McGehee Post 4: Innovation, Imagination, and Selective Borrowing in DH Labs

After focusing on Amy E. Earhart’s “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon,” last week, it’s interesting to see a second article from her now pivoting toward the laboratory in Digital Humanities. “The Digital Humanities As a Laboratory,” captures the ephemeral nature of my feelings, and so many other humanist scholars’, towards DH, as well as the “divergent approaches that nonetheless must coexist within the digital humanities framework” (393).

Earhart uses the laboratory as conduit for pivotal discussions surrounding DH, specifically whether or not DH should lean more towards a pragmatic, scientific approach or a humanist approach which would include the cultural theory she so heavily emphasizes in last weeks article. In many of the articles we’ve read for this course these field divisions are heavily emphasized, but Earhart tells us that:

“The digital humanities lab has been constructed from various traditions including the design lab, art studio, and science lab to meet the distinctive needs of humanities scholars, or as Patrik Svensson has noted, digital humanities labs are fusioning forms from other traditions to develop a lab that serves our unique purposes” (391).

In other words, the digital humanities lab model is unprecedented, constantly evolving as time goes on. Additionally, the nature of the field keeps it from fitting fully into neither science nor humanities, which means that it cannot merely borrow from science or risk cultural erasure and reliance on scientific approaches to create seemingly inarguable data. Neither can the lab remove the “seminar table” of the humanities for cut and dry relaying information.heart

In this article, Earhart is primarily concerned with collaborative practices in the field as well as pedagogical practices. She states that in the sciences, “Each field understands how to interpret the author order on papers. This is not so in the humanities, where a common understanding of author order is not shared” (395). This appears to be an area still under construction in DH, one reason being that DH is uniquely diverse and hard to nail down as a field in the first place. One aspect of DH will not operate in the same way as another and therefore crediting and collaboration doesn’t necessarily work the same in each subfield (for instance library sciences and programming will have wildly different methods for crediting contributers). However, there does seem to be merit in establishing a set methodology and practice based on the sciences for the sake of efficiency and fostering the collaboration absent from humanities.

I am most interested in Earharts discussion of mentorship in DH, calling attention to the traditional apprenticeship in humanities (“the lone scholar”) vs. a more positive, science-based, collaborative structure:

“While I would like to see my graduate students in English publish, my career is minimally impacted if they do not. If a science faculty member does not work with the student to publish, the faculty member’s publication rate is diminished, adversely impacting the faculty member’s career” (398).

LostI can definitely relate to this, feeling often that my professors are too busy with their own work/publications to guide me through publication processes, editing, pointing me toward crucial resources that I’m unaware of. And what incentive do they have to focus more of their precious time and attention on students’ work? As a creative writing teacher, I know that I’m completely drained and depleted by my own work. Giving individuals the time they deserve isn’t always possible. There seems to be something lacking in the mentoring process and application here, and I feel quite often like the “lone [humanities] scholar” Earhart presents.  I can then see the immense benefit to not only holding professors accountable in this way, but, as Earhart suggests, rewarding “faculty for good mentoring,” and “enforce[ing] a codependency that is not present within the humanities,” with the laboratory acting as a facilitator for these methods. Earhart suggests selective borrowing and balance from science and the humanities for the most efficient results in archival/collaborative/pedagogical work.

Earhart highlights The Praxis Program as a leading example of a lab, which both encourages collaboration and focuses primarily on the aid of graduate student research in DH. “The projects success is partially based on the decision to locate the program in a neutral laboratory space…designed to replace traditional research methodology courses with a more current set of skills for graduate students training to become contemporary digital scholars” (397). According to Earhart, the labs success points to a seperation of DH from traditional fields for faster production of knowledge and overall efficiency.

One product of The Praxis Program is the Scholars’ Lab. On their web page I came across a blog site where teachers and students exchange information at the click of a button. The majority of the posts center on pedagogy and collaboration as one would expect, but I didn’t expect these exchanges to be so accessible. These posts and instant responses capture this perfect borrowing from both the sciences and humanities of which Earhart speaks, and all of this is posScholarslab
sible through the lab, the posts acting as a lab in an online space. None of this is facilitated through the traditional scholarship pathways, rather I can sit at home in my underwear and have a meaningful collaborative, discussion on the best ways in which to implement DH practices in my classroom. This perhaps stands in opposition with Liu’s assertion that the humanities as “unimaginative,” or perhaps he is correct if we’re looking a the bigger picture here.

One thing is for certain though. The science lab “is a space into which we can imagine our hopes for new practices” (399).

Works Cited: 

Earhart, Amy E. “The Digital Humanities As A Laboratory.” Between the Humanities and the Digital. MIT Press. 2015. Print.

The Praxis Program. Scholars’ Lab. Web. 2015.


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