Five years ago I attempted what I saw as a meaningful formulation of critical thinking—as opposed to the more vapid definitions you tend to come across in higher education. Critical thinking, I wrote, “stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty.”1
Two hallmarks of difficult thinking are imagining the world from multiple perspectives and wrestling with conflicting evidence about the world. Difficult thinking faces these ambiguities head-on and even preserves them, while facile thinking strives to eliminate complexity—both the complexity of different points of view and the complexity of inconvenient facts.
Adam Kirsch’s infamous New Republic rejoinder to the digital humanities2 pivots on a follow-up essay of mine, also about critical thinking (Kirsch). In my essay—which later appeared in the 2012 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities3—I argue that most of the work we ask our students to produce is designed to eliminate ambiguity and complexity (Sample, “What’s Wrong with Writing Essays”).4 It is ironic that Kirsch concludes that my vision of difficult thinking represents nothing less than “the obsequies of humanism”—ironic because Kirsch’s piece is itself a remarkable example of facile thinking.
Others have already underscored the paranoid logic (Glen Worthey), glaring omissions5 (Ryan Cordell), and poor history (Tim Hitchcock) in Kirsch’s piece.6 You might also read Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s and Lisa Rhody’s essay in Differences as a preemptive commentary on Kirsch (Chun and Rhody). And finally, the New Republic has published a letter from the authors of Digital_Humanities, disputing Kirsch’s claims.7 I do not have much more to add about the particulars of Kirsch’s essay, other than to say that I already wrote a response to it—back in 1998, in an issue of Works and Days8 focused on the scholarship of teaching with technology (Sample, “Resisting Technology”). Even then there was concern about technology “taking over” English departments—inasmuch as faculty were using word processors instead of typewriters.
I do have something to say about the broader context of Kirsch’s essay. It is part of a growing body of work committed to approaching the intersection of technology and the humanities with purely facile thinking. This facile thinking ignores contradictory evidence, dismisses alternative ways of seeing, and generally places its critiques of the digital humanities in the service of some other goal having little to do with either technology or the humanities. It might be clickbait for page views, it might be purely self-promotional, it might be crisis opportunism, and occasionally it is even a sincere but misdirected criticism. For example, in the case I explored in 1998, anxieties about teaching with technology were really anxieties about teaching, full stop.
The facile thinking about the digital humanities comes from both within and without the academy. It appears on blogs and social media. It is printed in The Chronicle of Education and Inside Higher Ed, The New York Times, and Slate. It is in scholarly journals, wrapped in the emperor’s new clothes of jargon and theory. It comes from accomplished scholars, librarians, graduate students, journalists and interns, former academics, and university administrators. In nearly every case, the accounts eliminate complexity by leaving out history, ignoring counterexamples, and—in extreme examples—insisting that any other discourse about the digital humanities is invalid because it fails to take into consideration that particular account’s perspective. Here facile thinking masterfully (yes, facile thinking can be masterful) twists the greatest strength of difficult thinking—appreciating multiple perspectives, but inevitably not all perspectives—into its fatal weakness.
In one sensible comment about Kirsch’s account of the digital humanities, Ted Underwood reminds us that we cannot govern reception of our work.9 We cannot control how others think or talk or write about our work. I agree, but the problem—diagnosed by Matt Kirschenbaum, again in Differences10—is that so often the facile thinking about the digital humanities is not focused on our actual work, but rather on some abstract “construct” called the digital humanities (“What Is ‘Digital Humanities’”). Kirschenbaum thoroughly (and with humor) dismantles this construct. But more to my observation about facile thinking here, let me add a corollary to Underwood’s point about reception. And this has to do with audience. We often mistake ourselves as the audience for other people’s work. However, the intended audience for facile thinking about the digital humanities is rarely people who work at the intersection of technology and the humanities. Very often there is a third (or fourth or fifth) party involved. Whomever you think a critic of the digital humanities is addressing, there is always someone else being addressed. This does not just happen in the discussions outside of the academy, like Kirsch’s essay in the New Republic. It happens when academics appear to be talking only to each other. Let us say one digital humanist levels an inflammatory charge against another. The charge is not really directed toward the second digital humanist; it is a charge meant to resound among another audience entirely. Facile thinking about the digital humanities is a performance, not scholarship.
What we need, obviously, is more difficult thinking about the digital humanities. I am hardly the first to call for such a thing. Alan Liu is looking for more cultural criticism11 in the digital humanities, while Fred Gibbs wants critical discourse12 in the digital humanities (Liu; Gibbs). I am dissatisfied with that word “critical” and all its variations—that is why my formulation emphasizes difficult thinking over facile thinking. In other words, I do not care whether you are critical or not about the digital humanities—either the construct or its actual pedagogical and scholarly work. I simply want you to practice difficult thinking. That means evidentiary-based reasoning. That means perspectives not your own. That means welcoming unresolvable dilemmas. Taken together, these add up to a kind of rational empathy—the antidote to facile thinking. Show me how rational empathy means the death knell of the humanities and I will gladly take over the obsequies myself.
1. Mark Sample, “What Is Critical Thinking?” blog post, March 10, 2009, http://www.samplereality.com/2009/03/10/what-is-critical-thinking/.
4. The original text for this piece was posted on March 12, 2009 at http://www.samplereality.com/2009/03/12/whats-wrong-with-writing-essays/.
6. See Glen Worthey, Glen, “Why Are Such Terrible Things Written about DH? Kirsch v. Kirschenbaum,” Stanford Digital Humanities, May 7, 2014, https://digitalhumanities.stanford.edu/why-are-such-terrible-things-written-about-dh-kirsch-v-kirschenbaum; Ryan Cordell, “On Ignoring Encoding,” May 8, 2014, http://ryancordell.org/research/dh/on-ignoring-encoding/; and Tim Hitchcock, “All These Rec. Critiques of DH Forget That History, Art, Museums, Archives and Geography Are There Too. This Is Not Just about Literature,” Twitter post, @TimHitchcock, May 5, 2014, https://twitter.com/TimHitchcock/status/463223818912563200.
7. Jeffrey Schnapp et al., “The Immense Promise of the Digital Humanities: The Book as Technology,” The New Republic, May 12, 2014, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117711/digital-humanities-have-immense-promise-response-adam-kirsh. Schnapp’s piece was written in collaboration with Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, and Todd Presner.
9. Ted Underwood, “You Can’t Govern Reception,” The Stone and the Shell, May 3, 2014, http://tedunderwood.com/2014/05/03/you-cant-govern-reception/.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong, and Lisa Marie Rhody. “Working the Digital Humanities: Uncovering Shadows between the Dark and the Light.” Differences 25, no. 1 (2014): 1–25. doi:10.1215/10407391–2419985.
Gibbs, Fred. “Critical Discourse in Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 1 (Winter 2011). http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1%E2%80%931/critical-discourse-in-digital-humanities-by-fred-gibbs/.
Kirsch, Adam. “Technology Is Taking over English Departments: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities.” New Republic, May 2, 2014. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117428/limits-digital-humanities-adam-kirsch.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What Is ‘Digital Humanities,’ and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things about It?” Differences 25, no. 1 (2014): 46–63. doi:10.1215/10407391–2419997.
Liu, Alan. “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold, 490–510. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Sample, Mark. “Resisting Technology: The Right Idea for All the Wrong Reasons.” Works and Days 16, no. 1–2 (1998): 423–26.
—. “What’s Wrong with Writing Essays.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold, 404–5. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.