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How to energize scholarship for the digital age

A personal essay from Kevin Kee, associate vice-president, research, at Brock University.

BY KEVIN KEE | APR 09 2014

The last time Brock University played host to what was then the Learned Societies Congress, Kevin Kee was a nervous PhD student presenting his first paper. This May, when the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences returns to Brock for its 83rd iteration, Dr. Kee will be one of the hosts of the biggest annual gathering of Canadian academics and their 70 scholarly associations. In this essay, he develops his ideas on ways that new and seasoned academics can help each other take advantage of digital technologies to create new models of knowledge production for the 21st century.

We are in the midst of a paradigm shift, brought about by the new digital technologies and interactive media. And this paradigm shift is forcing us to reconsider how we do what we do. How do we do scholarship in this new digital age? Or, to put it another way, how do we redraw the boundaries that have previously defined and reinforced scholarship in the Internet Age, where knowledge knows no boundaries?

I want to address these questions by focusing on the essential practices of scholarship: researching, writing, publishing, communicating. These practices, these ways of being a scholar, are changing before our eyes. I believe that, if we negotiate those changes well, the result will be a newly energized humanities and social sciences at a time when their value is being called into question. But that will require the collaboration of leading researchers and the new generation of emerging digitally savvy researchers – the young men and women who will be arriving at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2014 for the first time.

I’ve been thinking about these young, new scholars because I was a new arrival the last time Brock University played host. Congress 1996 – whose slogan was New/Nouvelles Perspectives – marked my entrance into academe. It was the first Congress I attended; it was the first academic paper I gave. And I was nervous.

The scholarly practices by which I created and gave that paper were well established. I researched primary and secondary sources in libraries and archives, organizing my notes along the way. I wrote the paper and read it at Congress. I subsequently published it in a reputable journal, thereby sharing my conclusions with interested members of the scholarly community. Research, write, publish, communicate. It was very straightforward.

Think for a moment about your first academic meeting, and the scholarly practices that you followed. Now think about the young scholars, in their mid-20s, who will be arriving to their first Congress this May.

They are arriving at a time of uncertainty in the social sciences and humanities. The social sciences and humanities have benefitted from the strong leadership of Chad Gaffield (president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) and others, but it’s been an uphill climb. From the federal government in Ottawa and our provincial governments, we hear calls for investment in research, but primarily applied research in the sciences, engineering and medicine. Influential newspaper columnists are calling into question the value of social sciences and, especially, humanities degrees. And newly minted social sciences and humanities PhDs are finding themselves in the worst academic job market in memory – a recent study from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario predicted that less than 25 percent of PhDs graduating today “will secure full-time, tenure-stream research and teaching positions.”

These challenges have forced us to think about what is required for a healthy social sciences and humanities, for the new arrivals to Congress 2014 and those that will follow. The answers have been varied. Harvard University has launched The Humanities Project, and proposed a new curriculum. A host of respected scholars such as Martha Nussbaum (Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton University Press, 2010) have renewed calls for a liberal arts that actively contributes to citizenship.

What we’ve heard less about is a careful consideration of the way in which we practise the social sciences and humanities. I believe that part of the reason that their value is being called into question is because both the manner in which the practitioners work and the forms by which that work is communicated sometimes seem divorced from our times. We know that part of the point of the academy is to be a separate space, with clear boundaries, hived off from the rest of the world, for careful inquiry and knowledge production. But we also know that we need to work with and speak to the world around us, one in which information knows no boundaries.

In my fields of digital humanities and digital history, we’ve been experimenting with how we produce knowledge since the dawn of computing. We’ve tried new models of researching, writing, publishing and communicating. Here is what I think it means for knowledge production in the digital age.

Begin with research

In 1996 when I was working on my PhD, I faced a scarcity of information and limited access to resources. It was the same for all of us. When I did my research, I had to do it in person, consulting sources in places like the Douglas Library at Queen’s University or the Birks Reading Room at McGill University, where I had to leave my boots at the door and walk around in my socks. I then returned to my office and began filing notes in folders and boxes.

This long-established research method doesn’t make sense for the new arrivals to Congress 2014. Their libraries – at least any that have been built or renovated in the last decade – look nothing like ours. Their biggest problem is not scarcity; now they, indeed now all of us, face what the late American historian Roy Rosenzweig called “a culture of abundance.” One might even say overabundance.

We used to describe the World Wide Web as a library where all the books, journals and magazines had been pulled off the shelves and thrown on the floor. Those were the good old days. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley estimated in 2003 that about five exabytes of information had been created the previous year (one exabyte equals one billion gigabytes); if we printed five exabytes in traditional book form, those books would fill 37,000 libraries the size of the Library of Congress.

A similar study a few years later estimated that Americans used 3.6 zettabytes in 2008 (one zettabyte equals 1,000 exabytes). If we printed 3.6 zettabytes it would blanket the United States, including Alaska, to a depth of seven feet. We know that the online world is big in the same way that a fish knows that the ocean is big: it seems limitless every which way you turn.

Of course, a good chunk of this is pure amusement and focuses on things like cats playing pianos. But for humanists and social scientists who study culture, societies and relationships within societies, there’s a lot that falls under the umbrella of “research material.” And then, of course, we need to include newly digitized forms of traditional scholarship that are being added to the Internet. Google Books has said it will digitize every book published in modern history. According to Google, there are about 130 million books in the world, and at the rate they’re going they will complete this work within our students’ lifetimes. Depending on the rate at which they speed up the process, and they are speeding it up, they might be finished in ours.

The challenge comes into view when we think about the work of a historian. My colleague Dan Cohen, executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, has pointed out that if a scholar wants to write a history of the Lyndon Johnson White House she has to read and analyze the 40,000 memos issued during Johnson’s administration. If a historian wants to write about the Clinton White House, she has four million emails to deal with. It’s impossible for one person to read four million emails, along with all of the other Clinton White House documentation, in her lifetime. How does she then write the history?

The situation will be worse for the scholars of tomorrow. They won’t be able to say they’ve done a systematic literature review. As they begin to learn about a subject, the amount of information that will be created about that subject will accumulate faster than the scholar can read and understand it. They’ll be trying to drink from a fire hose.

We need to imagine and create a new way of doing scholarly research. What processes might we use?

My colleague at Western University, William J. (Bill) Turkel, has pioneered an approach that he calls simply “The Method.” It begins with the understanding that we can’t go to our sources because there are too many of them. It follows that we need to create systems so that the information comes to us. There are a variety of ways to do this. At a basic level, we can use feed readers or feed aggregators that combine new information posted to specific websites into a single report. Rather than continually going to a website, the new information posted to that website is assembled in one place, like a newsletter compiled just for us. But we can go further. At a more sophisticated level, scholars like Bill have created crawlers, spiders and bots that go out onto the Internet, find specific content, and download it or index it. These tools can be set up and left to run while a researcher works on other tasks. Or sleeps.

When that information comes to us, it needs to be sorted and indexed, and of course index cards no longer suffice. There is too much information, not enough time. Within this new culture of abundance, what we most lack is attention. Software can now create an index, build a concordance, and relate and cluster documents appropriately. In this way, text-mining software is reading all four million emails from the Clinton White House. Scholars are using machine-learning algorithms to process and analyze millions of books at a time.

Print, like water to fish

When it comes time to draw conclusions from their research, scholars now have a multitude of options. In 1996, I had a simple choice to make when it came to how I communicated the results of my research: I could choose print. It was hard to imagine doing scholarship any other way. I compared a scholar to a solitary fish in the middle of a vast Internet ocean. We’re like fish in another way, too. The late David Foster Wallace told the story of two young fish swimming along, and meeting an older fish swimming in the opposite direction. The older fish nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks at the other and asks, “What the hell is water?”

Print to us is like water to fish: it’s hard to imagine any other way of producing knowledge. The American Historical Association observed last year that “History has been and remains a book-based discipline.” Of course, there is much to be said for books. But limiting our expression of knowledge to print makes less sense with each passing day. Almost all of us now use computers to facilitate our research. Then we use word-processing programs to express our knowledge. Then we share it, and our colleagues read and annotate it, on a screen.

Furthermore, print carries inherent limits: books and articles support some kinds of communication better than others. And sometimes it makes more sense to use another medium to communicate scholarly knowledge. The limits of text are obvious, for instance, for those using contemporary oral history archives. In 1996, I conducted interviews, transcribed them, and then quoted from the transcription in my articles and book. My use of the interviews was several steps removed from the person who had spoken the words. I was in good company. As historian Michael Frisch has noted, the “Deep Dark Secret of oral history is that nobody spends much time listening to or watching recorded and collected interview documents.”

If a scholar wants to present her findings on the Holocaust at the 2014 Congress, and the scholar has used a video archive such as the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, she could present her analysis alongside the actual, video-recorded testimony. She could include her analysis, as well as the speaker’s emotion, facial expression and tone of voice. Watching Holocaust survivors speak of their experiences is very different from reading what they said – it might have the feel of a scholarly guided tour of the archive. This isn’t book-based history, but it is scholarship just the same.

Nor does history have to remain a book-based discipline in situations where we are relating historical information connected to place. At its stripped-down, most basic level, history is grounded in time and place. And one of the best ways to relate information about place is with maps. Now that we can make maps digital, we can show change over time, and provide opportunities for users to explore specific information, and relationships between different kinds of data, on their own.

The Hypercities project, developed at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, uses Google maps and overlaid information, such as historical maps, to present information about the history of cities such as Berlin. Broadcast news clips, archived photographs, digital 3D reconstructions, and video oral histories (potentially those drawn from the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive), can be connected to a place. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz called for “thick description” – scholarship that includes both descriptions of human behaviour and descriptions of the context of that behaviour so that it is meaningful to an outsider. Todd Presner, one of the founders of Hypercities, calls this work “thick mapping.”

Of course, you could write a book describing the relationships between the people and information in this Berlin hypercity, but you would be limiting your reader’s ability to explore relationships that you hadn’t considered. And you would be further distancing the reader from the news clips, archived photographs and video oral histories that informed your analysis.

Publishing in the digital age

The production of scholarship raises the question of peer review and publication. How do we determine good scholarship in the digital age of audiovisual material, or digital maps, and how do we best share it with other scholars?

Two decades ago, this wasn’t an issue. Following my paper presentation at Congress 1996, I submitted my article to a journal. The editors at the journal decided that the article benefited their readers, a decision that was highly informed but necessarily subjective. They guided the process by which the article was carefully reviewed, revised and then sent to copy-editors, typesetters, and eventually printers. It was a prestigious journal, after all, so it was published in print.

This system of peer review and publication is coming under increased pressure for several reasons, as we’ve noted. First, new forms of digital scholarship, such as audiovisual interviews and interactive maps, can’t be communicated with ink on paper. We need to encounter these in other ways. Second, a great deal of scholarly knowledge is now being posted directly to the web, bypassing the careful gatekeeping of established journals altogether.

Third, because this digital scholarship is instantly available, communication around timely topics that lie at the heart of our study of culture and societies is moving more quickly, at a pace that is too rapid for the established system of presentation, review and publication to handle. In the midst of a community that is always online and always connected, topics emerge, expand and contract in days or weeks. Finally, as the pace of knowledge production speeds up, and the volume of scholarship increases, scholars have less time to absorb it; attention is our scarcest resource. In addition, governments, funding bodies and universities are demanding “Open Access,” in which publicly supported, published research be available beyond the academy.

I’m not suggesting an end to the reflective, careful, curated scholarship of established journals or academic presses. What I am suggesting is that we also support alternative ways of communicating knowledge to our peers, ways that are responsive to the pressures of today. This alternative form of scholarly publication would include scholarship expressed in a variety of forms that would include text, but also audiovisual media. It would draw on the scholarship being published directly to the web. It would move quickly, vacuuming up this knowledge as soon as it is posted. And it would make up for our inability to keep track of all of this new knowledge by using computing to give priority to that which is valuable, making visible that which is most worthy of our attention.

New arrivals to Congress 2014 can pursue this alternative publication path. My colleagues in digital humanities have embraced scholarly blogging, and a recently launched site, Digital Humanities Now, takes advantage of this method of communication, drawing from informally published, digital content. It typically collects about 400 items a day, giving priority to blog posts of more than 1,000 words.

Articles aren’t sent to the journal; the journal vacuums them up from the Internet. It gathers these with the help of a database of digital humanists’ websites, and algorithms that aggregate their newly posted articles, and the tweets that point to these articles. It tracks the number of times that an article is posted or tweeted and gives priority to those that are given attention by the community. Tweets and retweets about an article by members of the digital humanities community are a kind of peer review – this is an article that is drawing interest and attention. In this way, articles are read and assessed, not by two or three reviewers but by a community numbering in the hundreds or thousands. And that is happening after the article has been “published,” not before.

A friend recently gave a paper at a conference and posted the paper the same day to her blog. At the conference, members of the audience tweeted some of her insights as she presented them. As those tweets were shared with others, they connected to the paper published online. Others began blogging about the paper and community interest and reflection on her topic grew. Within hours the paper and presentation were rising to the top of the Digital Humanities Now community list. Within days of her presentation, my colleague’s paper was published in this community-reviewed, and then peer-reviewed, journal.

Communicating in the digital age

The main challenge to this kind of scholarly publication is that everything is happening in the open. We are used to carefully preparing our research in the privacy of our offices, and then presenting the finished product to our colleagues, and only then sharing it with the public.

Public lectures have been an established forum for this kind of knowledge sharing. In 1996, I attended the “Learned Societies Congress Speakers Series,” what we now call the Big Thinking Lecture Series. We’ve written books for popular audiences, or worked with government agencies to generate historical plaques. On rare occasions our research becomes the focus of a CBC Ideas series.

But the careful boundaries that we have established between our research and the public make less sense to a new arrival to Congress in 2014. In the early years of the Internet, we thought it would be a vehicle for consumption; after all, we lived in a consumer culture. It is, but we underestimated the degree to which it would be about creation – at last count about 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. We also underestimated the degree to which it would be about relationships – over 700 million users are on Facebook each day. This is the environment in which young scholars have grown up.

We live in what Henry Jenkins has called a “participatory culture.” Lots of people connected with one another, creating content. Much of it, I’ll admit again, is about cats. But there’s good, thoughtful, important stuff in there, too: amateur science, fan fiction writing, citizen journalism.

James Paul Gee has called the producers of this kind of knowledge “professional amateurs.” These citizen scholars are rarely credentialed or paid. They do history, economics, or sociology because they love to. And they are intelligent, motivated and curious, claiming expertise in areas where a single researcher, and even a group of researchers, might be lacking. And in many cases they are delighted to contribute to our research.

Where is this happening? In science, it’s well established. Recently, an online game called Foldit drew citizen scientists from around the world together to solve a major problem that scientists had worked on for more than a decade. It took gamers around the world three weeks. This is often called crowdsourcing research.

In the social sciences and humanities, where we study culture, societiesand relationships in those societies, we can crowd-source knowledge – transcribing written diaries or contributing to population databases. But we can go beyond allowing others to contribute to a predefined research project and instead provide opportunities for citizen scholars to be co-creators of knowledge.

What does this look like? Let’s go back to digital archives. Within days of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings, scholars at Northeastern University had created The Boston Bombing Digital Archive as a place where citizens could add pictures, videos, stories and social media about the attacks. Or let’s go back to Hypercities. The Egyptian revolution of 2011 which brought an end to Hosni Mubarak’s regime has been called the Twitter Revolution because of the way Twitter and Facebook were used to organize and bring international attention to the protests. With this in mind, a Hypercity was created that linked a Twitter stream recorded during demonstrations to a map, illustrating where those who were organizing, and tweeting, were located at different moments during the protest.

We could say that this is a way of creating new audiences, and it is. But it goes much further than that. It allows for a new kind of relationship with our communities. We are no longer mysterious wizards hidden in ivory towers; we are especially skilled, especially knowledgeable members of larger communities of interest. Of course, this kind of relationship won’t make sense in every domain. But I believe it’s required in others.

In history, for instance, if we don’t do this, it will be done for us. In my own research, I’ve created iPhone-enabled walking tours of the Ontario villages of Niagara-on-the-Lake and Queenston that take tourists back to life in the early 19th century. These kinds of apps can now be opened up so that users can add their own knowledge of history, and share that with others. This year Google will release Google Glass – augmented reality glasses that provide the wearer with information relevant to her time and place. Interested in the facade on that church? A speaker tucked behind your ear will tell you about the architect. And how is Google marketing these glasses? With an app called Field Trip. Where does that information you’ll hear come from? Google is an advertising company, so it will probably come from people who want to sell you things. We could do better.

Our role in all this

When information is readily available on the inside of our glasses as we walk down the street, will social sciences and humanities scholars be contributing to it? Will we be integral to the many others spaces where knowledge is being created and shared? And if our work is occurring in the open, for all to see, will it still be scholarship?

If the answer to these questions is even a tentative yes, we need to provide space for new ways of practising the social sciences and humanities. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we adopt these exact models of research, writing, publishing and communicating. In a few months some of the methods, tools and practices I’ve described will already be out of date. As with everything now, it’s in flux. Nor, to be clear, am I saying that we should stop researching in libraries and archives, stop writing articles, stop publishing in prestigious journals, or stop communicating via long-established outlets. These ways of being have served us well for generations.

What I am suggesting is that we make room within the academy for both established and new methods. Let’s enlarge the boundaries so that:

  • a close analysis of our sources can be accompanied by a distant reading of vast datasets;
  • writing with text goes hand in hand with digital maps, audio, video and other forms of digital expression;
  • publishing with a reflective, time-intensive peer review goes together with publishing that which is most valued in an online community; and
  • creation of knowledge by scholars alone is accompanied by the sharing or even co-creating of knowledge with citizen scholars.

The new paradigm defined around digital media and the Internet means that knowledge exists in a world of limitless boundaries. But scholarship requires boundaries. We see that tension in the English title of Congress 2014 – Borders, without Boundaries. So we need to determine what to keep – what borders to guard – and where to experiment – what boundaries to push past.

Established, accomplished scholars in the academy have a special role to play here. With decades of experience, they know what boundaries to guard, and which to push past, and have moved their research domains in directions these wouldn’t otherwise have gone. They are in a position to work alongside those scholars who are experimenting with how we research, write, publish and communicate. Let’s together ask questions of our practice and determine where to be imaginative and experimental in our answers. Let’s engage in the practice of critical reflection that has powered the social sciences and humanities in the past and will propel them into the future.

I remember well Brock’s last Congress, in 1996. I’ve got a good idea of what it will be like in 2014. Let’s imagine what Congress, indeed what the social sciences and humanities, will look like, when Congress returns to Brock … in 2032. Let’s together imagine a social sciences and humanities with scholarly borders, but limitless boundaries.

Kevin Kee is associate vice-president, research (social sciences and humanities), and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities at Brock University. This article was adapted from the Big Thinking lecture Dr. Kee gave at the 2013 annual meeting of the Royal Society of Canada, in Banff, Alberta. Congress 2014 runs from May 24 to May 30.

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  1. Larry Cebula / April 9, 2014 at 21:49

    Dr. Kee, if you expect to be taken seriously in the world of digital humanities you will have to learn that it is never “cats” and always “teh kittehs.”

    I am embarrassed on your behalf to have to explain this to you.

    Otherwise, a great article.

  2. Brian Henderson / April 24, 2014 at 12:23

    A very balanced approach to this often fraught & zealot-ridden topic. I especially like the phrase “limitless boundaries” because indeed it is often the boundaries that are limitless (or at the very least unforeseen). The digital world and its manifestation in the internet are not “limitless” as is often claimed; it’s just that we are not aware of what some of the limits in fact are.

  3. Jess H. Brewer / May 6, 2014 at 16:28

    What a wonderful summary! My only complaint is that you restrict your comments to the Humanities, when the Sciences are experiencing most of the same problems — and a few extras. The central issue now is not access to information, but assessment of credibility. Even prestigious traditional journals publish more information than anyone can absorb, and “open access” journals are mostly vanity presses that will publish anything the authors can afford to pay for. Google does almost as good a job as the Citation Index in selecting promising reading. Counting tweets or FB “like”s only gives us the crudest measure of popularity. We need a better way to choose what to absorb.