, and of course it isn’t. One of the places where this work is happening in the humanities is in labs. To go back to my Georgia Tech experience — which I think you can tell has been super formative for me — one of the things I really loved, more than even the networked computer classroom, was the computer lab for our masters program. I would go in the lab regularly to just kind of kibitz and chitchat and see what was going on with people, because at almost any hour of the day there would be some grad student in there working. It was a fun environment: it was loose, informal, collaborative, and the hierarchies broke down — I was the student. So I’m a huge fan of labs. I think one of the positive aspects of the digital humanities has been the creation of these kinds of open and different spaces.

How 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)?

My first inclination is to say not much. But I think there are two places where digital work in the humanities is being done, and often being done outside the academy. One of these places is participatory culture. There has been an explosion of students writing online, be it blogging or fan fiction or whatever. And I think this is really one of the places where digital work in the humanities is being done as a result of changes in technology. We haven’t really made enough of a connection between this kind of participatory culture and the classroom, but I think we are moving in that direction. The other place is in the classroom. We think of the public in a kind of consumerist way. But our students are also the public. As college is becoming more and more universal, all of those students who are taking humanities courses are part of the public, and I don’t think most of them understand the digital humanities. DH is a branding tool for faculty and getting resources.

In an age that has seen a decline in the public intellectual (as Nicholas Kristof opined in The New York Times), 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?

The real question is can the humanities do more? And the answer is yes. But I think the humanities are doing more. To my mind, I think the public intellectual aspect has less to do with a certain research question of the digital humanities as a sub-discipline and more to do with transformation in where people get their information. So I think it is a nonhuman phenomenon more than a human one. It is less about how digital humanists — or any humanists — can do it, and more about the fact that there is so much more circulation and dissemination and integration of different kinds and levels of commentary on the arts and literature that are happening online. I think LARB is a kind of interesting phenomenon in this vein. I’m also not really comfortable with the term “public intellectual”; it’s an older formation for an older media moment. In a distributed media environment like we are in now, there are many public intellectual moments and spaces, and less the singular figure.

Finally, for the last question of the interview and the series: As you by now know, Franco Moretti pointed out to me in the very first interview that my questions largely 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. Regardless, I am going to ask that you look backward and speak to what you think the digital in the humanities has accomplished so far.

In a certain sense I have been talking about the past this entire time, so I don’t know that I have much more to say about what the digital has accomplished. But there are some things I think it hasn’t accomplished that I wanted it to when I got involved 25 years ago. First, our engagement with the digital hasn’t had enough impact on the canon itself and the recovery of media texts. I still think it would be really interesting to imagine a Norton Anthology of Technology and Humanities. Another thing the digital in the humanities hasn’t accomplished — and we didn’t accomplish it at Georgia Tech — is to create a PhD program that would require graduate students to combine the creation of digital artifacts with theorizing and historicizing the digital in relation to the traditions of media studies and science studies. There are a number of programs that are moving in this direction and I think this will be interesting. But too often work in the digital humanities has not been in direct conversation with the traditions of media studies and science studies, which is one thing we were trying to do at Tech in the 1990s. Finally, with regard to the anticipatory tone, as I have written in Premediation, I think this is partly due to the structure of our media. I think of that as related to the nonhuman formation of things like Facebook and Twitter where every post is about being liked and commented on or retweeted and favorited. So the very structure and design of our mediums is anticipatory, and I think this is why we have the tone we do.


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).