A Progressive Defense of Not Disrupting Everything

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Reading Blevin’s piece “Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense,” I realized why I felt unsatisfied by the material we covered and discussed last week. We spent a lot of time in class on the democratic dissemination and consumption of history, but we did not discuss what the emergence and development of digital history means for the creation of historical work. Blevin’s piece touches on one of three concerns I have been harboring about digital humanities in general and digital history in particular, all of which relate to the back-end, creator-side work of doing history: the death of historical argument, the death of expertise, and the possibility for the spread of misinformation to a wide audience.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I am being a bit melodramatic in my characterization of these concerns, and I acknowledge that Blevin is merely calling for renewed commitment to historical argument in the field in addition to the already existing work that focuses on public engagement and accessibility. But I’m afraid I am a bit of a positivist, and although I very much support more democratic access to knowledge, on an ideological level, I understand the primary project of all scholarship to be about the quest for truth. After all, the problem with Time on the Cross was not merely that its conclusions were offensive, but also that they were not well supported by the evidence. Historical argument, like many other tools of the Enlightenment, should not be thrown out merely because those who have historically wielded them have been almost exclusively straight, white, cis, and male. With all due respect to Audre Lorde (for real), I believe we need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Which leads me to my second point: in our quest to open and democratize the creation of historical work, we must not throw the baby of Expertise out with the bathwater that is White-Supremacist, Heteronormative Patriarchy. That may seem a needless caution to lob at a group of academics, but I do sometimes worry that the leftist push for a total disruption of traditional academic systems may send us perilously close to the far-right anti-intellectualists whose rise has led so many pundits and political commentators to speculate that we have entered a “posttruth age.” We do need experts, and we do need gatekeepers. But let us have QTPOC gatekeepers, not a door flapping open in the breeze.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 To be perfectly clear, we very, very much need diverse voices and histories in the field (and everywhere else). But if the purpose of education is to create informed citizens, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson (and please forgive me for paraphrasing Audre Lorde and Thomas Jefferson in practically the same breath), then we need that information to be accurate, and we need those most able to accurately interpret the past to have the loudest bullhorns.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 My third concern, about the spread of misinformation, is really just a potential, terrifying consequence of the previous two. In their introduction to Digital History, Cohen and Rosenzweig touch briefly on the issue of maintaining historical accuracy and authenticity in the flattened landscape of the Internet, but I would argue that they dismiss these worries rather too quickly. They assert that “in general, the web is more likely to be right than wrong,” and offer a single piece of supporting evidence in defense of this claim, which is that Googling “Gettysberg” produces far fewer webpages than a search of the correctly spelled “Gettysburg.” From this they conclude, rather suddenly, that “the existence of misinformation on the web is no more of a problem than its existence in the rest of society.”

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I think this issue requires far more discussion, at the very least because the misspelling of “Gettysburg” is not actually the sort of misinformation we ought to be worried about. Perhaps in the halcyon days of 2005 this seemed a reasonable conclusion, but we have seen in recent years several alarming examples of crowd-sourcing gone terribly wrong. The post-Boston-Marathon-bombing fervor on reddit that led to the web-shaming and real world harassment of an innocent man comes readily to mind. In cases like this, the stakes are revealed to be quite a bit higher than those of a simple spelling error.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 We may decide that these risks are merely the price we must pay for more democratic access to historical resources, but I think the question is at least worth discussing. Indeed, I would disagree with Cohen and Rosenzweig that misinformation on the web is no worse than anywhere else in society. The Internet has enabled those with beliefs that are not merely abhorrent (one might even say deplorable) but also demonstrably false to make one of their own a major-party candidate for President of the United States. I do not mean to embrace some sort of Himmelfarbian neo-Luddite stance here, but radical populism poses a very real threat to the health of our democracy and the literal safety of those who live in this country.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 We have a major-party presidential candidate who claims to have seen Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, who maintains that President Obama literally founded ISIS, and whose support comes from “Birthers,” 9/11 Truthers, and Holocaust deniers. We need expert historical argument now more than ever.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted September 21, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I would like to respond sympathetically in particular to the third concern you highlight in Cameron Blevens’s “Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense” and the possibility for the spread of misinformation to a wide audience.
    Our readings have focused on the increased popularity and legitimacy of digital humanities projects among academic communities. It is certainly comforting to be in a classroom with people who have an open view of dh. The first class I took as a MALS student on the DH track was a comparative literature course with literary scholars. On the second day of class, a major discussion took place amongst the all these phd candidates with an overwhelming majority of my classmates complaining about dh methods as illegitimate methods of analysis. It’s a criticism that is easy enough to see as a close-mindedness. Last week, somebody asked what value digital literary studies projects provide to people outside the academy. I think it is, though difficult for somebody like me who has a degree in English, an important thing to consider.

    To return to the last concern Carolyn raised, when considering audiences outside the academy, dh practitioners are up against misinformation and perhaps more entertaining information. I think it is important to consider the concerns detractors raise and the forms which misinformation come in. How does Donald Trump or anybody come to cling to the belief that Muslims celebrated on 9/11 or that Obama founded ISIS? (I mean, beyond idiocy) I would wager that the Web, the tool with so much potential for digital humanists, helps to dispense such beliefs.

  2. Posted September 21, 2016 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Hi Carolyn,

    You raise some very important, vexed, and charged issues surrounding our readings about digital history, democratization of the past, and the responsibilities of a historian in the age of constantly available media. I’ll be interested to hear today your thoughts about The History Manifesto’s articulation of the role of the historian… but I thought I might also point you to an interesting experiment by Mills Kelly from George Mason University. In 2012, he offered a course called Lying About the Past: http://globalaffairs.gmu.edu/courses/1124/course_sections/6500. Yoni Applebaum does a pretty good summary of the experiment in his piece in The Atlantic: How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/05/how-the-professor-who-fooled-wikipedia-got-caught-by-reddit/257134/.

    Your post raises the question: How does digital technology change the role of pedagogy in the history classroom? for the public historian?

    Looking forward to continued conversation!

  3. Posted September 21, 2016 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Danabelle: Thanks for your comment! I agree completely that the internet (rather than digital tools in general) is the main culprit, although talk radio and cable news also bear large responsibility. I’d be interested in exploring how the intersection of these more traditional media with the internet has changed the audience for and/or efficacy of conservative propaganda (perhaps a more fitting question for our course last semester!).

    For what it’s worth, despite my above reservations, I very much disagree with those literature students you encountered. It seems to me that any good defense of the humanities in general (like Lisa’s last week) will apply equally well to digital humanities. Regardless, I think the validity of any method has everything to do with the particular questions one is trying to answer, so their response does seem rather close-minded.

    Lisa: Thank you for the links! Looking forward to checking them out, and discussing more in class!

  4. Posted September 22, 2016 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    I’m curious if the suspect evidence behind Time on the Cross would have been as closely interrogated if the conclusions weren’t so offensive. I wonder if most digital humanities projects are subject to closer scrutiny that more traditional projects, or on the other hand, if some of those troubled by DH aren’t prepared to interrogate computational data if works could get a pass.

    I realize this question isn’t central to the whole of Carolyn’s provocative (in the best possible way) post, but as we talk of how digital humanities projects and scholar/practitioners are evaluated by their peers, I think it’s worth considering.

    And yes! I think about expertise vs. gatekeeping in academic and activist contexts and how I’d like to get past them as binary options.

    I have nothing to contribute to point number three as I am baffled by a political campaign that is reality indifferent.

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  • Welcome to Digital Praxis 2016-2017

    Encouraging students think about the impact advancements in digital technology have on the future of scholarship from the moment they enter the Graduate Center, the Digital Praxis Seminar is a year-long sequence of two three-credit courses that familiarize students with a variety of digital tools and methods through lectures offered by high-profile scholars and technologists, hands-on workshops, and collaborative projects. Students enrolled in the two-course sequence will complete their first year at the GC having been introduced to a broad range of ways to critically evaluate and incorporate digital technologies in their academic research and teaching. In addition, they will have explored a particular area of digital scholarship and/or pedagogy of interest to them, produced a digital project in collaboration with fellow students, and established a digital portfolio that can be used to display their work. The two connected three-credit courses will be offered during the Fall and Spring semesters as MALS classes for master’s students and Interdisciplinary Studies courses for doctoral students.

    The syllabus for the course can be found at cuny.is/dps17.

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