Friday, January 12, 2018

Ted Underwood on Cultural Analytics and Liberal Education [#DH]

Ted Underwood was scheduled to speak at the 2017 MLA convention at a session on “Varieties of Digital Humanities”. However, his flight to New York got cancelled, so he posted his presentation, “A broader purpose” online at his blog, The Stone and the Shell. He began by distinguishing his interest, cultural analytics – “using numbers to understand cultural history” – from digital humanities in general, pointing out that it has a long pedigree with roots predating and independent of the recent digital humanities.

His general point is the cultural analytics cannot be contained within the humanities nor can it adequately be taught as a unit in a course on the digital humanities. What is required is “sequence of courses that guides them through basic principles (of statistical inference as well as historical interpretation)”. Consequently,
I think the courses that can really open doors to cultural analytics are found, right now, in the social sciences. That’s why I recently moved half of my teaching to a School of Information Sciences. There, you find a curricular path that covers statistics and programming along with social questions about technology. I don’t think it’s an accident that you also find better gender and ethnic diversity among people using numbers in the social sciences. Methods get distributed more equally within a discipline that actually teaches the methods. So I recommend fusing cultural analytics with social science partly because it immediately makes this field more diverse. I’m not offering that as a sufficient answer to problems of access. I welcome other answers too. But I am suggesting that social-scientific methods are a necessary part of access. We cannot lower barriers to entry by continuing to pretend that cultural analytics is just the humanities, plus some user-friendly digital tools. That amounts to a trompe-l’oeil door.
Yes. To put it bluntly: “To use numbers wisely, students need preparation that an English major doesn’t provide.“

Though here I do have a caveat. In talking about the social sciences Underwood emphasizes statistics, as though that were the defining characteristic of the social sciences. He neglects theory – yes, there is (lower case) theory in the social sciences – and experimental design, which, in effect, is where theory meets statistics.

During my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins I took a course in social theory taught by Arthur Stinchcombe, one of those courses intended for both advanced undergraduates and entering graduate students. I remember we had to read a big fat book of essays by Robert Merton which included his classic 1949 article, “On Sociological Theories of the Middle Range”. And we had write a term paper in which we, 1) picked some ‘middle range’ phenomenon (or smaller) for investigation, 2) proposed two or three possible explanations, and 3) devised two or three empirical tests, or experiments, that would discriminate between the proposed explanations. The interesting thing about the assignment is that we phenomenon we choose could be real OR imaginary. Stinchcombe didn’t care which. He was interested in our ability to come up with testable explanations and derive empirical observations against which those explanations could be tested. That too – theorizing that has testable consequences – is important in the social sciences.

Setting that aside, notice that Underwood talks of the undergraduate English major. That’s where the preparation must be done, at the undergraduate level. He concludes:
Instead of imagining cultural analytics as a subfield of DH, I would almost call it an emerging way to integrate the different aspects of a liberal education. People who want to tackle that challenge are going to have to work across departments to some extent: it’s not a project that an English department could contain. But it is nevertheless an important opportunity for literary scholars, since it’s a place where our work becomes central to the broader purposes of the university as a whole.
Forget the “almost”. It IS “an emerging way to integrate the different aspects of a liberal education.” On the one hand we the analysis and description of literary texts in the broader context of literary history. On the other hand we’ve got general social theory, experimental method, and statistical analysis. The combination might actually lead to powerful new modes of thought and exploration.

But how many graduate programs in literature would be imaginative and generous enough to educate students with such undergraduates preparation?

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