What the Digital Humanities (Is)n’t: Free

In 2009, UCLA hosted a series of talks, funded by the Mellon Foundation, called, “What Is(n’t) the Digital Humanities,” and I take my title from that series, with a slight modification.  While Todd Pressner and Jeffrey Schnapp, the organizers of the UCLA series, hoped to better define what it is via what it is not, I wish here to discuss unrealistic expectations that have been raised by the emergence of the term “digital humanities,” perhaps denominating a new field.  One is that there is a pot of money to fund digital projects undertaken by humanists who otherwise have few opportunities to apply for grants.  I have reviewed applications for only a few national granting agencies, but you cannot believe how excellent and deserving so many of the projects are that go unfunded.  And when they DO get funded, each participant has only earned the right to work a bit harder, sometimes a lot harder, in exchange for monies divvied up among so many people that you’ll need to kick in some of your salary if your cappucino is a venti as opposed to merely tall.  Another unrealistic expectation is that we will all save time using digital media.  But if I have saved huge amounts of time by emailing rather than mailing, the time I have gained is spent answering email, especially emails like this: “Hi, sorry I missed class; they took too long making my venti caramel macchiato, and I didn’t want to walk in late.  Can you tell me what happened in class?  Thanks!”

These expectations, that those of us who go digital will be rolling in time and money, are painfully disappointed.  However, one kind of expectation in particular threatens to do damage to the disciplines comprising “the Humanities” at the very moment when we need to be shoring them up.  We believe that the digital Humanities are more “free” than those grounded in print.  I mean ”free” in several senses, but at least two: not costing, and available equally to all.  We of course are all aware of the well-documented “digital divide,” and we know that Internet terminals even in city libraries are really no more available to the indigent than is classical music piped through the radio.  Sure: it’s there, but that’s not even close to enough.  Even leaving the problem of the digital divide aside for just a moment (albeit a huge omission), we are deluded about the costs of digitizing the archives and transforming scholarship, the costs to ourselves as part of the professoriate.

I have published several special editions of journals as well as articles in journals that are both digital and print over the course of my career, and I have to say that digital publication is not faster, and it is not not NOT–positively not–free.  Peer review still takes as long as it takes, whether the documents sprang from Ethernet or envelope.  Someone who is concerned with properly encoding the digital versions of documents works his or her fingernails to nubs and wears the letters off the computer keys. Changes to final products are just as difficult as print retractions, and in some cases impossible (not technologically, but according to journal policies).  Making digital materials freely available to all, in other words, differs significantly from opening your hands to let the dove fly free.  You have to get that damned bird up into the sky in order to drop it, and you pretty much start every time at about the level of Wilbur and Orville.  It costs money and time.  I always feel, in the end, that people are welcome to this or that info that I just spent five years trying to launch, but if you want to criticize me for what I haven’t managed to accomplish, beware of computer rage.  It’s real.

Trying to get information free from technological and social fetters, something I spend a great deal of my time doing, has made me realize—really, for the first time—the value of the scholarly society.

I’m responding here to a well-meaning blog posting that, once again, attacked the elitist ways of the Modern Language Association.  I’m really fine with bashing the MLA Conference, on most days: the conference is after all where we all suffer trying and failing to get jobs, to hire deserving people, and to not find out that someone else just published the definitive book on the topic of the manuscript that we are pedaling to his or her publisher.  Once at an MLA, I was even cornered in the elevator by the irate parents of one of my graduate students who turned out–surprise surprise–to be the offspring of professors: his mother explained to me in great detail that the “B” I had given him on a paper came from the deep misapprehension (on my part) that his work was sexist.  I found myself responding, “Well, you know, he does quote Klaus Theweleit as saying . . . oops, gotta go, 19th Floor!” Who could love the MLA convention, in their right mind?

This well-meaning blogger, however, bemoaned the fact that the MLA conference is not free, that you must pay to attend, and further, that you have to create a guest account to see the program.  But what I’m concerned with here is that she trumpeted the Digital Humanities, in contrast.  Right now, several people and groups collect and publish information about panels with a digital component or focus: one can get “free” listings of the papers being delivered at these panels; Mark Sample’s blog, and the ACH, neither of which require guest login.

I want you to know, dear blogger, dearer to me for her obvious love of digital Orvilles, that I attended the ACH/ADHO conference this year, and in fact, it too costs money.  It costs a lot of money, a lot more than MLA will cost me, not only because it was held in London (two years before that, Finland), but because I chose not to join the organization and so had to pay full fees.  Now it is true that you can see the program online, without registering—that may even be true for the digital group called the TEI-C (Text-Encoding Initiative Consortium).  But you know, even though you can access that information online freely, it ain’t free.

I personally believe that you if you paid Sebastian Rahtz, tech-wiz behind the TEI’s completely open web site, one penny for every SIGNIFICANT bit of programming he did to make all this work available, he’d be a millionaire.  I do not exaggerate: just LOOK at the documentation available on the TEI site, a web site and system that couldn’t be more confusing than it is even if every single contributor were deliberately trying to baffle everyone else.  You see, the TEI gets lots of volunteer labor in which the costs are hidden—Fingernails? Computer keys? Divorces?—but it cannot afford usability studies, at least, not any except those evaluations that it’s own unpaid contributors launch (unfortunately, they think they have done a very good job).

MLA doesn’t take free labor, not even mine as the chair of the Committee on Information Technology.  I do some work, of course, but the nuts and bolts, the implementation of our ideas, is accomplished by staff, by two salaried employees, PhDs, who must actually be able to afford to live and even raise children in New York City.  Their job, as Steve Olsen told me, is to keep us from doing too much work, and believe me, they do.  As chair of the CIT at MLA, in other words, my labor is not extracted as if it were free.  Now is the moment in this diatribe when I’m supposed to point out that membership dues and conference fees pay these two salaried employees.  To be willing to pay membership fees, people have to want to join, and so it was difficult for the MLA to open the program to guests at all, given that receiving the program for the annual conference in the mail was one of those membership perks that kept people coming.  I’m not sure why MLA wants guests to log in, but my guess is that it will use such statistics to prove its centrality.

There is a lot of free stuff coming out of the energy, one might almost call it the missionary zeal, of digital humanists right now, and that’s all to the good.  But will Mark Sample be searching Conference programs title-by-title for conferences in, say, 2020?  Will Mark get tired or divorced or lose his fingernails completely?

And, more to the point, is it politically wise for us – humanities professors – to hold up our free labor as an ideal?  At this moment of financial crisis, aspects of our work that allegedly costs nothing to do could be written into new university or institutional policies.  I think instead we should be championing the scholarly societies such as the MLA which say, in effect, we can do this, but it’ll cost ya.  End of diatribe; time for a latte (tall).

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7 Responses to “What the Digital Humanities (Is)n’t: Free”

  1. This is a smart corrective to the pervasive assumption that because a user need not pay for information accessed online that it is “free.”  Your tally of the labor involved in launching DH projects (TEI, 18th Connect) in broken fingernails & broken marriages is gripping.  In theory, I agree with your argument.  But in my particular experience (I am the well-meaning but naive blogger alluded to above), Mark Sample’s blog is the only way I learned about the DH panels at MLA.  I have been away from MLA for more than a decade.  It’s not news to you that DH is changing the field; but for people like me who left the academy and who still care about the field, open access allowed me to find information that changed my perception of the MLA. It wouldn’t be at all hard to make program information accessible w/o having to register on the mla.org site. Rosemary Feal’s incredible optimism and her drive to move the organization forward (evident her in tweets) tells a new story about MLA.  The panels and conversations I’ve seen thus far are fantastic. If MLA could find a way to get that message out to a broader audience than just its membership, then maybe reliance on Mark Sample’s blog wouldn’t be necessary.

  2. Thank you for this important response, and I think maybe HASTAC was developed precisely as an interface between scholars and that “broader audience” that MLA now needs to address. MLA would do well to move in that direction.

  3. Lou Burnard says:

    “it cannot afford usability studies, at least, not any except those evaluations that it’s own unpaid contributors launch (unfortunately, they think they have done a very good job).”
    I forgive you the greengrocer’s apostrophe, but really Laura is it fair to castigate the TEI community both for not performing any usability studies and also for thinking that such evaluations as it does make are “very good”? What evidence do you have for either of these assertions? The TEI is a community effort — it is can only be as usable as it users want to make it.

  4. Lou, thanks so much for commenting– I stand corrected, both for apostrophes and for being far too glib about the TEI Web site.  But my evidence is a paper that Syd Bauman and Dot Porter gave at the DH Meeting in College Station, 2009.  The TEI had received complaints because people couldn’t tell where elements were supposed to go from the list of elements, in other words, without reading through the prose of the guidelines.  Syd and Dot did some datamining on the prose and discovered that in 90% of the instances of an element’s name occurring, there was also mention of its parent element. They concluded, in fact, that the TEI guidelines were fine.
    But in order to train the contributors to the Poetess Archive Database, I had to transform the guidelines to include in the table of elements another row that says, “goes inside,” which you can see here: http://www.dighum.com/PAManual.html
    Someone — I can’t remember who it was — told me that the TEI used to have a “contained in” row in the tables describing the elements.  Would you consider re-instating that row?  It would be so so helpful, and I do think Syd and Dot’s datamining of the guidelines missed the point. (Forgive me, Dot and Syd, if you read this, and let me just say that both of them do SO much outreach, answering questions, helping us with glitches: their overall ethos was violated rather than reflected by this study.)
    And Lou, you are absolutely right: at the TEI meeting in 2009, on the panel about the future of the TEI organization organized by Susan Schreibman, someone mentioned revising the web site.
    Thank you for reading my blog and making me revise its content. [And improving my grammar!]

  5. Lou says:

    You’ll be pleased (I hope) to know that the “used-by” line was reinstated in the HTML version of the Guidelines last summer, in response to several requests on TEI-L.

  6. Laura Mandell says:

    Yay!  Laura

  7. Laura Mandell says:

    (Lou: will the TEI ever be able to afford to run usability studies on the web site?)

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