The Public Digital Humanities

by Jesse Stommel

The public digital humanities starts with humans, not technologies or tools, and its terrain must be continuously co-constructed. There is no place within the public digital humanities for exclusion or anti-intellectualism. No place for hierarchies: inside the academy / outside the academy; teacher / student; senior scholar / junior scholar; tenure-track / adjunct. And we mustn’t stare or snarl in derision at people mid-thought, expecting that only an idea’s final draft should go public. Or mistake mean-spirited criticism and closing down of conversations for critical engagement.

The public digital humanities is a venn diagram at the point (always shifting, so I won’t attempt to neatly map it here) where public work, digital work, and humanities work intersect. Making scholarly work legible to the public and helping it find an audience is a form of outreach, community building, and advocacy.

As a discipline, the Digital Humanities has not endeared itself to me. I find considerably more solace in the feminist community, in the queer community, and in motley subsets of digital humanities outliers. To be fully honest, I have never found the Digital Humanities as a discipline particularly welcoming, for all its proclamations of being “nice.” What I’ve discovered is that “nice” translates too often into quiet, unassuming, and scholarly (in the worst senses of the word). All the while daggers are brandished behind people’s backs, as is far too common in the scarcity economy of academia. Adeline Koh argues that “niceness/civility … play important gatekeeping roles within the digital humanities public sphere.” Nevertheless, there are countless people in the digital humanities community that have won my love. My allegiances are to people and communities, not disciplines. And it is, I think, the Digital Humanities’ desire to legitimize itself as a discipline that brings out the daggers — and, even more detrimental, the urge to keep one eye always over our shoulder.

This question of “discipline” has been something my career has incessantly circled around. I’ve been in many a room where humanities scholars have recited in the round a litany of fields, sub-fields, periods, and disciplinary affiliations. For 15 years, I made up something almost completely new at every one of these scholarly show-and-tells. I have been a 19th-century Americanist, a queer feminist, a film scholar, a new media specialist, a Shakespearean, a Digital Humanist, a genre critic. I still am all of these things, but none of them describes me. And I have had the boundaries of these disciplines drawn on the other side of my work, to my exclusion, more often than not.

I have devoted nearly all my professional life to teaching, to the collaborative work I do with students — and with other teachers as students. While I have sometimes focused on literary, writing, and media studies, my primary scholarly interest has always been pedagogy. Pedagogy is not synonymous with teaching or talking about teaching, nor is it entirely abstracted from the acts of teaching and learning. It is both my discipline and threaded through all of my disciplines. Pedagogy is praxis, the place where philosophy and practice meet. Most of my pedagogies, including my digital ones, are rooted in critical pedagogy — in thinkers like Emerson, Thoreau, Elbow, Dewey, and Freire. And like Freire, I am a hopeful critical pedagogue. In Pedagogy of Hope, he writes, “I am hopeful, not out of mere stubbornness, but out of an existential, concrete imperative.” But, also like Freire, I recognize that hope must be balanced with action and struggle.

As I’ve continued to evolve as a scholar and teacher, I’ve become more and more concerned with thinking about ways to make what I do in the classroom and what I do in the safe confines of a word-processing window more public. The impetus for my scholarly work and publishing is to do my pedagogy in much larger and more open spaces. This is my digital humanities, and it is one focused less on reading humanities texts with digital tools, and more on using humanities tools — humane tools — to read and make digital texts.

For me, what counts as digital humanities, ultimately, is work that doesn’t try to police the boundaries of what counts as digital humanities. In his introduction to Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles, and Politics, Brett D. Hirsch writes, “To bracket pedagogy in critical discussions of the digital humanities or to completely exclude it from these discussions reinforces an antagonistic distinction between teaching and research, in which the time, effort, and funding spent on the one cannibalizes the opportunities of the other.” Our work must be collaborative. Scholarship must invite the reader and student (once its mere satellites) into a more intimate, more provocative, sometimes more tentative dance. Even when our work is not produced by multiple authors/artists, it becomes collaborative when it’s given generously to its readers. And, it’s not just that we need to find (and celebrate) new modes of digital scholarship, but that we must allow our new digital environments to influence all forms of scholarship.

The public digital humanities is built around networked learning communities, not repositories for content, and its scholarly product is a conversation, one that engages a broad public while blurring the distinction between research, teaching, service, and outreach. The public digital humanities must be rooted in a genuine desire to make the work legible to a broader audience inclusive of students, teaching-focused colleagues, community college colleagues, and the public. Digital humanities should be pedagogical, and I believe educational work — the scholarship of teaching — should be honored as the best kind of research. This is the voice I speak in, the voice I write in, and it is a voice that chooses at strategic moments to generalize. It is often (to my mind) a more rigorous voice, because it is a hybrid voice, attempting to balance the nuanced analysis of a scholarly approach with a desire to make the work accessible. Scholarly writing for broad publics must be pedagogical, must use the language of pedagogy (and not the traditional and staid language of academic research) to express itself. This scholarship cannot be static. It must resist the deadening impulse of much so-called “academic rigor.”

And the gathering together of this work into collections like this one demands a move away from the metaphor of the static bibliographic record toward hyperlinked ones — our work is not just influenced by but literally connected metonymically to its sources, to the other works that gather around it, a cacophony of sometimes disparate voices.

And my sources for the work here are myriad.

Bonnie Stewart writes, in “What counts as academic influence online?”: “The work of research that is not legible to others always feels, rhetorically, like lifting stones uphill: constantly establishing premises rather than moving on to the deep exploration of that one particular thing.” Doing public work is different from making academic work public. Available is not always accessible.

Sean Michael Morris and I write, in “Hybrid Pedagogy, Digital Humanities, and the Future of Academic Publishing” (this is a sentence he wrote — I can tell by the way the words hang upon his grammar): “Post-print publishing keeps its focus on moving objects: digital artifacts and networked conversations that can be plumbed at the level of the code behind them, tracked in their progress through the web, or catalogued next to works beside which they would not normally sit.”

One of my earliest mentors, Martin Bickman, writes in “Returning to Community and Praxis: A Circuitous Journey through Pedagogy and Literary Studies”: “We often ignore the best resource for informed change, one that is right in front of our noses every day—our students, for whom the most is at stake.” This has been the focus of my work, bringing students to tables where talk of education is underway. In this, I have had my greatest successes and my greatest failures. The work is hard. We have built an almost ironclad academic system — and I acknowledge myself as one of its privileged builders — a system which excludes the voices of students, which calls students “customers” while monetizing their intellectual property, which denigrates the work of learning through assessment mechanisms and credentialing pyramid schemes.

And Steven Lubar writes, in “Seven Rules for Public Humanists”: “The work of public engagement comes not after the scholarship, but as part of the scholarship.” A public digital humanities is constantly interrogating itself, but never at the expense of bringing non-academic, non-specialist voices into the conversation. Lubar’s work on the Public Humanities has moved from a model that brings humanities work to the public to “…a realization that our work was not about us, or for us.” It’s not that we need to do this work in bigger tents but that we need to move outside tents altogether. This is what I call the “humongous tent digital humanities.”

At the center of the digital humanities should be an emphasis on individual and collective agency, which means advocating for marginalized teachers, scholars, and students. I’m arguing for the exact opposite of objectivity — for an intense subjectivity. Not just open peer review but collaborative peer review, where works are read and produced by and for a community of scholars. This is how DH can and should innovate, not through competition, clearcutting, and hype cycles, but by listening intently to more (and more diverse) voices. The digital humanities needs to be about generosity — about breaking brains not hearts.


Jesse Stommel is Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington. He is also Director of Hybrid Pedagogy, a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology. Hybrid Pedagogy is a Digital Humanities project but also a pedagogical one, as much about new-form publishing as it is about building new kinds of academic community. Jesse is an advocate for lifelong learning and the public digital humanities. He experiments relentlessly with learning interfaces, both digital and analog, and models new forms of collaboration. His scholarship explores the sometimes wondrous, sometimes horrifying relationship between bodies and technology. His essay, “Toward a Zombie Pedagogy,” recently appeared in the collection Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education. He’s on Twitter @Jessifer.

[“Creep” by flickr user Fio licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0]

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