Money for Medievalists?: Questions about Digital Humanities Funding

The scholarly method or scholarship is the body of principles and practices used by scholars to make their claims about the world as valid and trustworthy as possible, and to make them known to the scholarly public. It is the methods that systemically advance the teaching, research, and practice of a given scholarly or academic field of study through rigorous inquiry. Scholarship is noted by its significance to its particular profession, and is creative, can be documented, can be replicated or elaborated, and can be and is peer-reviewed through various methods. (Wikipedia)

Given the above definition of scholarship, is it really necessary to question whether work in the digital humanities qualifies? In the first section of Stephen Ramsey and Geoffrey Rockwell’s “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities,” they tackle this question anyway, equating digital humanities – by its attributes – to other activities:

“People in DH will sometimes point to the high level of technical skill required, to the intellectual nature of the pursuit, and to the plain fact that technical projects usually entail an enormous amount of work. But even as these arguments are advanced, the detractions seem obvious. Repairing cars requires a high level of technical skill; the intellectual nature of chess is beyond dispute; mining coal is backbreaking work. No one confuses these activities with scholarship.”

I think one of the most important aspects of the provided definition of scholarship, and one that is overlooked by Ramsey and Rockwell’s comparisons, is that of “rigorous inquiry.” The common necessity of collaboration within digital humanities projects points to this factor, as efforts to create and answer bigger and bigger questions call for the expertise of individuals in other fields and of other abilities.

Some might wonder why these questions are important; scholars have been creating new modes and methods of research for centuries, collaboration and incorporation of technology is nothing new to academia, and questions about what “is” or “isn’t” scholarship are simply distracting from more important topics. But these questions become all important when it comes to one issue: funding.

Yes, funding: That impossible possibility, the dreamy realm of investigation in which the project is all-important rather than side work, the opportunity of full investment in your ideas. And someone is responsible for deciding which projects warrant this academic bliss. In the case of tomorrow’s meeting, we’ll hear from Mr. Brett Bobley, Chief Information Officer of the NEH and Director of the Office of Digital Humanities. This videoconferenced interaction will permit members of our group to learn about funded projects and the NEH’s approach to digital humanities when it comes to determining fundability.

As a medievalist, I must say that this opportunity is quite appealing. If I can’t convince my parents that the study of medieval texts and culture is worthwhile, how will I ever persuade any funding entity that my work can fulfill a pressing need of contemporary society? Reading the articles associated with this meeting did little to allay my fears, as I read that the NEH has an agency-wide initiative – related to its efforts to digitize scholarly works in the humanities – targeting “associated projects [which] will frame the contemporary study of humanities through a series of questions on such matters as technology, security, biomedical issues, recent wars and conflicts, the country’s changing demographics, and increasing political polarization” (Peet). Is there space for my scholarship here?

Of course, as an academic in need of project funding, I could point you to recent discoveries about medieval medical treatments that have been applicable to today (MRSA, anyone?), but I’m inclined to push against this utilitarian approach to scholarship. Must a project be immediately and tangibly useful for it to be valuable?

It might be this emphasis on usefulness that allows certain projects to thrive. For example, inquiries into the history of medicine appear to warrant funding, as they demonstrate how responses to outbreaks or other public health issues impact the resolution of those issues. One project – funded by the NEH – traces the publications and documents surrounding the 1918 pandemic of Spanish Influenza in the United States, especially as they relate to Royal S. Copeland, New York City’s health commissioner at the time.

The one reading that resolved this anxiety about the usefulness of my own line of study was the interview of Mr. Bobley by Michael Gavin and Kathleen Marie Smith, published in 2009. In the interview, Bobley’s description of the types of digital humanities projects that they’re looking for felt a little bit closer to home: “In all seriousness, though, we’re looking for innovative projects that demonstrate how technology can be brought to bear on a humanities problem and, ultimately, yield great scholarship for use by a variety of audiences, whether it be scholars, students in a formal classroom setting, or the interested public” (Gavin and Smith). This is a very different kind of emphasis on usefulness, one that acknowledges that use may not have an outcome beyond altering scholarly approaches to teaching, thinking, or writing about a particular issue. But those alterations, useful to us at least, can be groundbreaking and field-changing work.

And as many of the articles reminded us, Classics departments have been incorporating digital tools with great success.

RCSDuke


Gavin, Michael, and Kathleen M. Smith. “An Interview with Brett Bobley.” Debates in the Digital Humanities (2012): Debates in the Digital Humanities. Web. 04 Apr. 2015. <http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/49&gt;.

Howard, Jennifer. “Big-Data Project on 1918 Flu Reflects Key Role of Humanists.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 Feb. 2015. Web. 04 Apr. 2015. <http://chronicle.com/article/Big-Data-Project-on-1918-Flu/190457/&gt;.

Peet, Lisa. “NEH, Mellon Foundation’s Humanities Open Book Program to Revive Backlist Work.” Library Journal. Library Journal, 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 04 Apr. 2015. <http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2015/03/digital-resources/neh-mellon-foundations-humanities-open-book-program-to-revive-backlist-work/#_&gt;.

Ramsey, Stephen, and Geoffrey Rockwell. “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities (2012): n. pag. Web. 04 Apr. 2015. <http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/11&gt;.

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