Alan Liu, “The Future of Humanities in the Digital Age” with Roundtable Discussion

Dr. Alan Liu thanks crowd for “exhilarating discussion” over the course of the day. Feels welcome “in spite” of being an English professor. It’s true, today’s speakers have all been historians, but the projects they presented have possible applications in all branches of the humanities. GIS Mapping, databases, research sites, digital teaching tools, and the excitement of the conference makes them seem like amazing opportunities.

Liu sets context for talk by adjusting title: “Future of the Humanities in the Digital Age.” He says the problematic word in the title is “Digital” because the other words are “majestic” and trip off the tongue. “Digital” is “like a cell phone going off at a commencement ceremony.” Maybe other words could substitute: New Media, Networked, Fiber Optic, Internet, Wireless, Gaming, Surveillance, Storage, and Database. Liu offers these possibilities seemingly off the cuff, but in a way that indicates how much he had thought about the issue. “Storage” draws the most initial attention, because when terabytes are universally available, it will change in how we will store and use information.

Liu uses a quote from his book The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information to move the discussion to his point. He questions “How can society create the most inclusive, flexible, and intelligently interrelated mix of educational options?” Creating this mix is the task of the scholars here. His substitute for “Digital” is from “The Laws of Cool” = KNOWLEDGE
We don’t live in the Digital Age, we live in the Knowledge Age (Techno + logy). We must have knowledge of technique and practice. For those of us sitting here, this is further reinforcement of the importance of this type of event: if we keep exchanging ideas about using technology, we are bound to learn about new ways of doing the work, new audiences, and new tools.

What is the relation of humanities scholarship to “Web 2.0”? Liu believes that the question has practical implications that scale up to philosophical ones. Liu has been trying to introduce Web 2.0 methods into the classroom. He created a research course for undergraduates. The project, Creativity & Collaboration is an exploration of authorship and the collaborative methods inherent in a wiki-environment, which is a shared elaborate editing environment where members have access and editing powers over anyone else’s page on the site. Used same software as Wikipedia. Collaboration Team: present idea of collaboration with creativity and scholarly rigor.

Dr. Liu blended lecture courses with research workshops, it sounds like these were the opportunities he had to discuss method, theory, and intellectual property. Students created a web database related to their individual interests. They also wrote glossary definitions, research reports, other assignments.

If you want to get undergrads into IT course, make them producers, not just users: have them create biographies and get invested in the project.

Hard Lesson: have to seize control as instructor in right measure and degree. Every piece vetted by another student to maintain quality, but the process failed because of the quality of the undergraduate writing. Having read undergraduate essays, I have to say I am not surprised. I don’t want to blame the internet and the MTV, like the fogies, but it seems like there could be a link.

Greatest Disappointment:
“Uneven final project.” Quality of entries varied. Poor and more mediocre students did worse than he would have expected. Theory: Online environment fosters that because they offer poor research sources: in some cases, students used Wikipedia as only source for glossary entries. “Algae blooms where nothing else can live but Wikipedia” if undergraduate minds are the ocean.

Liu developed a policy statement about use of Wikipedia. Posted to humanist list and it was then injected into blogsphere. Picked up my numerous ed blogs and discussion all over. I think Liu’s policy seems reasonable: Wikipedia is not an authoritative source. Going the postmodernist way and believing that there is no authoritative voice is fine, but everyone needs to learn how to evaluate information and sources if they want to function in our spin-filled world.

Wiki is just tip of the iceberg, the underwater section is Web 2.0 which is known by its most common forms: Blogs, Social Networking [myspace], Folksonomical tagging, [], and Wikipedia.

Like a good teacher, Liu is ready with reading recommendations, one optimistic and one skeptical:

So, Liu asks, in the face of these ongoing changes, what is the relation of humanities scholarship to Web 2.0? He has no good answer, just a deepening appreciation and consideration that this is a real issue to confront.

Liu asks another important question: “In the age of Wikipedia and Google, is all knowledge destined to be just ‘good enough’ knowledge?” If not, how can the academy and Wikipedia/Google help each other sustain the practice of creating good knowledge?

Liu’s distinctions between types of knowledge make perfect sense. Good enough knowledge is a Rube Goldberg machine: If everything is as you expected when you built it, everything works and is good enough. Good knowledge questions assumptions and possibilities that something won’t be perfect. What if audience is different? How can I create knowledge that is robust, useful, and tolerant enough to be good?

For his big finish, Liu points out some important distinctions between Academic Knowledge and Web 2.0:

  • discipline & field specific v. world wide
  • moderately stratified v. flat
  • expertise-driven v. reputation-driven
  • individualistic (at least in the humanities) v. collective
  • slow (peer review, publication, tenure review) v. Quick (after the fact review in form of trackbacks, etc)

BUT, both are friendly to open-source, open access.

In the face of ongoing debates and questions about the future, Liu offers some examples that may lead to good knowledge in Web 2.0: the Citizendium Project is the “progressive fork of Wikipedia.” In mirroring Wikipedia and imposing editorial structure on top of it, there is authority and accountability. He suggests reading Larry Sanger “Toward New compendium of knowledge.”

ROUNDTABLE: “Teaching the Humanities in the Digital Age”

William G. Thomas, III, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, moderator
Alan Liu, University of California, Santa Barbara
Edward L. Ayers, University of Virginia
Mary Beth Norton, Cornell University

Mary Beth Norton:
Dr. Norton believes she is at the Pauley as the token user, not creator. She does use computers for teaching and research, and is impressed by what everyone has done, but has some caveats. Teaches using Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project from UVa. She also used the site doing research for her book, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. Early transcriptions of trial records were flawed, and having page images from the original documents meant she could do research while in England. She has also had her students use the documents as research tools and several of them have had the biographies they completed from these documents added to the site. Norton is absolutely right, this is a wonderful site, the quality AND quantity of sources is amazing. Go look at the maps, particularly the GIS renderings.

Dr. Norton believes the sequential nature of digital files makes it harder to skim/scope/go through quickly, particularly if it is a long source on the web. Computers give us information that can answer lots of questions, but don’t necessarily give us context or all the information we need.

Like many, she finds it difficult to read extended argument or piece of prose on web; is this a concentration issue? We are wedded to the book format and the ways we interact with them. Like Norton, many people believe they haven’t read it unless they have annotated it. Norton does acknowledge there are ways to annotate digital docs, but for someone so into books, this may still be a problem.

She recommends Paul Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America for a discussion about ways to think about how computers have changed our lives and the ways we use information.
We have become rigid thinkers who value rationality over emotion and simplicity over complexity. Norton fears the effects of computers and the Web on students: they have developed Acquired Attention Deficit Disorder and can only think in soundbites. She worries they can no longer do sustained analysis or the focused reading and research needed for courses.
Can they still do sustained analysis?

Ed Ayers:
Responding the Norton, Liu, and the Symposium generally, Ayers states that there is a paradox at the heart of discussion of the last day and a half: Things have changed drastically in the last in twenty years. There are no more card catalogs, we have books to search instantly, and cheap computers are everywhere. Computers have outstripped expectations. Yet, it says something about our time that there is always sense of unfulfilled promise and frustration.
How can this be?

Ayers believes there are deeply-rooted challenges and problems. Institutional and disciplinary resistance and lack of programs have created a generation of grad students who are not able to engage in digital scholarship and there is no pipeline for next group. For me, as part of that generation of grad students, the privilege of studying at Nebraska, with its strong departmental and institutional support for digital humanities, is keenly felt.

Ayers makes the point that twenty years ago we would not expect education to be falling so far behind of every other form knowledge transmittal in our society. Every day we are seeing communication and entertainment outstrip scholarship; If a professor’s website does not meet Halo standards, it does not impress students. Excitement, anxiety, and dread are all at play


Abdul Alkalimat:
Michigan restructured the MI School of Information and it is a diverse department now, reflecting content and technology in combination. This is an exciting development, given that the digital scholarship project is only 10 or 12 years into this. Need to use the Pauley Symposium to raise our questions and express our questions, but recognize that institutions of higher learning are addressing these questions with lots of time and money.

Allen Liu:
We need to face issues about who will control resources and have editorial control. Also need to think about copyright, access, and authorship. Need to create a bridge by delivering quality to the public and get support and feedback from them. Suggests a look at Who Owns Academic Work?: Battling for Control of Intellectual Property by Corynne McSherry. Academics are complicit in the dilemma over intellectual property rights as university faculty – -particularly in science departments: copyright, patents, etc are historically given to academics with assumption that they are giving it back. Can’t be entrepreneurs just like everyone else.

Mary Beth Norton:
Intellectual property comes up at Cornell. Online publication program at Cornell, copyright controlled by Cornell.

Patrick Jones:
These are all great questions, but there is a fundamental question that the variety of presenters may have confused: What is digital scholarship? What isn’t? How do we determine what it is? Can you help us figure this out?

Like many academics (and graduate students), Jones is used to standards used for books and journals, but unclear of criteria for digital projects. Jones’s query is a common one, given the novelty of true digital scholarship and the prevalence of enthusiast websites and projects.

Edward Ayers:
If it doesn’t have an argument it is not scholarship. This applies to all academic production and is no different for digital work.

Ayers and Will Thomas proved the possibilities of digital scholarship with their American Historical Review article “The Differences Slavery Made.

Digital scholarship today should be about experimenting with notions of scholarship: we build, experiment, model, simulate. There will be differences between disciplines, but we can all benefit from others scholars’ experiences. Liu quoted Marvin Minsky, who is prickly regarding many things humanistic: “with all the money that we are throwing away on humanities and art – give me that money and I will build you a better student.”

Tim Borstelmann:
There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom and he is concerned about it on multiple levels. Worried about what is being lost in this increasingly visual age. What is being lost as far as thinking linearly and logically. Recommends Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death; although the focus is television, it is likely applicable to computers, given their prevalence.

Allen Liu:
As his response, and to wind-up the evening, Liu used the example from Plato’s Phaedrus of Hermes (or Thoth), the inventor of writing, presenting his new technology to the pharaoh. The inventor says “Look at what I have built!” The pharaoh tells him that his invention is not a good one, because if people don’t need to remember things, they no longer will remember things. But learning continued, and societies continued to develop.

We want people to be free, part of what that has always meant is that people should be free to choose or be emancipated from their history. Now they are also free to break out of linear sequence, they can be free-floating if that is what they want to be because information is free in ways it wasn’t before.

Ending the evening on the idea of free access to knowledge, new ways to express that knowledge, and new techniques to uncover more knowledge is a good idea. Although participants and attendees have raised legitimate concerns about the role of computers in academia and the impact of the digital world on students and our culture, the quality of work demonstrated in each presentation and the possibilities offered by new scholarship, combined with ongoing technological innovations encourages a sense of excitement and hope for the future of digital humanities computing.


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