Marisol Fila

In this post I would like to comment on the Lisa Spiro’s article “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities” in order to think in the possibilities of applying the set of values that she proposes for the Digital Humanities to the practice of academic history.

Spiro starts by questioning the idea of a sense of community among the Digital Humanities practitioners. She thinks that is necessary a discussion on the values that connect and hold in common the digital humanists. The question of the values comes after the acknowledgment of the interdisciplinary character of what can be thought as Digital Humanities, and the consequential impossibility of having a fixed definition of what it is, what are their methods and approaches. Rather than ontologically defining the digital humanities community, she looks to do it through the sets of practices and values that its practitioners have in common, in concordance with its goals. In her own words,

“rather than debating who is in and who is out, the DH community needs to develop a keener sense of what it stands for and what is at stake in its work”.

Nevertheless, the definition of this set of values can also foreclose future understandings, methodologies and practices. In this sense, the flexible aspect of the proposed values statement needs to be, for Spiro, a sine qua non condition. She is not trying to propose ethical guidelines that the digital community needs to follow, but rather, a flexible and collaborative set of values that allows the space to “inspire and to help an organization set of priorities, defining what it holds most important”. At the same time, having this statement of values will help to frame - but not to settle - debates in the digital humanities and to provide grounds for conversation.

One of the characteristics that this values statement needs to have is to be produced by its own community of practitioners, and not to come down on high from a “selected committee” of members. The production and discussion of these common values needs to be done in horizontal and collaborative spaces, that privilege openness, self-reflection, and that help the profession to mature. But, where to set the ground for opening the discussion of these values? For Spiro, “the values of the humanities provide the foundation for the digital humanities”. Nevertheless, the general values of the humanities often differ with the professional values of academic humanities. She finds that the latter focus more

“on asserting the importance of scholarly authority and professional identity than on how scholars work and what they do for society”.

In this sense, the emphasis on professional authority and specialization is at odds with the collaborative, crowdsourced approaches that digital humanities stands for. So, to think and re-elaborate these values in the Internet age, in a networked age where “information is not a commodity to be controlled but a social good to be shared and reused” is the goal of her article. In her own words,

“grounded in humanistic values but catalyzed by Internet values, the digital humanities seeks to push the humanities into new territory by promoting collaboration, openness, and experimentation”.

With an aim to open a conversation, Spiro proposes a list of values for the digital humanities community. To think about them, she draws mostly from manifestos, model statements of values and her own analysis of the rhetoric of the digital humanities. So, what are these proposed values? The first one is openness, as it “operates on several levels in the digital humanities, describing a commitment to the open exchange of ideas, the development, of open content and software, and transparency”. Openness is followed by collaboration, emphasizing in the creation and maintenance of collaborative spaces with an aim of building a new kind of communal behavior. The embrace of collaboration is and should be grounded in the intrinsic diversity of the digital humanities community. The third posed value is collegiality and connectedness. The promotion of contributions among the different members and the offer of help to those who need it, defines this value. Diversity is then affirmed, as it recognizes the digital humanities community multiply represented across disciplines. Lastly, experimentation is introduced, and its emphasis on “risk taking, entrepreneurship, and innovation”. In this sense,

“for the digital humanities community, experimentation suggests not only a method of testing ideas and creating knowledge but also its engagement in transforming traditional approaches to teaching and research”.

As previously mentioned, the list of values that Spiro is offering operates as the starter of an open conversation that may help on crafting a more coherent identity for the Digital Humanities. As she says, “what defines a profession is not only what it does, but also what it upholds and how it practices ‘professional responsibility’”.Is it possible to think these values beyond the space of Digital Humanities as Spiro is urging and to extend them to a broader thought and reflection of the own practice of academics in the humanities? As she says, “to some extend, some digital humanities values may clash with the norms of the academy”. Do they? I think that sadly, the answer is a positive one. As mentioned earlier on this post, the professional values of academic humanities are still defined by specialization, scholarly authority and mostly, an individualistic approach to the object of study. The lack of collaborative spaces among the academic humanities is unfortunately, still predominant. Contributing to it are the universities’ intellectual property policies, and also the “humanities departments (that) favor solo work in their tenure and promotion policies”. Nevertheless, not only institutional policies are limiting the practice of historians, but also an ongoing emphasis on scholarly authority, that is skeptical to a more collaborative and inclusive work. Lamentably, in my own understanding of the state of the things, nowadays interdisciplinarity is only working on an individual level and foreclosing open and collaborative spaces that may enrich in several levels the academic practice.

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