Yesterday’s New York Times included this paean to MOOCs by Tom Friedman, fan of all things techy even if he does not understand their implications very well. MOOCs (massive open online courses) were one of the topics covered in a very lively workshop (or symposium) I organized last Friday on “Digital Humanities.” I think MOOCs are swell but I don’t think online lectures are teaching. They’re lecturing, which is not the same thing.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The workshop (or symposium, which sounds a little too Platonic to me), started with four short presentations on varying aspects of the digital world and its impact on the humanities. Dan Rosenberg of the University of Oregon gave a lovely riff on the term “data” and its numerous ramifications. The term “data” to refer to pieces of information emerged in English in the seventeenth century; “data” comes from the Latin “dare,” to give, whereas “fact” comes from “facere,” to do or make. Data are givens, and rhetorical as opposed to the ontological fact. Patrick McCray of UC-Santa Barbara talked about “big data” and how it has been used in sciences such as astronomy, noting increasingly complex organizational structures (according to this recent piece in Perspectives on History, historians’ organization of data is rather lacking in technological expertise). He asked the important question of how data relates to our identity as historians.
I talked about Google books and the N-gram, again raising some of the points I had made here. I went on to talk about the claim that history needs to be more rigorous and scientific, and what that might mean, pointing out that some of these critiques are not new, but that now more than ever we need to communicate what it is that historians actually do. Rob Iliffe, who gave a wonderful keynote talk the day before on the Newton Project, declared that the impact of digitization in the humanities meant the end of close reading and the end of the life of the mind, turning libraries into “information hubs.” “Modern books, “ he announced, “are museological artefacts,” and (my favorite bon mot) “presence is a fetish.” But his conclusions were not all gloom and doom. We humanists are on the edge of a brave new world, and we need to seize it and shape it – and in so doing rearticulate the value of the humanities to an increasingly skeptical world. The two hours of passionate discussion that followed did not resolve anything but gave this “bibliobimbo” a lot to think about.