Playing Well With Others

One of the sharper distinctions between the digital humanities and traditional scholars is an acceptance and emphasis on collaboration. Lisa Spiro has written several convincing posts that detail how scholars in the digital humanities are far more likely to work together and co-author essays, along with some examples of collaborative projects. At the NEH’s Office for Digital Humanities, the first requirement for applying to a grant for a fellowship at a Digital Humanities Center is to: “support innovative collaboration on outstanding digital research projects.” Meanwhile, many disciplines within the humanities cling to the notion of the individual scholar. Cathy Davidson of HASTAC tells the story of job-seeking and being told that collaborative work didn’t “count” as legitimate scholarship: “I felt like Hester Prynne wearing her Scarlet A . . . for Adulterous Authorship.” The academy remains enamored with putting a single face and a single name to research; the vast majority of the annual prizes given by the AHA are presented to individual historians for individual work.

The reasons for this distinction are easy to understand. Most digital humanities initiatives are inherently multidisciplinary. There are those among us lucky or hard-working enough to possess both “soft” humanistic talent and “hard” technical skills, but for the majority of us it is much more efficient and effective to split the workload of multiple, and often very different, approaches between more than one person. Why spend six months trying to master the intricacies of MySQL when you can team up with a colleague who already knows how to implement it? Teaming up with other people across disciplines is a form of self-preservation that saves everyone time and energy.

Another reason for the distinction often stems from the basic nature of the projects - many digital humanists have focused on building tools, online collections, and interactive media. Whereas as most academic monographs are aimed at an audience of fellow academics, these projects are inherently designed with a broader public in mind. With that overarching goal, collaboration during the production phase becomes an almost instinctive (and necessary) pursuit. Similarly, scholarly specialization leads to (often) intense intellectual turf wars. If you are struggling to make your academic mark on a very specific focus within a very specific sub-field, other people working on that same field can often seem more like a threat than a resource. These jealously guarded barriers are less prevalent within the digital humanities community, given its emphasis on greater transparency and a broader scope of study.

This is not to say that traditional humanists are allergic to collaboration. Established (read: tenured) professors are often much more willing to edit volumes, co-author essays, and work together on research projects. When you are a successful author and Harvard historian like Jill Lepore, you can afford to take a chance and co-write a work of historical fiction. An associate professor at a small state school struggling to get tenure? Not so much. Younger scholars are still plagued by the never-ending issue of digital scholarship not “counting” as a valid accomplishment.

Most graduate (particularly Ph.D) programs in the humanities simply do not train their students to play well (or at all) with others. Writing a dissertation is still viewed as an infamously lonesome pursuit. Doing so establishes your credentials as an individual scholar capable of producing original work. Unfortunately, this not only reinforces the conception that anything other than individual research is somehow less valued, but it also does a terrible job of preparing students to do any kind of future collaborative work. Learning how to take notes in an archive or write manuscript chapters are critical skills, but so is learning how to delegate tasks to research partners or co-author a grant proposal.

There is no reason why the traditional humanities cannot begin to embrace scholarly collaboration. Even for those with no interest in digital initiatives, increased collaboration creates a ripple effect. There are the obvious benefits: different perspectives add richness and depth to studies, a division of labor and specialization can lead to greater efficiency, and more collaborators often facilitates future connections across otherwise-insular academic networks. Almost every scholar has the story of a single conversation, comment, or idea from a colleague, friend, or family member sparking a revelation or major advancement in their work. Official collaboration only magnifies this effect, and the academy as a whole would benefit.

Collaboration is not a cure-all, and it presents its own set of quite-formidable challenges. As every high-schooler working on a group project or cubicle-dweller sitting in a meeting can tell you, working with other people can often be a frustrating experience. How do you divide up responsibilities, reconcile different opinions, share both criticism and credit? A professor of literature sitting across the table from a computer scientist will probably have a lot of trouble communicating effectively with each other. All of these issues have the potential to be even sharper inside the humanities, where most scholars have been given little to no official instruction or practical experience in how to work together. Nevertheless, the potential for concerted collaboration to spur on academic discovery within the humanities is simply too high to ignore.