4Humanities: Designing Digital Advocacy

July 18, 2013, 10:30 | Long Paper, Embassy Regents C

Introduction: Cuts, Crisis and Criticisms of the Humanities

The Great Recession beginning in 2008 has resulted in a series of budgetary cuts to many universities, education programs, and cultural institutions that reflect indifference about, and even hostility toward, the humanities and arts in favor of scientific, engineering, business, and other applied fields. Even scientists are now concerned about the perceived legitimacy of their "basic research" when it lacks evident short-term application. However, the sciences have an established tradition of public advocacy and media communication that is quite effective in putting their discoveries before the public. The humanities have no such consistent, planned tradition of advocacy, and in many ways are starting from scratch.

This paper argues for and demonstrates planned humanities advocacy using the special affordances of the digital humanities. In particular, it discusses how the 4Humanities initiative is leveraging DH for next-generation advocacy. In this paper, we will:

  • Show how 4Humanities uses DH to help analyze public discourse, both pro and con, about the humanities (including text analysis of such discourse as well as crowd-sourced generation of arguments for the humanities).
  • Show how statistics and other evidence about the contribution of the humanities to society can be analyzed and visualized in support of effective arguments.
  • Discuss the role of 4Humanities and, more generally, how DH can provide special tools for humanities advocacy, while humanities advocacy can in return incentivize the creation of next-generation DH research and teaching tools with a built-in public engagement dimension.

Analysis of Arguments Against the Humanities

One way to bolster advocacy for the humanities is first to look closely at the arguments made in public against them. We have compiled a small corpus of recent articles (especially from news sources accessed by a broad public) representative of criticisms of the humanities (Auslin, 2012; Bauerlein, 2011; Cohan, 2012a; Cohan, 2012b; Ellouk, 2011; Fendrich, 2009; Fish, 2007; Fish 2008; Fund, 2012; Knapp, 2011; Murdoch, 2011; Pidgeon, 2007; Riley, 2012; Sini, 2011; Stephens, 2012; Wente, 2012; Wood, 2012).

Fig 1:
Voyant Collocate Cluster Visualization (Sinclair and Rockwell)

We find that arguments critical of the humanities cluster around certain ideas. Principally, detractors accuse the humanities of lacking cultural and/or economic relevance. The most nuanced critiques mix or shade the charges of cultural and economic irrelevance. But other arguments refute the social usefulness of the humanities entirely, simply taking for granted their complete economic and social irrelevance. (Interestingly, however, some of these articles also defend irrelevance as a virtue, as in the case of arguments from friends of the humanities who feel that irrelevance is the basic nature of the humanities and is perfectly acceptable.)

A related critique of the professoriate in the humanities is that our work is no longer accessible to a larger educated public. The argument is that we are our own worst enemies because we have descended into theoretical turf battles that no one cares about. For these commentators such cultural irrelevance goes hand in hand with the supposed lack of respect that academics show for the public’s values, as epitomized in Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism, and other approaches that attack iconic ideas. The antidote sometimes proposed is a return to a nebulous concept of the traditional humanities — e.g., to the venerable search for the “beautiful.”

This paper will summarize our reading of the articles as well as present results from some text analysis of other rhetoric about the humanities.

Analysis of Arguments For the Humanities

As important as it is to know the arguments critical of the humanities, it is also important to gather good arguments for the humanities. 4Humanities has taken two approaches to this. The first is to blog good arguments as we come across them with summaries for those who are looking for essays to help them in their advocacy. We have also summarized these in a digestible form for people to review (Bielby, 2012). Finally we ran an All Our Ideas vote on the value of the humanities (http://allourideas.org/4humanities). At the time of writing this proposal there were over 1600 votes and 31 user submitted possible answers (as opposed to 12 seeds that we provided.) The top choices at the time of writing included:

There is obviously overlap in the top choices, but these indicate what the digital humanities community considers important. In the paper we will provide a fuller analysis of the data along with our list of the best arguments.

Looking Closely at the Statistics

“Liberal arts graduates frequently catch or surpass graduates with career-oriented majors in both job quality and compensation.” (Koc, 2011)

In addition to defining and communicating the cultural value of the humanities, the 4Humanities initiative is also committed to gathering data on the economic value of the humanities. One of the most pernicious arguments against the humanities has been the poor job prospects of graduating humanists. For this reason, we review the statistical arguments carefully, especially to highlight the fact that the data on compensation of humanists at mid-career paints a different story. A humanist may find it harder to get a first job with a degree, but she/he will probably rise faster than many with professional certification.

When making arguments for the humanities’ contribution to society, of course, it can be difficult to produce statistics, given that there has been no comprehensive study that gathers together available facts and figures in a usable manner. As part of the 4Humanities project we have been compiling and listing all statistics we can find in the published literature about the benefit of the humanities to society. This was done by collating the literature – including newspaper articles, reports, websites, and op-ed pieces (listed on the 4Humanities website) – and locating numeric references to the humanities. We have compiled such quantitative evidence, and at DH2013 we will present an infographic that sums up the statistical argument that the humanities are relevant to economic and intellectual development.

In addition, we have recently begun our “Infographics Friday” series (http://humanistica.ualberta.ca/category/for-the-public/humanities-infographics/), highlighting a particular statistic or graphical representation on the 4Humanities website once a week, to demonstrate the range of evidence. A core remit of 4Humanities is to gather, analyse, and disseminate this disparate information to provide a knowledge base upon which others can build their opinions and bolster their understanding of the humanities.

Conclusion: 4Humanities and a Digital Humanities response to the Cuts, Crisis, and Criticism

We argue that the mission of public engagement and advocacy in the humanities as embodied by the 4Humanities initiative provides a unique way to consolidate leading technological and methodological directions in DH with outreach to society. The humanities today have an advantage that was not available earlier: the analytical and communication methods of the digital humanities. Not only do the digital humanities provide a strong argument for the relevance of humanities learning in a digital age; they also provide unique, fresh ways of studying the contributions of the humanities to society and then getting the message out. DH research and humanities advocacy can be one, where DH helps advance advocacy, and, reciprocally, the advocacy mission helps drive research in DH. The hunt is now on to develop and extend new generations of digital humanities platforms and tools that can integrate the core research and teaching work of humanists with public visibility and engagement. Such platforms and tools (for publishing, editing, research, pedagogy, etc.) can be designed from the ground up, both to serve the needs of academics and to engage with today's networked public. This paper is a step in that direction.


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