Rachel Sagner Buurma and Anna Tione Levine
The field of digital humanities has seen an increasing interest in the theory and practice of the preparatory, intermediate steps of the research process. The slow, interpretive, and unglamorous aspects of DH work—data cleaning and corpus preparation and even metadata management—are increasingly acknowledged and even celebrated as valuable and central. Despite the field’s well-known and much-debated emphasis on “making tools,” with its corresponding privileging of deliverable products, DH has come to strongly value not just open access to tools or datasets, but openness of process.1 This emphasis on the visibility and significance of process coheres around the particularities and idiosyncratic features of the workflows of both personal and collective research. And digital humanities practices like the use of open research notebooks, the publication of Zotero libraries, and the sharing of research artifacts on new platforms also have strong affinities with the recent renewal of interest in the longer history of related practices in the humanities—histories of note-taking, intersections between humanities work and information science, and media archaeologies.2 These fields of study share a common project: making the labor and practices that constitute the history and present of humanities research visible and communicable on a human scale.
This emphasis on the value of the research process has another, if less widely recognized, home, one we want to claim as an alternative intellectual origin for digital humanities work: liberal arts classrooms of all kinds in all sorts of institutions.3 Undergraduate research has long emphasized process over product, methodology over skills, and multiple interpretations over single readings.4 Our current understanding of the role of research as a part of liberal arts education has been shaped by an accident of institutional history, one in which the departmentalized structure of the research university came to be awkwardly yoked to a generalist undergraduate liberal arts education designed to form citizens, not train professional scholars. Cohering around discipline-specific majors and organized primarily around departments, the liberal arts curriculum resolves its apparent contradictions by asking students to engage in imagining what it means to “think like” a literary critic, an anthropologist, or a computer scientist. This “thinking like” involves a crucial suspension of disbelief—what might be described as a sympathetic imagining—since most English, anthropology, and computer science majors will neither become professional scholars nor take jobs significantly shaped by the particular practices of their undergraduate academic fields of study.
Liberal arts learning therefore requires a simultaneous commitment to and distance from a student’s chosen field(s) of study.5 But the practice of liberal arts can transform this odd positioning into an advantage; seeing some aspects of a field or discipline as it is, students also see it and even experience it as it could otherwise be. Practicing basic lab methods, learning to cite in a specific disciplinary style, tracking an article’s sources back to an archive, or conducting an ethnographic interview all require a student to envision a range of possible practices and outcomes—to learn, but also to partly reimagine, the iterative, recursive, and enduring aspects of the research process and its shaping conventions.
Seeing the research process both as it is for oneself and as it might be for someone else—what we might think of as a sympathetic research imagination—also lies at the core of archive-centric digital humanities projects.6 Such projects, which offer new curations and organizations of digital texts, objects, metadata, and other artifacts, also have a double mission. By defining a domain or parameters for what they include, what access they allow, and how they organize and present their data, they create new knowledge formations or bring to light materials that have been under-noticed, hidden, or excluded from existing scholarly or public narratives. At the same time, they offer users the ability to reorganize materials in order to build their own narratives and interpretations—to imagine how the archive might be read differently. Some have even suggested that the chief value of such projects is the degree of “interactivity offered to users who wish to frame their own research questions” (Unsworth). Framing new constellations of texts and artifacts as contributions to knowledge, digital archives allow researchers of all kinds to parse and reorganize the archive’s contents in order to create new interpretations.
The same sympathetic research imagination we find in the liberal arts classroom—that double imagining of a discipline’s research practices and protocols from within and without, for oneself and for imagined others—also governs both the high-level decisions about and the day-to-day work of such archival projects. Building an archive for the use of other researchers with different goals, assumptions, and expectations requires sustained attention to constant tiny yet consequential choices: “Should I choose to ignore this unusual marking in my transcription, or should I include it?” “Does this item require a new tag, or should it be categorized using an existing one?” ”Is the name of the creator of this document data or metadata?” “Does this occurrence ‘count’ as the type of event I’m attempting to record?” “Which of these fields will be available as facets for search?” “Is it ethical to open this particular version of this document to public view? And is it legal?” The ability to envision multiple research processes and imagine potential research questions becomes central as contributors evaluate how their decisions open up or close down possibilities for the project’s audience. The liberal arts research imagination guides and informs the often-tedious yet only seemingly rote process of data entry, transcription, and debugging, the sometimes disenchanting but crucially important backbone of digital archive projects.
Black Liberation 19697—a project chronicling Swarthmore College’s black protest movement during that year—offers an example of a digital archive of primary sources and historical interpretations, one created by collaboration between faculty, students, librarians, and information technologists within the context of a liberal arts college.8 It is led by Swarthmore Professor Allison Dorsey, in collaboration with Swarthmore Digital Scholarship and Initiatives Librarian Nabil Kashyap, the students of the Black Liberation 1969 class, and student and alumni research assistants.9 Built with the kind of research imagination we have described, the site’s design as well as its interpretive materials work to make the creators’ choices as transparent as possible while also remaining usable to researchers engaging with the primary sources. Black Liberation 1969 has a specific mission—to “finally [bring] forward the experiences of the black students who organized and executed a series of nonviolent direct actions and negotiations at Swarthmore College” in 1969—but its guiding directive is pointedly open-ended. The project documentation explains that it “challenges visitors to reconsider the stories that have previously constituted the official narrative and to engage with the black experience of Swarthmore in this critical period.” Rather than offer a single counter-narrative to users, the project creates room for multiple readings by offering new material for researchers to explore and use. Black Liberation 1969 formalizes this mission in its organizational distinction between “collections,”10 which maintain “the organization of the documents as they were originally found,” and “exhibits,”11 which are student-curated topical presentations of collections that provide visitors with interpretations and visualizations of the different events and struggles of this period.
The history of the Black Liberation 1969 project illustrates how the materials of a research project might be gathered by students, professors, and librarians into a liberal arts classroom and then be transformed for an expanded audience that might use them to build new narratives of their own or make narratives previously submerged by a dominant institutional narrative newly visible. The first iteration of the Black Liberation 1969 digital archive was an inward-facing Omeka database created to house primary documents for a course taught by Professor Dorsey in the History department at Swarthmore in the fall of 2014. Only later did work begin to transform the documents discovered during this collective research toward a new history of the black student protest movement at Swarthmore College—interviews,12 mimeographed syllabi,13 photos,14 student organization records,15 newspaper16 articles—into an outward-facing site. Built for the research needs of the students and the course first, the project’s second phase was designed to reimagine the archive for other audiences and publics. Black Liberation 1969 thus shows how collaborations among faculty, librarians, and students can reframe the kind of rigorous research that takes place in the context of the liberal arts classroom—through the significant labor of database-building, metadata creation, and interface design—both to make the work of research more visible and to let specific audiences beyond the walls of the classroom learn about students’ interpretations of their research materials and create their own.
Despite sharing a name with the fall 2014 Swarthmore College class that collaborated to create it, the Black Liberation 1969 site represents only one part of the collective research project. In addition to collaborating with Professor Dorsey to create the site, collections, and exhibits, students in the class wrote and presented interpretive essays at a symposium and also created interpretive art projects17 that were displayed around campus. This constellation of projects implicitly insists that the digital archive is only one aspect of a larger research effort involving many people and several stages. And the digital archive reveals and preserves work, extends audiences, and allows a new kind of access, but refuses to suggest that what is digitally visible is the most important aspect of the larger social life of rigorous humanistic research.
Black Liberation 1969 is an especially intensive example of a joined practice of pedagogy and scholarship that is much more widespread than dominant narratives about the relations among liberal arts, humanities research, pedagogy, and the digital humanities currently acknowledge. We offer our interpretation of this project as the beginning of how we might rewrite the history of digital humanities work in order to put a capaciously defined liberal arts and its research imagination at the center. We see a secret history of digital humanities in the generative compromises produced by the practice of liberal arts education in a higher education landscape dominated by research universities, generative compromises that are encoded in one of the common forms—the digital archive—that digital humanities projects take. This view does not therefore imagine a pedagogy of or for the digital humanities, nor does it make an argument about the role of digital humanities in a liberal arts education. Instead, we call for a digital humanities that more intentionally acknowledges the centrality of the research imagination, and a digital humanities that imagines the liberal arts classroom—real and imaginary, existing and prospective—as its origin and at its center.
1. Dennis Tenen, in chapter 9 in this volume, notes some of the problems of this emphasis on tools, advising that digital humanists should place the emphasis instead on nurturing “meaningful change in our communities” and on “standards and best practices” for existing tools’ use.
2. See, for example, work represented at the 2012 “Take Note” conference at Harvard University, the work of Lisa Gitelman on the media history of documents, of Simon Reader on the notebooks of Victorian writers, and of Deidre Lynch on the nineteenth-century album.
3. Research rarely features in our accustomed stories about undergraduate humanities education or liberal arts education, but research in the humanities classroom has a long history of its own. For just one example of the how the teaching of early twentieth-century professor of literature Caroline Spurgeon emphasized the process of note-taking and the undertaking of serious research at the undergraduate level, see www.acls.org/news/10-8-2014.
4. We have tended to think that digital tools and platforms for exhibit-building, text visualization, and mapping are opening up new forms of undergraduate research—and in some ways they certainly do. But in fact we might as easily or as often claim that they make existing forms of research long familiar to the liberal arts classroom newly visible, as digital platforms and tools permit sharing work at multiple stages—citation-gathering, preparatory blogging, drafts, collaborative work—as well as a proliferation of publication platforms. Claims that “collaborative undergraduate research in the humanities . . . represents a departure for the norm for small liberal arts colleges” could in one view be expanded to describe a relative absence of collaborative undergraduate research in the humanities on any campus (Alexander and Davis). On the other hand, one could argue, as we do, that collaborative research is in fact a common but under-described part of undergraduate humanities classrooms.
5. We wish to note here that we deliberately speak of liberal arts pedagogy and classrooms rather than institutions, since the sort of pedagogy we discuss is associated with small residential liberal arts colleges and may be intentionally cultivated by them at an institutional level, but perhaps is as often found in classrooms of the research university, the extension school, or the community college.
6. Rhetorically, most accounts of the value of liberal arts education tend to swing back and forth between variously phrased celebrations of its ability to produce vocation-ready transferable skills in students and a range of defenses of learning for learning’s sake. Rhetorics of digital humanities pedagogy tend to intensify this bifurcation, doubling down by either celebrating technical skills or by advocating for the freedoms of deformance and play in the classroom. Without claiming that either of these types of arguments are invalid, we suggest that the experience of most undergraduate students while studying an academic discipline in a liberal arts style or context falls into this murkier and perhaps more interesting territory.
8. In her well-known essay taxonomizing seven types of DH projects, Miriam Posner calls these kinds of projects “archives of primary sources”; most of what we are arguing here applies as well to work on digital scholarly editions and some other kinds of text analysis projects in which decisions about selecting, cleaning, and formatting the texts to be mined and transformed require the same kind of sympathetic research imagination. See Posner’s blog post, “How Did They Make That?” http://miriamposner.com/blog/how-did-they-make-that/.
Alexander, Bryan, and Rebecca Frost Davis. “Should Liberal Arts Campuses Do Digital Humanities? Process and Products in the Small College World.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/25.
Unsworth, John. “What Is Humanities Computing and What Is Not?” In Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader, ed. Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte, 35–48. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.