[Here is the extended dance remix version of the talk I gave at the 2010 American Studies Association panel on “Facing New Technologies, Exploring New Challenges.”]
We seem to be anxious about the future—heck, the present—of the humanities. Consider budget cuts such as those at SUNY-Albany and in the UK, the horrible job market, the declining number of majors, and the frequent appearance of articles with titles like “Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?”
Instead of focusing on the present in this panel on “Facing New Technologies, Exploring New Challenges,” I’d like to zoom forward twenty years using a process called scenario planning. Essentially, a scenario is a brief story about the future. By working through such stories, organizations can look at the proverbial big picture and devise strategies for facing critical uncertainties in future environments, such as the nature of technological change, the state of higher education, and globalization. (Given its emphasis on storytelling and interpretation, scenario planning seems like an approach at home in the humanities.)
Recently both the Association of Research Libraries and the Association of College and Research Libraries issued reports about the future of libraries based on scenario planning. (You might have noticed that libraries are also anxious as they face the transition to digital information.) My favorite of the genre is the Library of New South Wales’ The Bookends Scenarios, both because it confronts larger challenges such as climate change and because it leavens gloominess with imagination and humor, such as: “Book by James Lovelock Jnr claims that 98% of human race will be extinct by 2100; 78% of people say they wish James Lovelock Jnr would become extinct by 2029.”
Although scenario planning has its skeptics, I can testify to the ways that it can help people break out of their typical ways of seeing and stimulate their imaginations. Just this week, my library held a retreat based on the ARL 2030 Scenarios. Despite some grumbling about the unlikelihood of any of the scenarios coming to pass, participants did think deeply and creatively about risks and opportunities facing academic libraries as research becomes more global, entrepreneurial, and data driven. The scenarios sparked conversation.
Today I’d like to put forward three scenarios for the future of the humanities. I’m mashing together the aforementioned library scenarios with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Scenarios for the Future of Technology and International Development and Bryan Alexander’s “Stories of the Future: Telling Scenarios,” as well as a dash of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. A few caveats: 1) I’m notoriously bad at predicting the future. (I really thought I would enjoy treats whipped up by a robot chef by now). 2) The scenarios are compressed and partial. 3) The future will most likely not be any one of these scenarios, although it may contain elements of some of them. 4) A diverse community rather than a quirky individual should develop and think through future scenarios.
I aim to open up a conversation, not have the final word. (It might be useful for an organization such as CenterNet, the Association for Computers and the Humanities or the NEH to take on this exercise in earnest.) The core question that I want to explore: how can we transform the humanities so that they continue to be relevant in twenty years–so that they “survive the 21st century”?
In defining these scenarios, I am considering several “critical uncertainties”:
- Teaching and learning: As distance education becomes more dominant, what will humanities education look like?
- Funding sources: Where will money for humanities research come from, especially as public funding is under stress?
- Research methods: How will the availability of huge amounts of data (for instance, the 12+ million volumes in Google Books) affect the way humanities research is conducted?
- Knowledge production and dissemination: How will research be communicated? Will there be free and open access to information, or will it be available only to the highest bidder?
- Environmental, social, political, technological and cultural changes: What will be the impact of climate change, peak oil, population growth, resource depletion, economic challenges, developments in technology, and globalization on the world?
Based on these uncertainties, I’ve whipped up three scenarios. (To conform to the genre, I should offer four, but I can only cram so much into a 12 minute presentation).
I. A New Renaissance
i. Summary: Through broad, sustained investment in education, the world enjoys greater equity and opportunity. Interdisciplinary research and international cooperation have led to progress on resolving many challenges, including climate change, political conflict, and resource depletion.
ii. Research: Humanities scholars are valued for bringing critical understanding to large amounts of data. In collaboration with computer scientists and librarians, humanities scholars devise methods to mine large humanities databases, coming up with new questions and insights that cross disciplinary and linguistic divides. Humanities (and digital humanities) centers help to coordinate much of this activity. Through efforts by leading scholars and scholarly organizations, tenure and promotion guidelines have been broadened to recognize a wide range of work, including scholarly multimedia, online dialogues, and curated content.
iii. Teaching: Blended learning has become common, with lectures and exercises delivered online and face-to-face time reserved for discussion and collaborative research. Faculty act as guides and mentors for networked research projects that engage students around the world in producing new knowledge. The humanities provide crucial training in curating, contextualizing and interpreting large amounts of data, as well as in critically examining individual objects.
iv. Scholarly communication: Research is openly available, speeding the pace of discovery and spreading ideas widely. To capture the complexities of their research, scholars produce multimodal scholarship that incorporates video, audio, visualizations, maps, etc.
2. Humanities, Inc.
i. Summary: As the United States faces economic crises, public funding for education and research erodes. People feel both overwhelmed by information and hungry for whatever supports their own perspective. Political conflict erupts around the world as a result of resource depletion and climate change, prompting the US to go into a defensive crouch.
ii. Research: To the extent that research is funded, the money mostly comes from corporations, often with strings attached. Researchers no longer have tenured positions at universities, but move from contract to contract. By necessity, researchers focus on “what pays?” However, some scholars work with the public to produce crowdsourced humanities research.
iii. Teaching: Most undergraduate education is offered through distance education; students choose from a menu of choices rather than attending a particular institution. Instruction mostly focuses on vocational skills. A few elite institutions remain and offer face-to-face instruction for the very wealthy. Teachers, most of whom are employed by private companies, teach classes with several hundred people, leaving no time for research. Except for a few “rock stars,” the academic labor force is contingent.
iv. Scholarly communication: Except for crowdsourced information, most research is available only to those individuals and communities who pay for it.
c. After the Fall
i. Summary: The devastating effects of climate change, energy shortages, and economic recession prompt a return to localism, so that local communities provide for most of people’s needs. Some areas have descended into chaos or totalitarianism, run by bandits or warlords. But others have developed democratic local solutions—microindustries, local power grids, community gardens, co-ops. Despite the scarcity of energy and frequent power outages, people occasionally are able to access and share information on the Internet, but travel becomes rare. The humanities provide a respite from day-to-day drudgery and a source of perspective and wisdom.
ii. Research: Scholars become research hackers, devising solutions to problems both by studying past folkways and by surveying what other communities are doing now. They are resourceful in retrieving information however they can, taking full advantage of the time when they can access the Internet. There is a renewed appreciation for aesthetics, for well-made or meaningful objects. Humanities centers focus on bridging different interests groups working in the humanities, including secondary education and local cultural organizations.
iii. Teaching: Although much education focuses on core skills such as literacy, craftsmanship, and agriculture, humanists are valued as wisdom keepers and curators of knowledge, distilling what is important on and passing on cultural appreciation.
iv. Scholarly communication: Given the unreliability of the electrical grid, print becomes valued for its stability. Scholars frequently participate in public conversations in their communities.
So how can the humanities prepare for these possible futures?
1. Adapt! Engage with and understand technology’s role in the humanities. Like it or not, technology is shaping our future—both how we do our research and, increasingly, how learning is delivered. Thus we should experiment with new models for teaching, peer review, research, and scholarly communication. For example, the Center for History and New Media have been doing some fascinating experiments to challenge the slow pace of academia and, perhaps even more importantly, create community, whether by crowdsourcing a book or creating a piece of software in a week. Likewise, the Looking for Whitman project is linking together college classrooms in the study of Walt Whitman and engaging students in producing public scholarship. (Whitman would approve, I think.) We need to make visible the value of this kind of work.
2. Cooperate! Support collaborative, interdisciplinary research. Such collaboration should occur on many levels: across professional roles, departments, universities, and community organizations. Greg Crane recently made a compelling case that “We need better ways to understand the cultures that drive economic and political systems upon which our biological lives depend.” To do that, as Crane argues,we need to ask good questions about the connections among cultures, foster dialogue, collaborate with scholars from a range of cultural backgrounds, and make scholarship widely available. AWe also need to devise ways of dealing with masses of data, both through developing computational approaches and by opening up research opportunities to students and volunteers.
Humanities centers (working in collaboration with libraries and with scholarly organizations) should play a lead role in supporting cross-disciplinary research and in communicating that research to the public. As I found in a recent research project on collaboration in the digital humanities, many humanities departments still do not know how to evaluate collaborative work for tenure and promotion; this should change. Likewise, recognition and support should be given to those in “alternative academic careers”—librarians, technologists, administrators, researchers, and others who are key players in digital humanities initiatives.
3. Open! Reform scholarly communication so that it is open, multimodal, participatory, and high quality. If we want to convince the public of the value of the humanities, then we shouldn’t make it prohibitively expensive for them to access scholarship. Rather, we should come up with sustainable models for scholars to share their research and participate in visible scholarly conversations.
4. Evangelize! Advocate for the value of the humanities—and indeed of research and education generally. In particular, I encourage you to support 4humanities, a new web site and initiative to advocate for the humanities. Launched by a collective that is coordinated by Alan Liu (I’m proud to be a member), 4humanities leverages the expertise of the digital humanities community to provide tools, media and resources for promoting for the humanities.
The key point that I want to emphasize is the importance of community in facing challenges/opportunities, as well as in advocating for the humanities. (This idea was developed collectively by our ASA panel—Haven Hawley, Charles Reagan Wilson, Elena Razlogova, and myself– during a breakfast gathering to plan our session.) I think digital humanities scholars/practitioners have been pretty successful in building community, using both networked technologies such as blogs and Twitter and face-to-face gatherings such as THATCamp to connect people, ideas and action. But we can do more. Let’s get moving!