Editing Modernism in Canada


October 18, 2011

Is Creating Community a Primary Function of the Digital Humanities?

In my “Digital Romanticism” class with Michelle Levy at SFU, we recently hosted Professor Andrew Stauffer, Director of the NINES project at the University of Virginia. The resulting conversation touched on some core questions about the purpose of the digital humanities, and its future potential, particularly as it pertains to the question of scholarly communities. I think EMIC scholars will find there are interesting points of reference here for our own community-building efforts.

In preparation for the class, we read John Unsworth’s article “Scholarly Primitives: what methods do humanities researchers have in common, and how might our tools reflect this?” In this article (taken from a presentation he gave at a symposium in London) he gives a list of scholarly “primitives”  – “basic functions common to scholarly activity across disciplines, over time, and independent of theoretical orientation.” These are: discovering; annotating; comparing; referring; sampling; illustrating; and representing.

Unsworth is clear that he doesn’t think this list is exhaustive, and I wonder if he (or you) would think that “creating community” should qualify as a primitive. Scholars have been incredibly good at creating communities (if you agree, contra i.e. Wendell Berry, that a community doesn’t need to inhabit one geographic location). The conversation that happens in these communities across space and time is crucial to scholarly work.

What excites me about NINES is that the community-oriented features of other non-scholarly online spaces are built into it in in a unique way. I haven’t seen other scholarly sites foreground tagging and discussing, with activities attached to personalizable profiles, in the same way NINES and 18thConnect have.

Sadly, these features are under-used. Talking with Professor Stauffer, I can see the clear need for NINES to use its limited resources on improving the more standard database functions that are the primary reason scholars find NINES so useful (improvements include building a tool, Typewright, that will allow scholars to correct OCR scans, for example).

If we agree that creating community is indeed a crucial part of scholarly work, however, then there is ample incentive to persist in community-building online. The added advantage of the web is that it often creates less hierarchical, more transparent communities with a lower barrier to entry than a non-digital community has. The general tendency of DH to reflect the decentralizing and empowering nature of the web within its own projects and communities is part of what, I think, makes it so exciting and potentially transformative.

It would be fantastic to focus on encouraging people to use the community-oriented functions on NINES (especially the tagging, since it has a clear link to democratizing the classification [and therefore control] of knowledge) but, as I said, NINES faces resource constraints and has other tasks it needs to do.

Getting creative, someone from our class had the fantastic suggestion that NINES could mirror the conversations that take place on some of the bigger nineteenth-century listservs. it seems scholars often don’t feel these conversations are the best use of inbox space, but that having a searchable archive of them would be very valuable and perhaps even help these conversations flourish. I also suggested trying to popularize a #nines hashtag on twitter, hopefully creating another conversation that could simply be mirrored on NINES (this would take time and resources to accomplish, however).

It’s not that scholarly conversation isn’t happening on the web – it’s just that it’s often not happening on purpose-built tools like the Nines discussion boards. One major learning in online outreach over the last few years has been to recognize that the phrase “If you build it, they will come” is simply not true. Instead, you need to find ways to meet people where they are, and then integrate conversations happening in different places.

I’m really impressed with the collaborative effort it must have taken just to get all of the NINES federated sites to play nicely with each other (a Star Trek joke just flickered across my mind, but I’ll leave it to your imagination). The EMIC Commons will be another example of a large-scale scholarly collaboration. But the online community-building efforts seem to lag behind. That’s to say nothing of the efforts to bridge academic and non-academic communities. Online scholarly community building will definitely require some very creative approaches, given some of the challenges Professor Stauffer outlined for us.

A quote from Unsworth’s article is relevant here: “The importance of the network in all of this cannot be overstated: with the possible exception of a class of activities we’ll call authoring, the most interesting things that you can do with standalone tools and standalone resources is, I would argue, less interesting and less important than the least interesting thing you can do with networked tools and networked resources. There is a genuine multiplier effect that comes into play when you can do even very stupid things across very large and unpredictable bodies of material, with other people.”

Keeping the potential of the multiplier effect in mind,  I’m wondering if people have other thoughts about this question of creating community online. How does the aim of community-building fit into your DH/EMIC work, if at all?

One Response to “Is Creating Community a Primary Function of the Digital Humanities?”

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