This paper draws on results of a three-year ethnographic study funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, which explored research practices, challenges, and directions in contemporary digital humanities (DH). Within this broader set of questions and results, the current paper focuses on findings related to humanists’ strategies for developing competencies in digital scholarship. The study was conducted from 2010 to 2013 at twenty-three educational, research and funding institutions in the United States and Europe, and it included case studies, surveys, in-depth interviews, and observations. The study involved 258 participants, including researchers, faculty, students, university administrators, librarians, software developers, policy makers, and funders. For more information about the methodological design and results of the study see Amongst Digital Humanists: An Ethnographic Study of Digital Knowledge Production (Antonijević, 2015).
The majority of humanists consulted in this study reported awareness of methodological and epistemological benefits of digital research tools and methods, but also a lack of opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge that would enable them to reach beyond the “search and access” level of digital scholarship. As one assistant professor of art history put it, “I haven’t used technology in my research in a pervasive way to really, really think about epistemological issues. I’m not opposed to using technology to analyze, but I haven’t had a chance to learn it.”
Humanists commonly identify lack of time as one of the main impediments to developing digital research skills. One aspect of this is the learning curve, and a perception that the time needed to learn new tools and methods slows down their established research process. Another root of researchers’ lack of time for developing computational skills stems from the structure of disciplinary incentives and rewards in humanities disciplines. Respondents underscored that when training sessions on digital research tools and methods were organized at their universities, hardly any of the tenure-track faculty attended them: “We are not rewarded for doing that. What we are rewarded for is publishing, and going to one of those sessions takes away [time] from our publishing. So, there’s a lot of resistance“ explained an assistant professor of linguistics.
With digital skills still having an unrecognized status in their disciplines and departments, interviewees said the only organized educational initiatives at their disposal were training sessions at university libraries, to which they had mixed reactions. While some found the library sessions “eye-opening” the majority did not regard them as helpful. Commonly, respondents pointed that the librarians focused on digital tools and resources, while field-specific research questions exceeded their scope. The respondents held that only their peers understand epistemological and methodological complexity of particular research problems, so they considered working with colleagues as a more effective way to develop digital skills than attending library workshops or instruction sessions. In the same way, respondents identified as the preferred type of instruction the one that does not profess to teaching about digital technologies, but about a specific humanities subject area, introducing digital tools and methods along the way. Attending library and similar workshops was thus seen as less effective then attending academic conferences where peers present results achieved through digital methods and tools. Learning by example inspires humanists to discover new tools and methods, and to apply them in their own work. As a professor of Romance languages and literature put it, “in an ideal world, I would like to see humanists teaching other humanists how to conduct research using the enhancements of digital tools; I guess that’s as opposed to we bring the IT people in to teach us. I think that it should happen the way that we teach other things in the humanities, through collaboration with one another.”
Dissatisfaction with existing educational initiatives might be the reason that the majority of humanities scholars consulted in this study reported not having any formal technology-related instruction, which is consistent with Siemens’ (2013) findings. Instead, the respondents reported that they predominantly relay on informal channels, such as word of mouth, to learn about digital research tools and methods: “I do everything on my own, I ask around. It feels serendipitous, I sort of bump into it, or I hear a friend talk about it, or a colleague will shoot me an e-mail. It’s not organized or strategic at all” related an associate professor of philosophy.
This informal learning path is linked to immediate and specific research problems scholars are facing, which makes it preferred over workshops and similar efforts where learning is often decontextualized from practice. This method also successfully makes use of one of the scholars’ most scarce recourses—their time. It enables them to direct learning efforts towards tools, methods, and subjects of particular interest to them.
Informal learning also often takes place through engagement with students. The respondents explained that teaching prompts them to expand knowledge of digital tools and methods, and students challenge them to be up-to-date with technology. Even those respondents who described themselves as “technological dinosaurs” identified the need to take up digital technologies in the classroom.
In addition to class interaction, more formal initiatives where students teach faculty take place in digital humanities centers, where graduate students often work as tutors. Students consulted in this study believed that this reversal of instructional roles facilitated their understanding of the didactic principles, motivating them to develop their own pedagogic strategies:
“You’re doing work with people who are the smartest people on the earth in their particular discipline. On average, they don’t like to admit that they don’t know something. So, it’s not trying to force things upon them, but it’s trying to present things in the same way that you would pedagogically teach a difficult concept. If I can present it it in such a way that leads them to discovering on their own, they have a sense of ownership of the idea, so that’s “teaching the old dog new tricks” if I can say that.” [A graduate student]
Findings of this study indicate that library initiatives and units should not remain the main locus of digital scholarship in the humanities. Instead, digital scholarship needs to be part of humanities departments and wider university initiatives, since “digital humanities will ultimately matter, or not at all, inside the department” (Liu, 2009: 21; italics in the original). As long as humanists’ interaction with digital tools, methods, and resources is treated merely as a technical skill that can be taught by non-expert personnel, it will be difficult to achieve more substantial transformations and to motivate academics about digital scholarship. As Raley (2014) points out, “academic service staff providing skills-based training […] and performing service work for “clueless arts and humanities scholars” can tell us something about both the field and the university” (p. 7).
Instead of skilled-based training, humanities education in digital scholarship needs a comprehensive framework encompassing epistemological, methodological, technical, and sociocultural aspects of digital knowledge production. These include developing understanding of digital and other types of data, fostering critical reflection on digital objects of inquiry, comprehending the influence of algorithmic processes on humanities investigations, and so on. Similarly, digital methods training should include systematic deliberation on methodological decisions influencing research process and results, epistemological and ethical challenges of digital scholarship, as well as making choice of digital tools and methods as best suited for specific research questions.
This study reveals that humanists favor and best learn in practice, when instruction is closely related to their area of study and when it unfolds organically, through collaboration with colleagues and students. Therefore, initiatives for developing competencies in digital scholarship among senior scholars should use a variety of collaborative learning strategies. Furthermore, these educational activities should not restrain the generative potential of digital scholarship in the humanities through the exclusive focus on research themes, methods, and skills recognized in the DH field. Humanities scholars do not necessarily need or want to be digital humanists; they do, however, need and overwhelmingly want to be scholars competent at teaching and conducting research in the digital age. As a program officer in a major humanities foundation consulted in this study pointed out, the goal should be “to fund training for scholars even if they don’t want to be a digital humanist in the sense that they’re building their own tools and their programming, but more along the lines of users of digital technology within their own research.” This kind of funders’ support to digital scholarship in the humanities is vital. Equally vital is the need that education in digital scholarship becomes administratively recognized as part of scholars’ professional development included in their paid time and activity, as well as in their promotion dossiers.