Digital Humanities at MSU

This past year I had the fun assignment of co-chairing a committee on the digital humanities for the CIC (as most of you know, the CIC or Committee on Institutional Cooperation is a consortium of BigTen universities plus the University of Chicago). The charge of the committee was to find out what the CIC and its member institutions could do to support and foster the growth of the Digital Humanities. To complete this task, our committee did three things: one, an environmental scan of DH at CIC institutions; two, a DH summit meeting that brought together representatives from all of the CIC institutions; three, a white paper summing up our findings (coming soon). The long and short of the story is that from all of this scanning, surveying, and meeting, I found that MSU is doing some amazing and cool things.

Before I get too far I should explain the what and the why of the digital humanities (DH). What is (are) the digital humanities? For the quick answer, DH is what happens when computers, computational tools, and digital technologies collide with the humanities. Making sense of this collision and what it means seems obvious since most of us spend our days with computers, networks, and digital media to do our work, research, and creative expressions. As with most things, what appears a simple question is always made more difficult by humanists who like to tease out the threads of complexity in any question. Bethany Nowviskie, a leading DH scholar and DH center director, did a nice job of succinctly pulling together some key conversations about defining DH in her post to the DHanswers forum. Of course, as with all academic fields, DH is as much about people and politics, networks and relationships, as it is about the locus of inquiry. To this end, Melissa Terras, another amazing DH scholar and center co-director, gave an wonderful encomium about the DH community (praise and blame) in her DH 2010 keynote address, “Digital Humanities in the Panopticon” that should not be missed.

In short, I am going to punt on answering “what is the digital humanities” and send you to the above links and to google for a taste of the many conversations (DH’ers are obsessive about the question and there are no shortages of blog posts and articles addressing it). The more interesting question here, though, is “why the digital humanities?” and “why does the CIC care and why now?” Again there appears a simple answer: in an era of continual contraction and crisis for the arts & humanities, DH offers up a glimmer of hope as an area of growth and quirky vitality.

Re-imagining the Humanities

Yet the actual answer is, as you would expect, more knotty. The image of the lone scholar in the archives diligently publishing single-authored works, a scholar who only talks to like-minded peers, is a clumsy simplification of the rather complex universe of the humanities. Humanities folks have always engaged, performed, and interacted with a wide range of audiences, but the image is true enough in evaluative practice that the focus on single authored monographs and articles, and specialized audiences, is still the norm for advancement. Yet this norm faces a shaky future in the face of waning public support and dwindling opportunities of publishing. I do not need to rehearse this well worn perspective, except to say here is the place for the “why” of the DH. DH offers an alternative model for transforming the humanities. It is needful to emphasize “alternative.” Traditional work in the humanities is important work that needs to continue and be highly valued, but likewise we need alternative spaces to explore new models of research and different forms of scholarship in the humanities.

The digital humanities by its very nature is a collaborative pursuit. It is rare that the lone scholar will have the deep knowledge of domain expertise coupled with extensive programming skills (not to mention the time and funding) to complete in seclusion a complex digital project. DH folk must reach out to not only to other colleagues in the humanities but, more important, to those outside the humanities (e.g., sciences, health, math, computer science, statistics, geography, social sciences) for the technological expertise; to those inside and outside of academic spaces (e.g., museums, archives, libraries) for data transformation, curration, and management; and to those outside the academy (e.g., internet users, game players, social network users, community groups) for dissemination, engagement, and use of digital projects. This reaching out is both critical for doing DH projects and for funding. Funders not only like to see collaboration across disciplines but collaboration among institutions, and as is often the case in the world of grants, one needs a track record to get funding. So working with established centers and institutions, as well as colleagues with past funding is often very helpful. Before returning to MSU, we should remark that this reaching out is not a one way street. The collaboration between the humanities and the sciences has many mutual benefits. After all, the humanities offer up a number of thorny and complicated challenges. Greg Crane’s question, “What do We do with a Million Books?” is a challenge not only for humanists but computer scientists as well.

With all this said, it is particularly the “why” of DH that makes MSU such fertile ground for the digital humanities. The digital humanities are to be found woven in many partnerships across campus. Digital humanities initiatives and projects have been and are in the College of Arts & Letters, the College of Social Science, the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, the College of Music, the College of Engineering, the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, Lyman Brigs, International Studies and Programs, the MSU Museum, the MSU Archives, the MSU Libraries, and the MSU Press. I will refrain from naming all of the departments across campus and area studies programs that DH touches — too many to list. Likewise the partnerships outside of MSU are too numerous to mention and range from Lincoln to Cape Town, from the Michigan Historical Museum to the Smithsonian, from Stanford to the Université Cheikh Anta Diop.

MSU has one of the oldest, and well regarded, digital humanities center, Matrix: Digital Humanities and Digital Social Science Center (easiest to see what they do by looking at project page)and one of the newest DH labs, Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition Lab (that is already making a big splash). MSU has one of the most successful DH centers in writing and rhetoric, WIDE Research Center, their research has created not only great scholarship but amazing new writing tools like Eli. MSU is making its mark in Computational Legal Studies and has had long standing success with the GEL Lab, serious games for entertainment and learning, and has a long track record in Computers and Music.

MSU has a CAL DH undergraduate specialization and soon a graduate certificate will follow in CAL and CSS. There is the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative. Hosted by the Department of Anthropology, The Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative is a platform for interdisciplinary scholarly collaboration in the domain of Cultural Heritage Informatics at Michigan State University. The Initiative is supporting 7 graduate students this year from History, Anthropology, WRAC, and Philosophy (oh by the way, congratulations Donnie Sackey and Madhu Narayan for winning fellowships this year). And there is even a Digital Humanities Club.

In short, the environmental scan of MSU’s DH community is stunning. If we keep our focus on diversity, interdisciplinarity, transdisicplinarity, cooperation, and collaboration (not to mention a healthy dose of silo busting), MSU can be a leader in DH.

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