Margaret Conrad on “Rescuing the Humanities One Website at a Time”

Margaret Conrad was awarded the 2011 SDH/SEMI Outstanding Achievement, Computing in the Arts and Humanities prize. Award winners are asked to give an address to the Society meeting and she spoke about “Rescuing the Humanities One Website at a Time” (PDF of full talk.) Her moving talk wove personal history together with a general discussion of the importance of history that led to a call for coordinated activity around digital approaches.

She began her talk with two insights from history:

First, the success of revolutions—political, technological, or otherwise—is predicated on bringing life-affirming values through the period of chaos and liminality inspired by new ideas and practices. (p. 2)

Second, history offers an abundance of evidence that social justice, like websites, is never done. In all times and places, people singly and together have tried to reform attitudes and conditions they believed to be injurious to the human species. They never fully achieved their ideals—we never do—but at least they strived toward a better end, rather than allowing harm to prevail unchallenged. (p. 3)

She then talked about the “Humanities under Siege” reviewing the grim developments that affect us. She argued for the importance of digital approaches:

Digital approaches are the only way that humanities will survive the current revolutionary changes in our world. While print will continue to circulate, the preferred mode of communication is now the Internet and our goal as humanists is to communicate, both to our colleagues and to the larger public. Fortunately, university policy makers are still entranced by technology, communications technology in particular. (p. 7)

And she warned us about the dangers of digital approaches. The technical is not an end in itself. “Humanities are concerned, first and foremost, with how to live in this troubled world.” (p. 8 ) She expressed concerns about inclusivity, including a concern “that women not be left behind in the practice and content of digital humanities.” (p. 10) She outlined an agenda for action:

  1. Collaborate with SSHRC and the Federation “a working definition of digital humanities and conduct our own audit of its practitioners in universities.”
  2. Document the resources available at Canadian universities.
  3. Survey the funding available to help make the case that university resources should be leveraged.
  4. Gather the arguments for bringing the humanities forward.
  5. Mobilize our resources, both human and financial. We need a coordinated approach to making the case for the humanities. (pages 16-17)

She concluded by calling on us to make history.

So we have difficult challenges ahead. As humans, we make history, not always, of course, in conditions of our own choosing.  But there are cracks large enough in the current template to bring in some light and give us hope that our humanist questioning can make a difference in what the next chapter in human history looks like. Let’s get on with making history

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