Andrew Prescott: Can the digital humanities help advocate for the humanities?

Andrew Prescott

Andrew Prescott, Professor and Director of Research at the Humanities and Advanced Technology and Information Institute, University of Glasgow, originally sent this letter to the Humanist Discussion Group on October 23, 2010. (See original archived post.) The letter, which helped inspire the creation of 4Humanities, calls for the digital humanities community to support the cause of advocating for the humanities. While addressed to the digital humanities community, however, the letter–-which was written in the immediate aftermath of the massive cuts to higher education proposed in the United Kingdom in October, 2010–is also itself a broader statement of advocacy for the humanities. (Humanist is a listserv serving “an international online seminar on humanities computing and the digital humanities.” Prescott’s post is reproduced on 4Humanities with his permission and the permission of Willard McCarty, editor of Humanist. Prescott is a member of the founding collective behind 4Humanities.)

[Excerpt] If humanists respond to Fish’s rallying call urging us to aggressively explain, aren’t digital humanists in a perfect position to facilitate such a campaign? So far, the campaign to promote the cause of the arts and humanities seems to have been very desultory–a number of op-ed pieces in the papers, some tweeting, a few nascent Facebook pages. Of all the humanities communities, we as a group should know more than many about communication and providing platforms for campaigns. We are at a moment of supreme crisis for all our disciplines. Could we not as digital humanists come together jointly to create a new means of getting our message across, and resisting that boot which is currently stamping in our faces? A platform which enabled all humanists to express their views on this assault on their intellectual world and enabled them aggressively to explain why universities worth the name must have flourishing humanities (and social science and science) faculties.

[Full letter:]

I am surprised that we have not so far had any discussion on Humanist of the devastating effect that the current financial crisis will have on the study of the arts and humanities internationally. Of course, here in Britain over the past two weeks our attention has been totally focussed on the report of the review on the future of higher education funding and student finance led by Lord Browne (former Chief Executive of BP, which may give American readers an uneasy feeling) and the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review which allocates budgets for individual government departments (in Britain since 2009, higher and further education has been the responsibility not of the Department of Education but of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which gives some idea of the priorities of successive British governments). Although the details are not yet finalised, it seems pretty clear that the upshot of these recent events is that in England all state funding for the teaching of arts, humanities and social sciences will be withdrawn with effect from the academic year 2011-12. The loss of state funding will in principle be compensated for by allowing tuition fees charged to students to be at least doubled. However, it is unlikely that many students will be willing to pay fees of £8,000 plus a year unless they are attending one of the most prestigious universities. It seems probable that over the next year many departments teaching arts, humanities and social scientists in England will close and hundreds of first-rate academics working in these fields will lose their jobs. The situation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is more complex since higher education is devolved to the governments of those nations and in Scotland at least tuition fees are not charged. However, it seems unlikely that the devolved nations will be able to resist the English lead, especially given that the budgets of the devolved countries have also been slashed.

The naivety, not to say philistinism, of a political outlook which declares that only science, technology, engineering and medicine are worthy of government support hardly needs elaborating here. At the time of writing, there is every sign that the situation in British universities may become even worse than we first feared – the government is indicating that it is reluctant to allow a free market in tuition fees, which means that the financial constraints will be even tighter. The Head of Universities UK, the consortium of University Vice-Chancelors has spoken of a ‘valley of death’. There are some silver linings – funding for scientific research has been protected, and it is possible that this may mean that the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the establishment of which was one of the great achievements of the past ten years, will survive. If so, there is every indication that the AHRC will be keen to prioritise the digital humanities. It may be felt that the digital humanities will offer a means whereby arts and humanities academics build closer links with scientific colleagues and enable the arts and humanities to access the scientific funding streams. But what will be the value of this if the wider study of arts and humanities has been devastated? Most of the digital humanities centres in the UK are part of universities which are members of the ‘elite’ Russell group, so again it may be felt that they can potentially survive the eradication of the arts and humanities in the wider UK university system, but at what terrible cost for the study of arts and humanities more widely.

Digital humanities cannot thrive if the study of the humanities more widely is under attack, and in Britain there is certainly a terrible ferocious attack on any study which does not have a hard measurable economic value. It is not simply in the universities that the study of the subjects that interest us is under attack. One of the first actions of the new government was to announce the abolition of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council which has done a great deal to promote the use of new technologies in museums and libraries. The national museums and libraries have declared themselves relieved that their budgets will be cut by ‘only’ 15%, which will indicate how dire the earlier forecasts were. Regional museums and libraries, funded by local councils, are under enormous threat. Suffolk County Council have announced that it intends outsourcing all its functions – including record office, libraries and museums – to private firms. Other councils are likely to follow suit. What likelihood would there be under such an arrangement of developing innovative digital humanities projects with such service providers?

In urging that, as digital humanists, the impact of these cuts should be at the centre of our thinking at the moment, I can do no better than refer back to Melissa Terras’s remarkable plenary address at Digital Humanities 2010, one of the most compelling and visionary statements on the digital humanities I have ever heard. Refering to the impending cuts, she wrote:

“The Humanities are one of the easiest targets, given scholars’ reluctance or inability to make the case for themselves. I’m reminded of a phrase from Orwell’s 1984, and what happened to society when under the horrific pressure and surveillance within. Allow me to paraphrase: if we are not prepared, and if we are not careful, these cuts will be “a boot stamping on the face of the humanities, forever”. I remember very strongly that at the end of an upbeat DH2009 Neil Fraistat stood up and said “The Digital Humanities have arrived!”. But in 2010, the place we have arrived to is a changed landscape, and not nearly as optimistic. We are not in Kansas now, Toto”.

I fear that, in Britain, Melissa’s most pessimistic vision has come to fruition in a couple of months. What depresses me most about it is the impact on younger scholars – I am on the tail-end of the baby boom and probably would not be too devastated to be packed off early into the sunset, but I bitterly resent seeing the younger generation of scholars deprived of the opportunities I have had.

This would all be bad enough if it only affected Britain, but of course this is an international crisis. The British commentators who fondly imagine that, by increasing tuition fees, British universities can emulate American institutions would be well advised to look at recent events at SUNY, where state budget cuts have led to the closure of the Italian, French, Russian, Classics and Theatre Programmes. In Texas A&M University, a profit and loss account is now kept for each Faculty member:

http://bit.ly/ctZn7W

The natural reaction is to try and demonstrate that the humanities can make money, but Stanley Fish has argued in two recent articles for the NY Times that this may be a badly-advised tactic – kissing the boot which is stamping on our face rather than resisting it. Fish urges that we ‘drop the deferential pose’ – stand up to the bully:

“Make a virtue of the fact that many programs of humanities research (and not only humanities research) have no discernible product, bring no measurable benefits, are not time-sensitive, may never reach fruition and (in some cases) are only understood by 500 people in the entire world. Explain what a university is and how its conventions of inquiry are not answerable to the demands we rightly make of industry. Turn an accusation — you guys don’t deliver anything we can recognize — into a banner and hold it aloft. (At least you’ll surprise them.)”

He continues:

“And as you do this, drop the deferential pose, leave off being a petitioner and ask some pointed questions: Do you know what a university is, and if you don’t, don’t you think you should, since you’re making its funding decisions? Do you want a university — an institution that takes its place in a tradition dating back centuries — or do you want something else, a trade school perhaps? (Nothing wrong with that.) And if you do want a university, are you willing to pay for it, which means not confusing it with a profit center? And if you don’t want a university, will you fess up and tell the citizens of the state that you’re abandoning the academic enterprise, or will you keep on mouthing the pieties while withholding the funds?”

“That’s not the way senior academic administrators usually talk to their political masters, but try it; you might just like it. And it might even work. God knows that the defensive please-sir-could-we-have-more posture doesn’t.”

Fish’s articles are worth taking a look at: http://nyti.ms/9NSK4j; http://nyti.ms/dAZggX

Is Fish right? And what should we be doing about it as digital humanists? We have been very preoccupied with business planning and demonstrating the value of investment in the digital humanities projects over the years, but should we not be adopting the approach Fish suggests – that spending money on these types of projects is simply the sort of thing that a university should do. I was listening to Kathryn Sutherland on Today this morning describing the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts project and the way in which it has helped improve our understanding of Austen’s writing. Isn’t that a good thing to spend money on? Shouldn’t we be arguing for the importance of this? A number of recent tweets have repeated a story about Winston Churchill: “When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply replied ‘then what are we fighting for?'”. I have not been able to find a contemporary source for this, but it’s a wonderful story nonetheless.

If humanists respond to Fish’s rallying call urging us to aggressively explain, aren’t digital humanists in a perfect position to facilitate such a campaign? So far, the campaign to promote the cause of the arts and humanities seems to have been very desultory – a number of op-ed pieces in the papers, som tweeting, a few nascent Facebook pages. Of all the humanities communities, we as a group should know more than many about comunication and providing platforms for campaigns. We are at a moment of supreme crisis for all our disciplines. Could we not as digital humanists come together jointly to create a new means of getting our message across, and resisting that boot which is currently stamping in our faces? A platform which enabled all humanists to express their views on this assault on their intellectual world and enabled them aggressively to explain why universities worth the name must have flourishing humanities (and social science and science) faculties.

Any comments?

Andrew


Professor Andrew Prescott
Director of Research
Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute
Sgoil nan Daonnachdan / School of Humanities
University of Glasgow
12 University Gardens

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