The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Sharon M. Leon

By Melissa DinsmanJuly 10, 2016

The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Sharon M. Leon
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 Sharon M. Leon, associate professor of history and director of Public Projects at the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason, the vagueness of “digital humanities” fails to tell us “anything useful.” But that doesn’t mean the field is without value. Although a self-proclaimed optimist about its possibilities, Leon is cautious to say that the digital alone can’t fix the academy’s problems. This optimism with critique is what drew me to Leon’s work — in particular, her powerful narrative reclaiming women to the history of digital history on her blog [Bracket]. This recovery piece struck a chord with me both professionally and personally; throughout our conversation it swirls in the background, serving as an important reminder that the digital humanities is not as inclusive as we might hope. Moreover, as a digital public historian, Leon articulates the significant disciplinary differences often ignored in the call for interdisciplinarity. In so doing, she speaks to this series’s aims to explore the surprising lines of overlap, as well as outright disagreement, in DH and beyond.

Leon’s work in feminist digital history is not the only reason I was eager to talk to her for this series. Her CV reads as a who’s who of significant digital projects with broad public impact. These projects include the crowd-sourced transcription platform Scripto and the community-based transcription effort for the Papers of the War Department, as well as the Histories of the National Mall tour and the multi-institutional collaboration on the Bracero History Archive, both of which won the National Council on Public History Outstanding Project Awards. As someone who works on digital publishing, archives, and collections, I was particularly interested in Leon’s participation in Omeka, a user-friendly web-publishing tool now well known across academic institutions, and in particular libraries. While individual projects rarely came up in our conversation, after speaking with her, I can see how her interest in public history, communities, ownership of learning, and access inform Omeka and the other projects in which she has had a hand. Leon, however, is quick to point out that each of these projects was a collaborative effort with the Public Projects team at CHNM. By doing so, she underlines the necessity of shared and cooperative work within the digital humanities, a point she reflects upon with great detail below.


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

SHARON M. LEON: I began, like probably most people you have talked to, before “digital humanities” was a thing. As an undergraduate in American Studies at Georgetown I worked on the American Studies Crossroads project, which was at that time the American Studies Association’s scholarly hub on the web. The site included a lot of attention to pedagogical approaches with technology and really shaped my understanding of the kinds of things we could do with technology if we were interested in thinking and teaching about culture. I then did my PhD at Minnesota with a fairly traditional trajectory: I wrote a manuscript dissertation and dealt with a lot of photocopies. But all along the way I thought about how to use technology in the classroom as a way of encouraging more robust student interaction and keeping the conversation going outside of the traditional classroom and as a way of exposing students to a wider array of primary sources — really commonplace things today. In 2004, I came to the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM) as someone who had thought primarily about digital methods for teaching. But because my dissertation was on the history of religion and science, I started as a postdoc on the ECHO project, which was about electronic collecting of online materials in the history of science and technology. Things have unfolded as necessary from there.

What then is the role of the digital in your current humanities work? Do you think this qualifies as “digital humanities”? Do you care?

Definitely what I do qualifies as digital humanities. I’m a little bit more agnostic on the caring part because I think that DH is too big of a bucket to really tell you anything useful. I have had a very hybrid career in that I wrote a traditional monograph in addition to having a full-time job at the Center doing digital work. For the most part, my own research area interests haven’t driven the digital work, but I’m starting to get to the point now where I have more freedom in my job, my time, and my resources to have those two things come together. But there has been less of that because of the kinds of collaborative projects we do at the Center, the kinds of funding sources we have access to, and the kinds of things funders are interested in. Now, 10 to 12 years later, I can’t separate the work that I do at the Center from what I see as my humanities interests because I have really transitioned from being a scholar of 20th-century American cultural history into being a digital public historian. For example, I am currently working on a born-digital project — monograph in scope but not form — on doing user-centered digital public history: the theoretical and methodological questions, the history of the field, those kinds of things. It is definitely digital humanities work, but more specifically it is digital history work, and even more specifically it is digital public history work.

Can you elaborate on the differences between digital history and digital public history?

I like to make the distinction between doing history in public and doing public history. I think a lot of scholars doing digital history work are doing that work in public and making it available for an open audience to engage with, but the work of digital public history is actually formed by a specific attention to preparing materials for a particular audience — to address their questions, to engage with them, to target a real conversation with the public about a particular aspect of history. In lots of ways, public history doesn’t look like what a traditional historian would consider to be a scholarly argument; it is a little bit more subtle and much more dialogic. It has a much greater sense of shared authority and it is much less about winning a methodological argument with a community of scholars. I engage the public on the grounds that there are multiple causes of a particular event and multiple historical perspectives for understanding it. The primary difference, however, is that public history is directed at a particular audience. It’s not a “we will build it, they will come, and they might be interested” mentality. Instead, it is “I am going to do research about you, I’m going to find out the kinds of materials and prior knowledge you bring to the topic, and I’m really going to engage you.”

Thinking about digital history, I am wondering: Are there any digital or media subfields in particular that you think yield the most benefit to the humanities, and why?

There is this ongoing conversation about historians really defaulting to and engaging with geospatial tools. And I think this is true because to some degree historians who are not working with digital tools and methods feel like they understand space. They deal with space and time in their everyday research and traditional methods and can at least ask critical questions about it in a way that they may not feel prepared to engage with computational analysis of texts, corpora, or networks. So, for historians who are not immersed in digital work, there is a bit of a reading gap in interpreting the products of some kinds of work. But, I think that there are other reasons why computational analysis will be slower in history. The degree of preprocessing and massaging of materials that is necessary to do computational textual analysis is an issue. Whereas a literary scholar has a canon of material that has a form, can be extracted, and has a specific scope, historians tend to draw lots of different sources around a particular question. So you might have newspaper articles, memoirs, manuscripts, letters, and so on, and they don’t fit a formal pattern that makes them easy to work with computationally. I am also very interested in seeing the humanities — and more specifically history — embrace new ways of telling arguments by using digital platforms if the questions and sources demand. The print form is not sacred. The digital can help support the answering of questions and engaging with materials in ways that are nonlinear and modular.

In the last part of your answer, you started to anticipate my next question, which is that 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?

First, I don’t think the humanities need saving. I think there is a false rhetoric of crisis. Also, the idea that a set of methodological approaches or a field could save the humanities is way too heavy a burden for anything. We’ve got to approach these kinds of questions in a broad-based way. Coming back to the relevance question, public history has always been targeted and worked in that direction because it is specifically about engaging the public in a conversation about history. That work has been going on for a long time and the interesting thing about it is that just as digital work sometimes struggles for recognition and authorization in the halls of academia, public history has had a really heavy lift. There’s this weird perception that if one engages with someone who is not a credentialed scholar about scholarly questions, somehow we have diluted our commitment to inquiry.

Similarly, sometimes people think that DH is about easy answers, productivity, and efficiency. This is the simple restatement of a stereotype of what scholarship is and needs to be that excludes different approaches and different audiences. Doing digital history and doing public history, particularly in a university setting, isn’t necessarily about one or the other. Shawn Graham recently tweeted, “DH is mostly knowing when to emphasize H[istory],” and I read it as digital history “over the D[igital], and when to emphasize the D[igital] over the H[istory].” It is always a constant balance and conversation. I want my students to leave the classroom with a set of skills about learning how to understand digital tools and digital approaches and digital methods writ large that they can take to their next class, their work, their families, their community. But I also need them to take away deep analytical and inquiry skills that teach them to say, “There isn’t just one cause here. There has to be more than one perspective. We have to put things in context.” And if they don’t walk away with both of these things, we aren’t doing our jobs.

You have already mentioned the idea that productivity is stereotypically associated with the digital humanities, which leads me to my question about “the dark side.” In a C21 post titled “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities,” media scholar Richard Grusin 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’s desire to produce that creates an alignment with neoliberal thinking?

My gut reaction when I read this piece was to think that isn’t the digital humanities I know. It’s not the digital humanities I do. It isn’t the digital humanities my colleagues do. It is, I think, the digital humanities the administrators at particular universities see. But it isn’t the work that I know. One of the interesting things about this is that it points to a problem we have in DH and the university writ large: the infrastructure of the university is not willing or does not have the capacity to support the work that it claims to want and it claims to value. The Center where I work is 90 percent soft money. There are 35 to 40 of us and 90 percent of the work is grant and foundation funded. It has always been that way and it’s fine when it is one or two people and one or two projects, but when it is an entire system it gets to be a lot to bear. More infrastructural support would give us more capacity, more room to experiment, more time to tinker — the type of work that the pre-neoliberal university would recognize as a scholarly endeavor. So on the one hand I am sympathetic to this argument, but on the other hand at CHNM we don’t write proposals and do work that we don’t see value in. We turn down opportunities and collaborations because they are not things we are interested in as digital historians.

Speaking about grants and foundations, as you know putting together a solid digital humanities research group requires a fair amount of funding. 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?

As I mentioned in the last question, part of the answer is that universities want this work and aren’t willing to pay for it. They are willing to have the Mellon Foundation or the NEH or some external organization pay. But less infrastructure is needed than people assume. Certainly server space and hardware are to some degree necessary. I need everyone who works for me to have a laptop and we need LAMP servers to be able to mount our stuff on the web. But hosting is cheap. Reclaim Hosting offers inexpensive and reliable hosting to people that want to do these types of experimental projects. While external funding is really important to DH work, in my experience that external funding goes almost universally for salaries. It pays for people for a limited term. It doesn’t pay for hardware or infrastructure or collaborative space. On the other hand, universities don’t want to commit to funding people on a long-term basis.

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 want to come out as a proud non-coder. One reason I don’t program in Python or PHP is that my engagement with this field started when the field was new, when lots of work could get done with a little rudimental PHP, HTML, and CSS. Now we are going back to that with static site generators. More important than the notion that everyone must program is that people need to be willing to tinker with things and to try to learn how systems work. I run a major software project in which I set the direction, deliverables, and goals of development, but I don’t code anything. I have to understand in conversation with the programmers, developers, and software architects what they are doing and how they are doing it. This requires a degree of literacy with those systems and possibilities that is reasonably high, but doesn’t have me down in the dirt writing the code. It doesn’t mean that I can’t adapt things for my own use. Also, I have a great cohort of graduate students who have had the opportunity in their coursework to learn a lot of programming skills because they are important to the work they want to do. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from doing it, but I also wouldn’t say anyone has to do it. The goal should be to develop enough knowledge to manipulate the material you have in order to answer your scholarly question, not so that you have this abstract sense of capacity to build things as a programmer, unless that is necessary to answer your questions.

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?

I have written an essay for what will be the edited collection Feminist Debates and Digital Humanities, and that essay was about why, when we hear what has come to be the stock-in-trade history of digital history, there are no women in it. Because it turns out that in fact there were loads of women in the history of digital history. I have tried to tie answering this question to what seems to me a larger structure of sexism in the academy generally. And I think that is the only way we can approach this. This is not a problem that is unique to the digital. It is representative of the status of the world in History in terms of hiring and promotion rates. About 40 percent of academic historians are women and that’s about equal in representation to the number of heads of digital history projects that have been reviewed in the Journal of American History from 2001 through today. So, that isn’t very surprising.

I think the other key to not seeing women in the field is that we are looking very narrowly to tenure-line historians in academic units. Part of what we know about the digital field is that a significant amount of the labor, leadership, and management comes through the form of contingent postdoc labor or classified staff positions. We know that women overwhelmingly populate those positions. It is also really easy to look past the staff, curators, librarians, and archivists who are moving these projects along. The problem of representation is the problem of examination to some degree, but also structures of advancement and hiring that funnel women into positions that aren’t recognized and seen.

I think when it comes to racial and ethnic representation there is a real problem. The digital humanities are pretty damn white. Digital history is pretty white. This is also a larger problem of the academy and we have to take some proactive measures to fix that problem in hiring, in training, in creating welcoming and supportive environments, in retention practices. Again, the conversation at the moment about proactive work is starting to be pretty robust in the museum, library, and archive world. There is not a sufficiently robust conversation within the academy or the digital humanities academy. We need to work to fix that. We have made some progress on the gender front, but we have not made nearly as much progress as we need to on full representation.

Despite its reliance on online platforms, 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 work at a Center that is a subsidiary of an academic department. There are not very many of those, but the model made sense when the Center was founded. Now, every time I turn around there is a new digital scholarship center in a library or in a humanities center. I think one of the dangers of putting the digital scholarship center in the library is that the people who work there can get treated like service workers instead of full collaborators in the intellectual process. One of the things that has been really freeing for us at the Center for History and New Media is that we don’t service the university. We don’t answer people’s technology questions. We don’t have faculty who come and say “help me do this project.” Because we are mostly funded by grants, we don’t have somebody who is salaried to be on call to answer those questions. But that has been good because instead we can mostly pursue our own questions and projects. That being said, there is no way we can go wrong having more collaborative spaces, whether they are in libraries, student centers, humanities centers, or teaching centers. Spaces of collaboration and interaction are inherently good for this kind of work because nobody has all the skills or all the answers.

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)?

The public doesn’t understand the term “digital humanities,” but they do understand the work if I frame what I do as “I’m a historian who uses digital tools and methods to answer historical questions.” I think as a field our penetration into the consciousness of the public is almost nonexistent, though I imagine your series might help some. The other way to answer this question is to say that we don’t do nearly enough outreach or evaluation to have any idea what the answer is. What I have learned doing public history work is that you have to prepare, you have to know about your audience going in, you have to do the work, and you have to follow up to find out if they got anything out of it. The majority of DH work only does the middle step. They do the work. And it may not be their goal to learn what the public understands, but I think if we are going to make these claims about public relevance, we have to do all of the steps along the way so that we have some sense about our impact.

My next question has to do with public intellectualism, which many scholars and journalists alike have described as being in decline (for example, Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times essay). 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 problem of the public intellectual is about the way that intellectuals frame their work for the public. It’s not really about the medium. Writing an op-ed for The New York Times for a historian or a literary scholar or a political scientist is a sort of one-shot deal that will reach a certain number of people. Whereas someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is writing all the time, engaging with really important questions, has a digital presence, and actually does engage with members of the public, is a much more effective public intellectual. But I think there are lots of public intellectuals in local communities that we don’t know anything about because we aren’t in that community. Some of that work is digital work and some of it is not.

Finally, as someone who studies the history of DH, I would like you to reflect on the field’s past. Franco Moretti 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 what, if anything, do you think the field has accomplished so far?

Let me start by saying that my entire perspective on this has been deeply shaped by the years I spent with Roy Rosenzweig, who was a very optimistic but practical guy. His willingness to strive for democratic access to materials, to scholarship, to primary sources, to intellectual work, motivates everything that we do at the Center and it motivates my work. I think we have made huge strides in digital work on that front. Now there are millions and millions of open-access primary sources available for the world to use. That level of access has enabled a whole set of other developments in digital culture — the idea of remix culture: that people can take stuff, recombine it, ask their own questions, and do their own work is hugely important. I think to some scholars this is really threatening because it also involves a loss of control over message, interpretation, and authority. But this is just classic reception theory: people are always receiving and making sense out of the material they encounter on their own. And to assume we can control that ever is ridiculous. The other positive thing digital humanities has done is to embrace an open source ethos that has made tools and methods and platforms freely available for people to use. Those tools are now in the world and they are changing the ways that people are presenting their scholarship and the kinds of questions they are asking. More and more, everything is tilting toward open access and open source. We can’t get there fast enough as far as I’m concerned.


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).

LARB Contributor

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). Dinsman’s research focuses on the intersection of modernist literature and media aesthetics, and her first book brings together her interest in late-modernist radio broadcasting, archival recovery, information networks, and the Frankfurt School. Dinsman is currently working on a new book project, America’s Blitz, which looks at the ways in which British and U.S. writers, directors, and broadcasters translated British wartime experiences for American audiences during World War II, and how these translations often resulted in a melodramatic genre-framing of Britain’s struggle. Her work can be found in journals such as Contemporary Women’s Writing, The Space Between, and Literature Interpretation Theory.


Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!