Oklahoma! and Scholarly Communication

There has been a great deal of furor over the recent Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) article on the digital humanities.  This post is not a response to that article since there have been many responses, articles, and commentaries that are better than what I would be able to say anyway.  If anything, the article has sparked some interesting debates and has opened the opportunity to ask some important questions.  In some ways I feel that these are not particularly new debates; in fact when I saw the LARB article it reminded me of some of the very impassioned arguments that happened when the History Manifesto came out several years ago.  I would, however, like to use a few recent blog posts (including those of Scott Weingart, Ted Underwood, and Aaron Barlow) that touch on some of the issues in the LARB article, in order to raise some important points that I think relate to my work on scholarly communication.

Fundamentally, scholarly communication is about professional norms.  What is acceptable within a particular field and what is not?  Many people may be familiar with the work of Andrew Abbott who has discussed the issues of professionalization more broadly.  Very generally speaking, Abbott discusses how professions are ways to create territory for certain groups of people and to delegitimize those who practice outside of that territory.  Often such professionalization is good for society (we don’t want people who have never been to medical school to perform surgery on us for instance).  At other times professional fields can lead to kinds of group-think which arguably exclude new knowledge from being created.

Currently, I think that we are seeing a kind of turf war within the humanities.  Professionals on both sides (pro and anti digital humanities/computational methods).  The issue however, I believe, is much deeper than that.  This is a debate about what is acceptable practice in the humanities and its sub-fields (English, History, History and Philosophy of Science, and many others).  Weingart, Underwood, and Barlow all bring up the idea of professional norms.  Barlow specifically says “Every discipline falls into a pattern of standard practice; every few years each must reassess. The same is true for the institutions that house them.”

What the LARB article does is bring out the perceived divide that Barlow identifies between disciplines and the institutions that house them.  The authors of that article argue that institutions like the NEH and university administrators are favoring the digital humanities, and also points to some of the debates within the field itself.  As a historian, I want to point out that this is not the first time such a fragmentation has happened, nor will it likely be the last.  Just one small example within the research I have done in the past semester demonstrates this point.  Between 1892 and 1901, the American Chemical Society nearly split into multiple different societies (at the same time it was trying to merge with other societies) .  The issue that nearly caused the split, incidentally, was  specialization within the society and whether certain specializations counted as chemistry or not.  It is worth quoting H. W. Wiley, President of the American Chemical Society and his view on the issue:

“Our science has grown to such proportions as to demand specialization. He who
hopes to add anything to the sum of chemical knowledge must be content to seek
the gems of discovery in a very small part of the whole field …. The necessity
of this specialization is admitted by everyone. The benefits which it brings we all
enjoy; the dangers which it engenders we are too apt to forget. The one great
danger is to the worker who goes deepest into the well after truth. He loses sight
of the rest of the world. He is prone to think those who are in the other wells are only diggers, and those who take the rough gems he finds and polishes them for
use, mere sordid barterers. . . . Chemistry is a pure democracy, and all are equal therein. I have been more than once pained to see men of eminent achievements disclose the narrowness of their views by sneering at really good work not in their line. Gentlemen, this must not be!” (quoted in History of the American Chemical Society, p. 68-69)

Therefore, one might argue that the answer to this question is not the kinds of division that are being suggested, but rather productive dialogue between the two.  As Scott Weingart suggests, digital methods may not actually be providing any new questions to historical practice (as some DH practitioners suggest it does).  If true, then perhaps that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Computational methods do provide new ways of looking at historical data, and, as I have suggested, I think combinations of both are important.  What digital methodologies have exposed in particular is what Ted Underwood points out that the work of digital humanities (and I suspect digital science as well) is the work of not just professors in one field, but “social scientists, humanists, librarians, scholars in library and information science, and people working off the tenure track in humanities computing.”  In other words, there is no “one way” to do professional humanities in the same way that there is no one way to do professional chemistry, and, if H. W. Wiley’s remarks are true there has never been.  In the field of history at least multiple ways of looking at the past have always existed side by side (sometimes with difficulty), but currently history practitioners do not question the existence of social historians, cultural historians, political historians, and military historians.

At the risk of mixing metaphors, I think it is important that the humanities profession should take into account the lessons of the musical Oklahoma!   For those who remember the musical, there is a song called The Farmer and the Cowman in which Aunt Eller sings that “the farmer and the cowman should be friends.”  Her advice goes unheeded however as a fight breaks out, Aunt Eller shoots a gun off and says “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!”  Professional humanists need to think in the same terms.  Multiple methods are no better than others, but they are just as good and help to contribute to the debates which the humanities are such a great asset of humanistic inquiry.  Rather than critiquing a particular method of research, perhaps it is better to critique the overall argument (and how particular methods may or may not be appropriate for the question that is being asked).

Furthermore, the refrain of The Farmer and the Cowman song says that “Territory folk should stick together.”  If we agree, as the authors of the LARB article suggest, that there is danger from “neoliberal” forces within the university (most of which are beyond our control anyway), then the answer is not to fight among ourselves, but rather to broaden our conversations and see how humanistic methods and arguments can help to contribute to broader societal debates.  H. W. Wiley tried to keep his profession divided between technical and theoretical chemists together and was arguably successful.  In the same way, humanists should try to keep technical and theoretical practitioners together and hopefully provide a united front in advancing humanistic inquiry.  Though I disagree with many of Barlow’s conclusions, he does suggest that “we also need to start developing alternatives, both in our disciplines and institutionally.”  Perhaps now is a good time to think about what those alternatives might be.


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