I had the honour of giving the first “Big Thinking Lecture” at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Royal Society of Canada, in Banff, on November 15. What follows is the text of my talk. A longer version, with citations, is forthcoming.
Thanks to my colleagues and friends in digital humanities who inspired this talk. Thanks to Spencer Roberts and Robin Nisbett who helped with the preparation and design. And thanks finally to those who read or listened to it, and provided me with feedback: Gary Libben, Bill Turkel, Rob MacDougall, Bethany Novwviskie, Peter Seixas, Margaret Conrad, Joffre Mercier, Douglas Kneale, Tomas Hudlicky, Tom Arkell, Cathy Majtenyi, Josie Reed and Carrie Kelly.
President Maioni, Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, distinguished colleagues, and friends, it’s an honour to speak with you today.
The title of my talk today, “Borders Without Boundaries / Frontières sans limites”, is taken from the next Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, at Brock University, this coming May.
The English is a bit confusing-aren’t borders and boundaries the same thing? The French makes it clearer: this is a conference about scholarship with frontiers sans limites-limitless boundaries. I like the title, for several reasons.
First, “Borders Without Boundaries” points to that which makes Brock unique. We are a 15-minute drive from the American border, providing opportunities for collaboration with colleagues in the United States. We are a comprehensive university with a vibrant research culture and an abiding commitment to excellence in teaching (we continue to rank among the top mid-sized Canadian universities in student satisfaction). We are committed to transdisciplinary research, instantiated in our world-class Transdisciplinary Research Institutes. And we are young institution-in 2014 we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of our university, with a respect for the past-next year will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the end of the War of 1812, the war in which our university’s namesake, Sir Isaac Brock, fought and died.
Second, I like the title because it focuses attention on that which is best about Congress: it provides opportunities to share research with colleagues within our disciplinary borders, while also providing opportunities for us to move beyond them, and explore other associations, and other forms of knowledge. In this way Congress fosters and instantiates the ever-changing boundaries of the social sciences and humanities today.
Third, and most important for today, “Borders Without Boundaries”, “Limitless Boundaries”, reminds us of our present historical moment. Last month, SSHRC and Canada’s other major funding agencies released a Consultation Paper on digital scholarship, “Toward a Policy Framework for Advancing Digital Scholarship in Canada” that pointed to the challenge.
We are in the midst of a paradigm shift, brought about by the new digital technologies and interactive media. And this paradigm shift is forcing us to reconsider how we do what we do.
“How do we do scholarship in this new digital age?” Or, to put it another way, “how do we redraw the boundaries that have previously defined and reinforced scholarship, in the Internet age where knowledge knows no boundaries?”
I want to address these questions by focusing on the essential practices of scholarship: i. researching; ii. writing; iii. publishing; iv. communicating. These practices, these ways of being a scholar, are changing before our eyes. I believe that, if we negotiate those changes well, the result will be a newly energized humanities and social sciences at a time when their value is being called into question. But that will require the collaboration of leading researchers, such as you, and the new generation of emerging, digitally-savvy researchers, the young men and women who will be arriving to Congress 2014 for the first time.
CONGRESS 1996 VS CONGRESS 2014
I’ve been thinking about the young scholars who will arrive to their first Congress in 2014 because I was a new arrival the last time Brock played host. Congress 1996-“New / Nouvelle Perspectives” marked my entrance into academe. It was the first Congress I attended; it was the first academic paper I gave. And I was nervous.
The scholarly practices by which I created and gave that paper were well established. I researched primary and secondary sources in libraries and archives, organizing my notes along the way. I wrote the paper and read it at Congress. I subsequently published it in a reputable journal, thereby sharing my conclusions with interested members of the scholarly community. Research, write, publish, communicate. It was very straightforward.
Think for a moment about what your first academic meeting, and the scholarly practices that you followed. Now think about the young scholars, in their mid-20s, who will be arriving to their first Congress next May.
CHALLENGE AND RESPONSE
They are arriving at a time of uncertainty in the social sciences and humanities. The social sciences and humanities have benefitted from the strong leadership of Chad Gaffield and others, but it’s been an uphill climb. From Ottawa and our provincial governments we hear calls for investment in research, but primarily applied research in the sciences, engineering, and medicine. Influential newspaper columnists are calling into question the value of social sciences, and especially humanities, degrees. And newly-minted Social Sciences and Humanities Ph.D.s are finding themselves in the worst academic job market in memory-a recent study from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario predicted that only 25% of Ph.D.s graduating today “will secure full-time, tenure-stream research and teaching positions.”
These challenges have forced us to think about what is required for a healthy social sciences and humanities, for the new arrivals to Congress 2014 and those that will follow. The answers have been varied. Harvard has launched “The Humanities Project”, and proposed a new curriculum. A host of respected scholars such as Martha Nussbaum (Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) have renewed calls for a liberal arts that actively contributes to citizenship.
What we’ve heard less about, and what I want to focus on today, is a careful consideration of the way in which we practice the social sciences and humanities. I believe that part of the reason that our value is being called into question is because both the manner in which we work, and the forms by which that work is communicated, sometimes seem divorced from our times. We know that part of the point of the academy is to be a separate space, with clear boundaries, hived off from the rest of the world, for careful inquiry and knowledge production. But we also know that we need to work with and speak to the world around us, one in which information knows no boundaries.
In my field of digital humanities, and digital history, we’ve been experimenting with how we produce knowledge since the dawn of computing. We’ve tried new models of researching, writing, publishing, and communicating. I want to tell you about what we’ve learned, and what I think it means for knowledge production in the digital age. Let’s begin with how we research.
SCHOLARSHIP IN THE DIGITAL AGE-RESEARCH
In 1996, when I was working on my Ph.D., I faced a scarcity of information and limited access to resources. It was the same for all of us. When I did my research, I had to do it in person, consulting sources in places like the Douglas library at Queen’s or the Birk’s Reading Room at McGill, where I had to leave my boots at the door and walk around in my socks. I then returned to my office and began filing notes in folders and boxes.
This long-established research method doesn’t make sense for the new arrivals to Congress 2014. Their libraries-at least any that have been built or renovated in the last decade-look nothing like ours. Their biggest problem is not scarcity; now they-indeed now all of us-face what the late American historian Roy Rosenzeig called “a culture of abundance”. One might even say “overabundance”.
We used to describe the World Wide Web as a library where all the books, journals, and magazines had been pulled off the shelves and thrown on the floor. Those were the good old days. In 2003 researchers at the University of California at Berkeley estimated that the amount of information created the previous year was about 5 exabytes; if we printed 5 exabytes in traditional book form, those books would fill 37,000 libraries the size of the Library of Congress. A similar study a few years later estimated that Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes in 2008. If we printed 3.6 zettabytes it would blanket the United States, including Alaska to a depth of seven feet. We know that the online world is big in the same way that a fish knows that the ocean is big: it seems limitless every which way you turn.
Of course, a good chunk of this focuses on cats. But for humanists and social scientists who study culture, societies, and relationships within societies, there’s a lot that falls under the umbrella of “research material”. And then of course we need to include newly digitized forms of traditional scholarship that are being added to the Internet. Google Books has said it will digitize every book published in modern history. They estimate that there are about 130 million books in the world, and at the rate they are going they will complete this work within our students’ lifetimes. Depending on the rate at which they speed up the process, and they are speeding it up, they might be finished in ours.
The challenge comes into view when we think about the work of a historian. My colleague Dan Cohen has pointed out that if a scholar wants to write a history of the Lyndon Johnson White House she has to read and analyze the 40,000 memos issued during Johnson’s administration. If an historian wants to write about the Clinton White House, she has 4 million emails to deal with. It’s impossible for one person to read 4 million emails in her lifetime. How does she then write the history?
The situation will be worse for the scholars of tomorrow. They won’t be able to say they’ve done a systematic literature review. As they begin to learn about a subject, the amount of information that will be created about that subject will accumulate faster than the scholar can read and understand it. They’ll be trying to drink from a fire hose.
We need to imagine and create a new way of doing scholarly research. What processes might we use? My colleague at Western University, Bill Turkel has pioneered an approach that he calls simply “The Method”. It begins with the understanding that we can’t go to our sources, because there are too many of them. It follows that we need to create systems so that the information comes to us. There are a variety of ways to do this. At a basic level, we can use feed readers or feed aggregators that combine new information posted to specific Web sites into a single report. Rather than continually going to a Web site, the new information posted to that Web site is assembled in one place, like a newsletter compiled just for us. But we can go further. At a more sophisticated level, scholars such as Bill have created crawlers, spider and bots that go out onto the Internet, find specific content, and download it or index it. These tools can be set up and left to run while a researcher works on other tasks. Or sleeps.
When that information comes to us, it needs to be sorted and indexed, and of course index cards no longer suffice. There is too much information, not enough time. Within this new culture of abundance, what we most lack is attention. Software can now create an index, build a concordance, and relate and cluster documents appropriately. In this way, text mining software is reading all 4 million emails from the Clinton White House. Scholars are using machine learning algorithms to process and analyze millions of books at a time.
SCHOLARSHIP IN THE DIGITAL AGE-WRITE
When it comes time to draw conclusions form their research, scholars now have a multitude of options. In 1996, I had a simple choice to make when it came to how I communicated the results of my research. I could choose print. It was hard to imagine doing scholarship any other way. A few minutes ago I compared a scholar to a solitary fish in the middle of a vast Internet ocean. We’re like fish in another way. The late David Foster Wallace told the story of two young fish swimming along, and meeting an older fish swimming the opposite direction. The older fish nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks “What the hell is water?”
Print to us is like water to fish: it’s hard to imagine any other way of producing knowledge. The American Historical Association observed a couple of months ago that “History has been and remains a book-based discipline”. Of course there is much to be said for books. But limiting our expression of knowledge to print makes less sense with each passing day. Almost all of us now use computers to facilitate our research. Then we use word processing programs to express our knowledge. Then we share it, and our colleagues read and annotate it, on a screen.
Furthermore, print carries inherent limits-books and articles support some kinds of communication better than others. And sometimes it makes more sense to use another medium to communicate scholarly knowledge. The limits of text are obvious, for instance, for those using contemporary oral history archives. In 1996, I conducted interviews, transcribed them, and then quoted from the transcription in my articles and book. My use of the interviews was several steps removed from the person who had spoken the words. As historian Michael Frisch has noted, the “Deep Dark Secret of oral history is that nobody spends much time listening to or watching recorded and collected interview documents” (Frisch 223).
If a scholar wants to present her findings on the Holocaust at the 2014 Congress, and the scholar has used a video archive like the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, she can now present her analysis alongside the actual, video-recorded testimony. She can include her analysis, as well as the speaker’s emotion, facial expression, and tone of voice. Watching Holocaust survivors speak of their experiences is very different from reading what they said. It might have the feel of scholarly guided tour of the archive. This isn’t book-based history, but it is scholarship just the same.
Nor does history have to remain a book-based discipline in situations where we are relating historical information connected to place. At its stripped down, most basic level, history is grounded in time and place. And one of the best ways to relate information about place is with maps. Now that we can make maps digital, we can show change over time, and provide opportunities for users to explore specific information, and relationships between different kinds of data, on their own.
The Hypercities project, developed at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, uses Google maps, and overlaid information, such as historical maps, to present information about the history of cities such as Berlin. Broadcast news clips, archived photographs, digital 3D reconstructions, or video oral histories, drawn from the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, can be connected to a place. The renowned anthropologist Clifford Geertz called for “thick description”-scholarship that included both descriptions of human behaviour and descriptions of the context of that behaviour so that it was meaningful to an outsider. Todd Presner, one of the founders of Hypercities, calls this work “thick mapping”.
Of course, you could write a book describing the relationships between the people and information in this Berlin hyper city, but you would be limiting your reader’s ability to explore relationships that you hadn’t considered. And you would be further distancing the reader from the news clips, archived photographs, and video oral histories that informed your analysis.
SCHOLARSHIP IN THE DIGITAL AGE-PUBLISH
The production of scholarship, raises the question of peer review and publication. How do we determine good scholarship in the digital age of audio-visual material, or digital maps, and how do we best share it with other scholars?
In 1996, this wasn’t an issue. Following my paper presentation at Congress 1996, I submitted my article to a top-tier journal. The editors at the journal decided that the article benefitted their readers, a decision that was highly informed but necessarily subjective. They guided the process by which the article was carefully reviewed, revised, and then sent to copyeditors, typesetters, and eventually printers. It was a prestigious journal, after all, so it was published in print.
This system of peer review and publication is coming under increased pressure for several reasons. First, as we’ve noted, new forms of digital scholarship, such as audio-visual interviews, and interactive maps, can’t be communicated with ink on paper. We need to encounter them in other ways. Second, as we’ve also noted, a great deal of scholarly knowledge is now being posted directly to the Web, bypassing the careful gate keeping of established journals altogether.
Third, because this digital scholarship is instantly available, communication around timely topics that lie at the heart of our study of culture and societies is moving increasingly quickly, at a pace that is too rapid for the established system of presentation, review, and publication to handle. In the midst of a community that is always online and always connected, topics emerge, expand, and contract in days or weeks. Finally, as we’ve also noted, as the pace of knowledge production speeds up, and the volume of scholarship increases, scholars have less time to absorb it. Scholarly attention is a rare and precious commodity.
In addition, governments, funding bodies, and universities (such as the University of California) are demanding that publicly-supported, published research be available beyond the academy. This is what’s called Open Access, and the movement is growing: a European Commission study of international journals found that 40% of peer-reviewed journal articles published from 2004 to 2011 are now available online.
I’m not suggesting an end to the reflective, careful, curated scholarship of established journals or academic presses. What I am suggesting is that we also support alternative ways of communicating knowledge to our peers, ways that are responsive to the pressures of today. This alternative form of scholarly publication would include scholarship expressed in a variety of forms that would include text, but also audio-visual media. It would draw on the scholarship being published directly to the Internet. It would move quickly, vacuuming up this knowledge as soon as it is posted. And it would make up for our inability to keep track of all of this new knowledge by using computing to give priority that which is valuable, making visible that which is most worthy of our attention.
New arrivals to Congress 2014 can pursue this alternative publication path. My colleagues in digital humanities have embraced scholarly blogging, and a recently launched Web site, “Digital Humanities Now”, takes advantage of this method of communication, drawing from informally published, digital content. It typically collects about 400 items a day, giving priority to blog posts over 1,000 words. Articles aren’t sent to the journal; the journal vacuums them up from the Internet.
It gathers these with the help of a database of digital humanists’ Web sites, and algorithms that aggregate their newly-posted articles, and the tweets (from Twitter) that point to these articles. It tracks the number of times that an article is posted or tweeted, and gives priority to those that are given attention by the community. Tweets, and retweets about an article by members of the digital humanities community are a kind of peer review-this is an article that is drawing interest and attention. In this way, articles are read and assessed not by two or three reviewers, but by a community numbering in the hundreds or thousands. And that is happening after the article has been “published”, not before.
A friend recently gave a paper at a conference and posted the paper the same day to her blog. At the conference, members of the audience tweeted some of her insights as she presented them. As those tweets were shared with others, they connected to the paper published online. Others began blogging about the paper and community interest and reflection on her topic grew. Within hours the paper and presentation were rising to the top of the “Digital Humanities Now” community list. Within days of her presentation, my colleague’s paper was published in this community-reviewed, and then peer-reviewed journal.
SCHOLARSHIP IN THE DIGITAL AGE-COMMUNICATE
The main challenge to this kind of scholarly publication is that everything is happening in the open. We are used to carefully preparing our research in the privacy of our offices, and then presenting the finished product to our colleagues, and only then sharing it with the public.
Public lectures have been an established forum for this kind of knowledge sharing. At the Congress of 1996 I attended the “Learned Societies Congress Speakers Series”, what we now call the “Big Thinking Lecture Series”. We’ve written books for popular audiences, or worked with government agencies to generate historical plaques. On rare occasions our research becomes the focus of a CBC Ideas series.
But the careful boundaries that we have established between our research and the public make less sense to a new arrival to Congress in 2014. In the early years of the Internet, we thought it would be a vehicle for consumption; after all, we lived in a consumer culture. It is, but we underestimated the degree to which it would be about creation-48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. We also underestimated the degree to which it would be about relationships-each day 700 million people log onto Facebook to see what their friends are up to, and to share with their friends what they’re up to. This is the environment in which young scholars have grown up.
We live in what Henry Jenkins has called a “participatory culture”. Lots of people connected with one another, creating content. Much of it, I’ll admit again, is about cats. But there’s good, thoughtful, important stuff in there, too: amateur science, citizen journalism, fan fiction writing.
James Paul Gee has called the producers of this kind of knowledge “professional amateurs”. These citizen scholars are rarely credentialed or paid. They do history, economics, or sociology because they love to. And they are intelligent, motivated, and curious, claiming expertise in areas where a single researcher, and even a group of researchers, might be lacking. And in many cases they are delighted to contribute to our research.
Where is this happening? In science, it’s well established. Recently, an online game called “Foldit” drew gamers from around the world together to solve a major problem that scientists had worked on for more than a decade. It took gamers around the world 3 weeks. This is often called crowdsourcing research.
In the social sciences and humanities, where we study culture, societies, and relationships in those societies, we can crowdsource knowledge-transcribing written diaries or contributing to population databases. But we can go beyond allowing others to contribute to a predefined research project and instead provide opportunities for citizen scholars to be co-creators of knowledge.
What does this look like? Let’s go back to digital archives. Within days of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, scholars at Northeastern University had created The Boston Bombing Digital Archive as a place where citizens could add pictures, videos, stories and social media about the attacks. Or let’s go back to Hypercities. The Egyptian revolution of 2011 which brought an end to Hosni Mubaraks’ regime has been called the “Twitter Revolution”, because of the way Twitter and Facebook were used to organize and bring international attention to the protests. With this in mind, a Hypercity was created that linked a twitter stream recorded during demonstrations to a map, illustrating where those who were organizing, and tweeting, were located at different moments during the protest.
We could say that this is a way of creating new audiences, and it is. But it goes much further than that. It allows for a new kind of relationship with our communities. We are no longer mysterious wizards hidden in ivory towers; we are especially skilled, especially knowledgeable members of larger communities of interest. Of course, this kind of relationship won’t make sense in every domain. But I believe it’s required in others.
In history, for instance, if we don’t do this, it will be done for us. In my own research, I’ve created iPhone-enabled walking tours of the villages of Niagara-on-the-Lake and Queenston that take tourists back to life in the early nineteenth century. These apps can now be opened up so that users could add their own knowledge of history, and share that with others. Next year Google will release Google Glass, augmented reality glasses that provide the wearer with information relevant to her time and place. Interested in the facade on that church? A speaker tucked behind your ear will tell you about the architect. Talk about knowledge “without boundaries”. And how is Google marketing these glasses? With an app called “Field Trip”. Where does that information you’ll hear come from? Google is an advertising company, so mostly from people who want to sell you things. We could do better.
Next year, when information is available on the inside of our glasses as we walk down the street, will social sciences and humanities scholars be contributing to it? Will we be integral to the many others spaces where knowledge is being created and shared? And if our work is occurring in the open, for all to see, will it still be scholarship?
If the answer is yes, we need to provide space for new ways of practicing the social sciences and humanities. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we adopt these exact models of research, writing, publishing, and communicating. In a few months some of the methods, tools, and practices I’ve described will already be out of date. As with everything now, it’s in flux. Nor, to be clear, am I saying that we should stop researching in libraries and archives, stop writing articles, stop publishing in time-honoured journals, or stop communicating via long-established outlets. These ways of being have served us well for generations.
What I am suggesting is that we make room within the academy for both established and new methods. Let’s enlarge the boundaries so that: a close analysis of our archival sources can be accompanied by a distant reading of vast datasets; writing with text goes hand in hand with digital maps, audio, video and other forms of digital expression; publishing with a reflective, time-intensive peer review goes together with publishing that which is most valued in an online community; and creation of knowledge by scholars alone is accompanied by the sharing or even co-creating of knowledge with citizen scholars.
Let’s make room for both these new and established methods in a scholarly way. The new paradigm defined around digital media and the Internet means that knowledge exists in a world of limitless boundaries. But scholarship requires boundaries. We see that tension in our English title-“borders, without boundaries”. So we need to determine what to keep-what borders to guard-and where to experiment-what boundaries to push past.
The Royal Society of Canada could play a special role here. When I was discussing this matter with my colleague and your fellow member, Gary Libben, he noted that new inductees to the Royal Society are not lauded primarily for the number of positions they’ve held, or simply the number of books or articles they’ve written, or the number of research dollars they’ve been awarded. They are lauded primarily for their imaginative thinking, experimental methods, and creative problem-solving. Fellows think differently. They know what boundaries to guard, and which to push past, moving their research fields in directions these wouldn’t otherwise have gone.
As the social sciences and humanities move forward in the digital age we need your wisdom and guidance. We also need you to work alongside those scholars who are experimenting with how we research, write, publish, and communicate. They’re eager to experiment, but worry about getting hired, tenured, and promoted. Let’s together ask questions of our practice, and together determine where to be imaginative and experimental in our answers. Let’s engage together in the practice of critical reflection that has powered the social sciences and humanities in the past, and will propel them into the future.
I remember well Brock’s last Congress, in 1996. I’ve got a good idea of what it will be like in 2014. Let’s imagine what Congress, indeed what the social science and humanities, will look like, when Congress returns to Brock… in 2032. Let’s together imagine a social sciences and humanities with scholarly borders, but limitless boundaries.