August 19, 2013 by Amanda Visconti

Thinking Through Making: More Precedents for Scholarly Experimentation as Critical Work

I've written previously about how experiments and new methods with textual editions and tools function as scholarly arguments; in this post I'll give a few more examples of how experimental humanities building beyond digital editions can act as critical argument. I'll also discuss precedents for dissertational making as scholarship that doesn't require duplication in monograph form. Hoping these provide a starting place for others building an argument for starting similarly practice-focused dissertations!

Speculative computing and timely experiments

“Speculative computing” is a flavor of digital humanities that emphasizes the subjective, the aesthetic, and the non-computational in humanities computing work. While on the one hand relying on an experimental or provocational approach somewhat unfamiliar to the traditional humanist, speculative computing is a response to what humanists saw as the loss of subjectivity and aesthetics experienced by the humanities as it came into contact with the algorithms, code, and objectivity of computer science (Drucker, Johanna. Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing. University of Chicago Press, 2009.) (Burdick, Anne, et al. Digital_Humanities. MIT Press, 2012.). A similar approach, speculative design, imagines future challenges and opportunities—as with my designing a digital edition that could handle a hypothetical public wildly interested in annotating a complex text—and builds design solutions both imbued with theoretical innovation and the possibility of future utility (Lukens, Jonathan and Carl DiSalvo. “Speculative Design and Technological Fluency”. IJLM 3.4 (2012). 23-40.).

Less speculative, more immediately applicable experimental work is routinely pursued by major digital humanities centers such as my workplace, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. As DH centers moved from sites of service to sites of inquiry over the past twenty years, so too has humanities work shifted to include digital projects not just as means to literary understanding, but as embodying literary arguments themselves. In addition to the larger projects pursued by DH centers, smaller interventions by individuals and student groups are also common in the digital humanities; Jean Bauer’s DAVILA is a digital overlay for DH project databases that reveals the critical choices inherent in relational database structure to non-developers, and the Praxis Program’s Prism visualizes the intersection of many interpretations of a common text.

Precedents for dissertational making as scholarship

While dissertations focused on experiments (such as medical studies or the creation of a programming language aimed at a specific computing problem) are fairly normal in non-humanities fields, a dissertation that centers itself on building as much as mine does—building that does not also require a complete doubling of work effort in the form of an accompanying book-length dissertation—is still rare within the humanities (although monographs plus digital building work has become fairly normal). This is not at all to say that such work is without precedent, of course—coding as scholarly work is largely an accepted method within the field of digital humanities. It's digital building within the strictures of the dissertation that has yet to acquire methodological normalcy, for reasons ranging from the values of the granting body (most humanities PhDs are in non-digitally centered programs such as literature and history, rather than digital humanities departments), to the problems of evaluating non-monograph writing, to the all-too-often real need to conceive one's dissertation as a stepping stone towards a tenure-track teaching job (with the risk of embarking on work that colleagues might not recognize as valid, or not know how to evaluate).

Even in the most traditional literature departments, though, there is a precedent for thesis work focused on producing a scholarly object instead of only a written piece; a dissertation focused on producing a scholarly edition of a literary text has long been accepted as a valid final product (I imagine the same is true in other humanities fields such as history). To illustrate the trend toward dissertations deeply intertwined with their digital components, consider a current and a former member of my department (the English Department at the University of Maryland): my advisor Matthew Kirschenbaum’s 1999 digital dissertation was the first at the University of Virginia and one of the first in the country, and UMD alumna Tanya Clement’s 2009 dissertation made strong use of digital editing and modeling tools. My diverse background in information science, web design/development, and user studies helps me pursue what is, for a humanities dissertation, a non-traditional but effective and historically inevitable method of inquiry. In my next post, I'll discuss the current conversation around non-traditional (i.e. non-monograph) forms of scholarly production: do all digital scholarly objects require a written narrative, or do some projects incorporate analysis without a side serving of text?

I successfully defended my digital humanities doctoral dissertation in Spring 2015. The now-available Infinite Ulysses social+digital reading platform is part of that project; come read with us!