Wednesday, December 14, 2011


I have continued to read through my copy of Profession 2011, today getting into its cluster of articles centered on digital humanities scholarship.  One of the articles in that cluster is the work of Jerome McGann, whose book The Textual Condition informs my dissertation; because I am familiar with his work, I was interested in seeing what he released in “On Creating a Usable Future.”

In the article, McGann makes a convincing case that scholars in the humanities need to get involved in digital scholarship, especially since the dominance of print is coming to an end in the near future.  We—and I am a scholar in the humanities, so I can use that pronoun—have not done well enough at it yet, “reacting to the rapidly changing scene rather than working to shape policy and exert control over events,” although that is beginning to change (184).  The Google Books settlement is presented as a case-in-point example (192).  There is much to gain from developing and employing digital resources, and there is a need to adjust the institutional practices of humanities departments to accommodate the valuation and assessment of digital media.  Even so, as McGann remarks, there is a need to move beyond the surface-level phenomena that digital media tend to foster: “Social software technologies have a wide-spreading but shallow root system whose most impressive result to date, Wikipedia, illustrates both its capacities and its limits” (187).  Substantial scholarship requires substantial engagement, even in digital media, and it will be the task of those in the humanities to foster that engagement.

As he discusses his points, McGann makes several particularly pithy comments.  For one, he remarks that “Book culture will not go extinct: human memory is too closely bound to it” (185); if he is correct, then it will be a relief to such bibliophiles as myself.  For another, he relates “the belief, long held by the university community, that innovative research would drive effective and innovative pedagogy” (189).  It is in no small part due to the need for that innovation that some of the protections of tenure were set up; despite the complaints people have against it, the freedom from fear of reprisal for sincerely and ethically undertaking otherwise unpopular research is necessary to the advancement of human knowledge about the world and about ourselves.  The latter is one of the purposes of the humanities, and people are not always pleasant, so that what the study of us reveals is not like to be.

Related is the idea “that a usable future is a function of a usable past” (187).  To paraphrase McGann, the humanities work to create an inclusive and reliable cultural record which scholars can augment through the exercise of their disciplines (185).  We have to have knowledge of who and what we were to understand fully who and what we are.  Both have to be in place for us to have any hope of conceiving of who and what we will be, or even if there will be a “we” for us to be.  And what is “we,” anyway?

Digital technologies can be put to the ends of the humanities, certainly, but much needs to be done.  McGann remarks that the resources currently available are all too often left at the peripheries of scholarly endeavor (190).  More needs to be done to integrate them.  I have made a start on doing so; although my dissertation is largely on a traditional model, it makes free use of digital materials.  And in my non-dissertation writings, many of which I at least like to pretend are of a somewhat scholarly nature, I try to link to relevant materials (as herein).  In addition, I know of people who do quite a bit of scholarship electronically, such as HASTAC.  Perhaps if more of us do it, the study of the humanities can move in a direction that will help to redeem it from the onus under which it is currently operating.  And something needs to be done, certainly, lest the whole enterprise die.

Work Cited
McGann, Jerome. “On Creating a Usable Future.” Profession 2011(2011): 182-95. Print.

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