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digital humanities


Ph.Derp: the trouble with Higher Education in the digital age

A couple of weeks back, a friend posted a link to this article from the LA Review of Books. The title 'Neo-liberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities' says a lot. 'Neo-liberal' is clearly meant to sting.  And if 'political' doesn't set your 'polemic' bells-ringing, you aren't paying attention.  The piece doesn't disappoint in that regard. It's a full-on philippic against a putative nexus among university administrators, external funding bodies, and digital humanities evangelists. According to the authors this unholy alliance has elbowed aside "progressive humanities scholarship and activism in favor of the manufacture of digital tools and archives."   

It's a useful perspective - if only to get us thinking critically about the sources and implications of the digital humanities' growing role in the Academy.  And from the look of the comments thread it did just that.  (As an aside, it's a wonderful thing to encounter a thread so full of challenge and yet so civil.  Humanists indeed!)  Reduced to a single word (of my choosing) the consensus among commentators was: 'bollocks'.   A multitude of issues popped up in the comments, but for me the real sticking point was something that barely figured there or in the article itself: teaching.

Now, you could make the argument that teaching has no place in a debate over the boundaries of scholarly disciplines, the nature of disciplinary knowledge, and the power-dynamics of academic discourses.  But to my eyes the short shrift given teaching in a discussion of forces changing the Academy highlights the sorry state of teaching and learning across great swathes of the higher education landscape.

The truth, as anyone who has been on the faculty of a research university knows, is that teaching really doesn't matter.  This is no slight to the hard-working folks in learning-support centres, or to the professors and TAs who spend time and energy on teaching out of all proportions to the rewards on offer. But that's just my point.  The system incentivizes research above everything else.  And it's not as if teaching funs a close second.  Teaching performance has negligible impact on raises, promotions, or prestige. 

Is it any wonder then that undergraduate teaching is often treated as a chore that keeps faculty from their real work?  No wonder so much teaching is left to graduate students and the underpaid, overstretched members of the precariate.  [Ironically these folks are often much more invested in teaching than the professoriate; but I give administrations no credit for designing this.  Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.]  Combine this (dis)incentive structure with the fact that only a tiny percentage of professors have even the most rudimentary training as teachers and an economic model that ensures large and passive learning environments through the first two or three years of undergraduate study, and what do you have? 

A recipe for disaster - to wit, the parlous state of teaching within the system entrusted with the higher education of tomorrow's citizens, leaders, artists, entrepreneurs etc. etc.  It is a scary prospect and one we shouldn't dismiss with blithe claims that it's worked so far.  

Rant complete.  

There are bright spots amid the dreary scene.  Though not perfect, Liberal Arts Colleges on the American model put much more emphasis on teaching and learning.  So do programs within major universities designed to replicate the residential college experience.  I think digital technologies offer another way forward. And contrary to what the authors of the 'Neoliberal Tools' piece suggest, they can do so without marginalizing the traditional skills and mindsets conveyed through humanistic studies.  In fact, they offer new and exciting ways to build such competencies among students in large, introductory classes. Nor is this a one way street; I would argue that the traditional benefits of a humanistic education (critical mindsets, the ability to find, synthesize, and analyze sources) are more important in this age of information overload than ever before.  But more of that another time.