Alt-Research for Humanities PhDs

The following are remarks I delivered at the 2013 Modern Language Association Convention in Boston as part of a roundtable on joint programs in Languages, Literature, and Libraries. I’ve posted a slightly expanded version of the text.

In February 2012, Dan Cohen, Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, published a blog post reflecting on some of the cognitive biases at work in the everyday act of reading, as reported in Nobel-Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman cites a series of experiments that demonstrate how seemingly incidental details like font style and paper quality affect our views on the trustworthiness of the information we encounter in books and other printed materials. After reading Cohen’s post, I immediately took to Twitter, wistfully commenting “I wish we humanists were DESIGNING some of those experiments rather than simply reporting on them.”

Although seemingly off the cuff, that thought had been brewing in a more generalized form for several years, an outgrowth of the time I’ve spent in an Information School, or iSchool, and more specifically as a humanist within an iSchool. One hallmark of these schools is that they are methodologically diverse and adventurous. Preternaturally so. With faculty whose backgrounds cut across the full spectrum of the traditional disciplines, they are breeding grounds for research incorporating qualitative and quantitative analysis, interviews, survey instruments, laboratory experiments, field experiments, eye tracking, participatory design, usability testing, and more. Research, in other words, that comes in a tremendous variety of flavors and combinations.

That emphasis on methodology is reflected in our PhD curriculum, which requires doctoral students to take a minimum of four—yes, four—methods and design courses, plus statistics, before they can advance to candidacy. Many elect to take more than that. Given this heavy load, students must venture outside the iSchool to get their full dose of methods. They thus spread across the campus, taking classes in Anthropology, Education, Public Health, American Studies, even History and English, whose methods courses we list in our handbook.

My Twitter comment, then, was a preliminary attempt to draw attention to what I perceive as a blind spot—or at least a missed opportunity—in the current conversation around graduate education in the Digital Humanities. That blind spot, I believe, is in part a consequence of conflating two distinct if inter-related things: technology education and methodological training, both of which we array under the heading of “methodology.” In practice, of course, the two are deeply intertwined. For heuristic purposes, however, I want to separate them, if only to make the larger point that while we’ve made some progress over the last 5-10 years on integrating technology into DH curricula (e.g., introductory programming or database design), we’ve made far less headway on expanding our methodological toolkit. It’s true that we routinely invoke the importance of methodological training in DH, but more often than not we’re using it as shorthand for “technology education.”

Why should humanists be interested in the methods I’ve flagged, most of which originate in the social sciences? One reason is that by venturing beyond methods already familiar to us, we enrich our field and open up new vistas of discovery.  The controlled laboratory experiments on the psychological effects of font style, to hearken back to Dan Cohen’s blog post, for example, are of obvious import and relevance to bibliographical and textual studies, two of our oldest branches of literary study. But these experiments shouldn’t be considered in isolation.

Take Rachel Donahue [on the panel] who is writing a dissertation on understanding, managing, and preserving the records of video game developers. As part of her research, Rachel has interviewed game developers; conducted a game documentation survey on the preservation practices of the videogame industry and the player community; and is now in the process of gathering oral histories from players and developers of the now defunct Glitch, a browser-based Massively Multiplayer Online Game. Documentation Strategy, Grounded Theory, and Action Research—methods she was exposed to in an iSchool—are all part of Rachel’s repertoire.

Similarly, Amanda Visconti, who holds a Master of Science degree in Information from the University of Michigan’s iSchool, is now a PhD student in English at the University of Maryland. Her work weaves together the different strands of bibliography/textual criticism, digital humanities, and information science. Amanda is currently in the early stages of a dissertation whose products will be theoretically and historically informed digital tools that expand existing online scholarly editions to allow more participatory and experimental modeling and representation of texts. Crucially, she is drawing on her iSchool background to bring usability testing into the making of her modules. Think about that: user testing deployed within the context of textual scholarship and bibliography; user testing of a digital scholarly edition!

Both Rachel and Amanda are engaged in projects that fall broadly within the purview of the Digital Humanities. What sets them apart from many peer projects conceived and developed within a humanities department is not their technical sophistication, which has become increasingly common, but rather their methodological range. Methodology—not (just) technology—is what makes their brand of DH distinctive.

My second reason for recommending these methods speaks pressingly to our current moment: one consequence of the failure to adequately distinguish between technology and methodology is that we often end up articulating a vision for the PhD that frames it not as an advanced research degree, but as a professional degree. This occurs principally within the context of efforts to revamp doctoral education to prepare students for positions outside the academy. The logic seems to be something like this: if we infuse enough programming, database design, social media savvy, and tool use into the curriculum, then our students can find rewarding jobs as programmers, publicists, technical writers, and so forth outside the ivory tower if they aren’t lucky enough to land a coveted research position within it. The PhD begins to look a lot like a terminal Master’s degree in a professional discipline. I think there is a third way, however, that prepares students for what I’d call not alt-academic [or alt-ac] positions but alt-research positions: while alt-ac gives us a framework for thinking about alternative academic jobs that may include research, its purview is mainly academia and its environs. Research, however, also happens outside the academy. Once again iSchools provide a useful point of reference: in the iSchool environment there is often a direct pipeline between industry and academia, between the research labs at Google, Yahoo, Adobe, Microsoft, Intel, and others , on the one hand, and iSchools on the other.  My colleague Allison Druin, for example, former director of the Human Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, has partnered with Google on research studies aimed at understanding how children search and retrieve information on the internet; and with Nickelodeon on studies exploring how to create better mobile interfaces for children’s media. In these cases, the partnership crosses the industry-academia divide, but there are scores of instances where iSchool faculty have had prior careers as PhDs in these corporate research labs or spent their sabbaticals at them or found ways to creatively blend them (Danah Boyd, whose work is familiar to many humanists, is a good example). It would be fair, I think, to characterize these shifts between academia and industry as lateral career moves, insofar as both types of positions are research positions that require real methodological chops. These are also the types of positions for which Digital Humanists *should* be able to compete. We’re not there yet, but if we begin to promote advanced research methods in our curricula, we could be soon.

One final note: I’m also prepared to talk about some of the pitfalls of this approach (and I can anticipate many of them). But I also think it’s time we in the humanities cultivated a more nuanced response to the knee-jerk corporate drone critique, and began to realize there’s opportunity to help shape industry through research collaborations, rather than simply criticize from the wings.