Shift for a Digital Humanities Leader – Inside Higher Ed

In 2011, the Modern Language Association created a new office, focused on scholarly communication in the digital age. Kathleen Fitzpatrick is now ending her time leading that office to move to Michigan State University as director of digital humanities and a professor of English. In her role at the MLA and as an author, Fitzpatrick has been a leading voice on digital humanities issues. She answered some questions from Inside Higher Ed about the field and her next steps.


Q: In your blog post on your departure, you noted changes in MLA author agreements to make them more friendly to online sharing. Why is that important? Was it difficult to pull off?


A: It was important for us to find a way to support our members in increasing the impact of their work, and work that is openly available has been demonstrated to receive more attention and more citations than work that is not. But current models for “flipping” subscription-based journals more often than not require authors or their institutions to cover article-processing charges, which risks restricting who can afford to publish. So we decided instead to focus on permitting our authors to deposit preprints without embargo, enabling them to make their work as widely accessible as possible — and even, through Humanities Commons, providing the platform on which they can share that and other work.


Q: You also noted changes in MLA style. MLA is a well-respected arbiter of style — how did you and your colleagues try to deal with digital issues in ways that would promote clarity? Any example come to mind of a challenge?


A: Today’s publishing and communication landscape is both blessed and beset by a proliferating number of formats, and the sources that students and scholars cite in their writing are often available on multiple platforms, each of which may present subtle but important differences. On the one hand, we needed to move away from a structure for MLA style that required us to devise and publicize a new works-cited entry for every new format that came along. On the other, we needed to ensure that authors were able to use their citations to guide future readers to precisely the sources they consulted. As a result, we focused on creating a flexible template that will allow future writers to cite sources that are published in formats we can’t today even imagine, while at the same time providing the specificity that enables those writers to indicate that they are quoting from this text, in this version, found on this platform.


Q: While you were at MLA, the association also worked to promote new ways for departments and colleges to evaluate digital teaching and scholarship, since many of the traditional ways just don’t work. Do you see enough colleges acting on these recommendations, or do you still hear from scholars who are frustrated?


A: I have heard anecdotally from a number of scholars who have told me that their departments or colleges relied on our guidelines for evaluating digital work in rethinking their tenure and promotion guidelines, or in their own particular tenure cases. I hear much less frustration than I used to about institutions failing to accept or recognize or adequately consider digital work, and that’s a great thing.


But there are still concerns out there. I have heard in particular from a number of junior scholars whose digital work — the work they were hired to do — is being included in their tenure portfolios, but who are also expected to put forward a full suite of traditional publications as well, in effect asking them to do double duty. I have also heard of challenges in assessing collaborative work (as committees want to pin down who is responsible for what in projects for which everyone is often responsible for everything), and in selecting external reviewers (as committees want to ensure an arm’s-length objectivity in a field in which broad collaborative relationships are how the work gets done). All of this means that there’s more work ahead, at the levels of both the institution and the discipline, to ensure that review processes really reflect the ways our fields work today.


Q: Many colleges and universities — including many with a lot of activity in the digital humanities — don’t have someone whose job it is to lead those efforts. Do you see more colleges doing this? What does a director of digital humanities do?


A: I haven’t seen other positions quite like this one, but it’s likely that they’re out there under another name or in another structure. Michigan State University has, both within the College of Arts and Letters and across the university’s other colleges, a wealth of programs and centers and initiatives in the digital humanities, but as at many institutions, those units have developed and are administered independently, by and large. The goal for my new position is to bring those units together and to develop a shared, collaborative vision that will enable both parts and whole to thrive.


Q: What are some of the big challenges ahead to encourage continued growth of the digital humanities?


A: There are two major challenges that I have my eye on right now, though no doubt there are many others. The first is sustainability: over the last decade, support has been available for the development of new tools and platforms to enable digital scholarship — but now that software all needs to be maintained and updated, and doing so requires ongoing resources of a kind that aren’t usually compelling to funding agencies. So in the same way that we have long encouraged scholars to think (usually in collaboration with folks in their libraries) about preservation from the very beginning of a digital project, we also need to encourage ourselves to think about how software projects will be sustained beyond the period of their initial release.


The second challenge is more immediate, and more dangerous: one of the key funding agencies that has enabled the development of the digital humanities as we know it today is the National Endowment for the Humanities. Programs across the agency — including, of course, programs in the Office of Digital Humanities, but also programs in research, education and preservation and access — have supported both institutions and individual scholars in studying and teaching at the intersection of technology and the humanities, and have collectively made possible an extraordinary percentage of the digital humanities work being done today. We must work together to fight the dismantling of the agency’s legacy and the elimination of its future.

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