The managerial humanities: or, why the digital humanities don’t exist

Daniel  Allington is a lecturer in English Language and Applied Linguistics at the Open University. The piece below is taken from his blog:

As we all know, the digital humanities are the next big thing. A couple of years ago, I gave a presentation at a digital humanities colloquium, explaining what I saw as the major reasons for this (Allington, 2011). We are working within an economic system in which owners of capital (funders) invest in research speculatively purchased in advance from the owners of the means of knowledge production (universities), with permanent employees of the latter (what North Americans call ‘faculty’) playing the role of brokers between the two (both as writers and as reviewers of grant applications) and managing the precariously-employed sellers of labour (junior academics and support staff on temporary contracts) who actually get things done. Humanities research is traditionally cheap, which is bad from at least two points of view: funders want to save money by administering fewer, larger, grants, while universities want to see every department generating research income on a par with that pulled in by STEM centres. The digital humanities come to the rescue by being so conveniently expensive: they appear not merely to profit from but to require such costly things as computer hardware, server space, and specialised technical support staff who – in a further benefit from the point of view of the ethically-indifferent university – can be employed on fixed-term contracts, instantly disposed of when the period of funding comes to an end, and almost as instantly replaced once the next grant is landed. It didn’t have to be like this: computers can as easily reduce as increase the size of a research project. In the funding game, however, the goal is not quality, nor even efficiency, but only bigger and bigger contracts. This is the context within which the digital humanities have fashioned themselves from their less tiresomely glamorous predecessor, ‘humanities computing’.

I had entitled my paper ‘Funded research: help or hindrance for the (digital) humanities?’, and I stood up to deliver it in full expectation of a fight: I knew that the event had been organised in order to promote the host institution as a recipient of research funding, and that there were serial large-grant holders in attendance. But a fight was not forthcoming. The audience laughed in the right places, and – once I had said my piece – responded not in outrage but in sad agreement. One respondent seemed to want me to take my critique further, asking whether I thought that this restructuring of the research process was leading to greater conservatism in the research actually produced (I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t, but my primary concern was elsewhere). To my further surprise, I even got a positive write-up in an article that several other members of the audience (including the event’s academic organisers) published the following year (Barker et al, 2012, pp. 188-189). Evidently, my analysis was less controversial than I had thought. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.

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