As far as I can tell, most of the debates at digital humanities – what is it? is it complicit in neoliberalism? – are about the position of digital humanities within the academy. These are conversations among scholars about the types of research they do and, less often, the courses they teach. They aren’t about how humanists address the needs and interests of people outside university walls. And yet digital technology, and the web in particular, provides a platform through which scholars can interact with the public at large. And many scholars do that through public-facing blogs. But these activities aren’t much touched upon in the DH debates.
In the most recent interview in her LARB series, Melissa Dinsmore talks with Sharon M. Leon, director of Public Projects at the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University. Her job is to face the public. Here’s some of her remarks.
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Can you elaborate on the differences between digital history and digital public history?
I like to make the distinction between doing history in public and doing public history. I think a lot of scholars doing digital history work are doing that work in public and making it available for an open audience to engage with, but the work of digital public history is actually formed by a specific attention to preparing materials for a particular audience — to address their questions, to engage with them, to target a real conversation with the public about a particular aspect of history. In lots of ways, public history doesn’t look like what a traditional historian would consider to be a scholarly argument; it is a little bit more subtle and much more dialogic. It has a much greater sense of shared authority and it is much less about winning a methodological argument with a community of scholars. I engage the public on the grounds that there are multiple causes of a particular event and multiple historical perspectives for understanding it. The primary difference, however, is that public history is directed at a particular audience. It’s not a “we will build it, they will come, and they might be interested” mentality. Instead, it is “I am going to do research about you, I’m going to find out the kinds of materials and prior knowledge you bring to the topic, and I’m really going to engage you.” ...
Coming back to the relevance question, public history has always been targeted and worked in that direction because it is specifically about engaging the public in a conversation about history. That work has been going on for a long time and the interesting thing about it is that just as digital work sometimes struggles for recognition and authorization in the halls of academia, public history has had a really heavy lift. There’s this weird perception that if one engages with someone who is not a credentialed scholar about scholarly questions, somehow we have diluted our commitment to inquiry. ...
How do you think the general public understands the term “digital humanities” or, more broadly, the digital work being done in the humanities (if at all)?
The public doesn’t understand the term “digital humanities,” but they do understand the work if I frame what I do as “I’m a historian who uses digital tools and methods to answer historical questions.” I think as a field our penetration into the consciousness of the public is almost nonexistent, though I imagine your series might help some. The other way to answer this question is to say that we don’t do nearly enough outreach or evaluation to have any idea what the answer is. What I have learned doing public history work is that you have to prepare, you have to know about your audience going in, you have to do the work, and you have to follow up to find out if they got anything out of it. The majority of DH work only does the middle step. They do the work. And it may not be their goal to learn what the public understands, but I think if we are going to make these claims about public relevance, we have to do all of the steps along the way so that we have some sense about our impact.
My next question has to do with public intellectualism, which many scholars and journalists alike have described as being in decline (for example, Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times essay). What role, if any, do you think digital work plays? Could the digital humanities (or the digital in the humanities) be a much needed bridge between the academy and the public, or is this perhaps expecting too much of a discipline?
The problem of the public intellectual is about the way that intellectuals frame their work for the public. It’s not really about the medium. Writing an op-ed for The New York Times for a historian or a literary scholar or a political scientist is a sort of one-shot deal that will reach a certain number of people. Whereas someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is writing all the time, engaging with really important questions, has a digital presence, and actually does engage with members of the public, is a much more effective public intellectual. But I think there are lots of public intellectuals in local communities that we don’t know anything about because we aren’t in that community. Some of that work is digital work and some of it is not.
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I have a number of posts on citizen science that are relevant here.