DH epistemologies and the PhD interdisciplinary system

From the perspective of a small tech startup mindset, the ever looming burn rate of funding and the ever pressing need to demonstrate market share potential and traction mean that any time spent on ways and methods of knowing and understanding is by and large a recipe for disaster.  Perhaps it is for this reason that the university earns its keep by devoting time and attention to matters that have consequences beyond the viability of a market dependent enterprise under neoliberal capitalism.   

As soon as questions of power arise in the examination of the hows and the whys of knowing within a given academic field, the university itself rightfully becomes a site of critique, debate, and contestation.  Questions about academic labor and funding–including which kinds of labor and which kinds of funding, and how ways of knowing perpetuate racialized, gendered, and other forms of exclusion–rightfully become subjects of research, shape the directions of research, and serve as successful or failed theories and models for social institutions in the broader society.

Some questions regarding valid forms of knowledge in the DH might include:

  • How and why might some individuals assert that DH threatens the kind of PhD system that has held sway over the last 200 or so years?
  • How might academicians, faculties, and PhD committees be ready to open up spaces that rely on other ways of demonstrating worthy contributions to knowledge and understanding?
  • Does not interdisciplinarity imply the “potential” relevance of any question, theory, or claim, depending at the end of the day on definitional boundaries established by the lineages of program heads or department faculty who determine the scope of the discipline in terms of the relevance of questions for ongoing and future research?
  • If language itself is arguably a (social) technology, might technology questions at virtually any level or from any domain “potentially” pertain to the production of knowledge and understanding within any given interdisciplinary field?
  • How can digital technologies and digital data be used by and within academic communities in ways that defend higher education from the neoliberal assault and the subversion of humanistic values that often accompanies capital in its seemingly unending drive toward self-expansion?  (This last question was prompted by a piece I stumbled across recently while searching for “socially engaged” scholarship that amounts to a full scale and categorical critique directed against the digital humanities.  Entitled “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities” and published in 2016, the authors, two of whom identify themselves as having “long histories as digital researchers”, reject and attack DH for being part the “neoliberal takeover of the university”.   In what must be by now a bygone artifact of earlier DH debates, there is a considerable amount of nuanced academic politics.  Whether or not their argument is valid, it has been instructive to consider a markedly critical, if not negative, perspective.  It points to the importance of being very clear and transparent about the goals, commitments, values, and epistemologies of the field.  While digital humanities as a field is clearly not part of a “neoliberal takeover”, I do think digital scholars are more likely to succeed than not by being aware of the ways in which funding can end up subverting the potential of DH within the broader humanities and higher learning.)

3 thoughts on “DH epistemologies and the PhD interdisciplinary system

  1. Kristine Riley

    The questions you raised made me think back to a book I read over the summer by Ruha Benjamin, “Race After Technology.” At the time, I wasn’t thinking about the book in the context of DH, but these questions made me realize this text might be a useful resource in this space.

  2. Matt Rubin

    Your fourth point really got me thinking. Before this week, I’ve never looked at language as a “social technology,” or even as a form of technology at all. When one considers it, it makes a lot of sense.

    With regard to its fallibility, Merriam Webster defines technology as “the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area.” Language is a form of knowledge, but it’s applied in a near-unique manner: a tremendous amount of technology, especially in the modern era, relies on languages in some form or another. Social media platforms, which facilitate connections and communication, are themselves built from computer code, which itself is a language. Language not only augments other technology with its practical application, but the practical application of language itself serves as a technology.

    Your third point also caught my eye – as a Gallatin graduate and rhizomatics enthusiast, the word “interdisciplinary” always does. Throughout my studies I’ve been curious; sure, one can potentially argue that anything can pertain to anything else, does that mean that one should? The idea of “definitional boundaries” brings to mind our discussions of defining digital humanities, an area that in many ways is inherently interdisciplinary.

Comments are closed.