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At any cocktail party, it is easier to be a lawyer than a digital humanist, as it requires more effort to describe what a digital humanist does. And for vast majority of people, it is less about what digital humanities (DH) can deliver to enhance our understanding of medieval culture; but it is more about the role that DH can play in a practice-oriented world. Two separate works by Gleason and Rogers aim to examine how graduate and undergraduate education of DH can be shaped to contain some relevance in preparing student for non-academic jobs. The third work by Mohany and Tiedau examines how the technically-demanding massive DH projects should push the boundaries of Open Education Practice, hence creating a potential “spillover effect” of DH works that can be appreciated by the non DH practitioners.

Principle vs Practicality

Poking fun at liberal art majors on the internet is hardly a new thing, and the lack of portion on the training of transferable skills in a typical humanities degree program is partly the cause. In his work, Gleason discussed the proposal of a DH bachelor program in DH at Wentworth Institute of Technology (WIT). Finding the right balance between principle and practicality is crucial in designing such program. Gleason explained how the project-based nature of the DH training and the inclusion of cooperative education scheme will improve the employability of the graduates. But if the graduates are to call themselves humanities degree holders, then the traditional aspects of humanities training (to prepare the students to take an active part in civic life) should not be overshadowed by the technicality. After all, he claimed that the program will be more about bringing humanities to technology and not the other way around.

Graduate humanities programs, which traditionally aim to train students for a professoriate career, have also its fair (if not more) share of scepticism. The overproduction of PhDs coupled with the sluggish move by the educational institution to restructure their programs contributes to the predicaments faced by many postgraduate degree holders in humanities. The work by Rogers investigates how a DH graduate program can be improved with regard to this matter. By studying advanced degree holders that worked outside academia, he found that 74% of them initially aimed to enter academia. Moreover, majority of them were confident that academia is the career path that they want to pursue. On the matters of the preparation for non-academic career provided by their institutions, only 18% reported that they are satisfied with the preparations. Surveys targeting the employers of advanced humanities degree holders reveal that they value a specific set of skills, such as collaboration, project management, and communicating with varied audiences. These skills however are either neglected or underrepresented in a typical humanity doctoral program. Rogers advocates the inclusion and increasing the training portion of these skills into doctoral program, as it would also benefit those who pursue academic career.

Spillover effect

State funding for humanities research, like any other research funding, is subjected to congress approval  (and some occasional long-hour filibusters). And like any other fields, it is subjected to harsh amount of scepticism. Questions on how such research may benefit taxpayers in general are inevitable. Mahony and Tiedau suggest a new manner on how DH research can potentially benefit the society other than expanding our pool of knowledge. The high technical requirement of typical DH projects, combined with its massive scale, demands a sophisticated collaboration mechanism and engineering specifications. This, they argue, will result in spillover effect in field like Open Educational Practices (OEP). This idea draws analogy to precision engineering in space exploration. In 1970, Ernst Tuhlinger ( then NASA Associate Director) was asked by a nun on why the federal government spends a huge sum of money for space exploration that provides no direct benefit for mankind. His epic reply to the nun explains not only how in the long run investment in space exploration will pay its dividend, but also on how NASA high technical requirement has given birth to a new level of engineering sophistication. Similarly, the nature of technical requirement and the massive size of a typical DH projects will push the boundaries of OEP to a new unprecedented level. OEP, together with Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC), allow education to be more affordable and accessible for all. And in the world where inequality of access to education has impeded social mobility, the potential DH contribution to OEP can be used to overcome the scepticism aimed at the value of DH itself.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the works by Gleason and Rogers underline the importance of balancing principle and practicality in DH education. Accommodating both the spirit of the liberal arts education and that of the practice oriented programming world is the challenge faced by the educational institutions nowadays. In the research domain, the work by Mahony and Tiedau shed light on how DH research projects can “indirectly” tackle the problems in inequality and social mobility, a good point to include in any DH research grant proposals. By balancing the principle and the practicality, and with the spillover effect it creates, DH should be able to gain more appreciation from people outside its community.

Reference:

1. Gleason, Christopher Scott. “DH@WIT: Digital Humanities for Undergraduate Design, Engineering, and Management Students”. http://dh2013.unl.edu/abstracts/ab-215.html

2. Rogers, Katina Lynn. “From Anecdote to Data: Humanities Scholars Beyond the Tenure Track”. http://dh2013.unl.edu/abstracts/ab-145.html

3. Mahony, Simon; and Tiedau, Ulrich. “Should the Digital Humanities be taking a lead in Open Access and Online Teaching Materials?”. http://dh2013.unl.edu/abstracts/ab-283.html

4. Weissman, Jordan. “Why Haven’t Humanities Ph.D. Programs Collapsed?” http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/09/why-havent-humanities-phd-programs-collapsed/279733/

5. The Economist, “The disposable academics.” http://www.economist.com/node/17723223

6. Taylor, Mark.”Reform the PhD system or close it down”. http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/full/472261a.html

7. http://www.france24.com/en/20130925-usa-republican-senator-attacks-obamacare-21-hour-speech

8. http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/08/why-explore-space.html

9. The Economist, “Will MOOCs Kill University Degrees?” http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/10/economist-explains

10. The Economist. “Social mobility in America: Repairing the rungs on the ladder.” http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21571417-how-prevent-virtuous-meritocracy-entrenching-itself-top-repairing-rungs

11. Mooney, Chris, and Viskontas, Indre.” Could This 2013 Nobel Laureate Afford College Today?”. http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/could-this-2013-nobel-laureate-afford-college-today/280557/

12.The Economist, “Free Exchange: Nomencracy.” http://www.economist.com/node/21571399

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