Digital practitioner interview: Julie Thompson Klein, editor of the Digital Humanities Series @ digitalculturebooks

by Korey Jackson on June 8, 2011

Today we continue digitalculturebooks’ series of interviews with practitioners of digital projects on the University of Michigan campus.  This interview is with Julie Thompson Klein, Professor of Humanities in the English Department at Wayne State University, and an editor of the Digital Humanities Series @ digitalculturebooks.

This Fall, digitalculturebooks will be releasing its first book in the new Digital Humanities Series. The purpose of this series is to “feature rigorous research that advances understanding of the nature and implications of the changing relationship between humanities and digital technologies.”

MPublishing was able to sit down with one of the series editors and Professor of Humanities in the English Department at Wayne State University, Julie Thompson Klein, to discuss her own digital humanities work, and her outreach efforts on university campuses and through HASTAC (The Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory). In Fall 2011, she will also be teaching a short course on Digital Humanities in conjunction with being a Mellon Fellow in Digital Humanities at the Institute for Humanities. Klein spoke of the relationship between Interdisciplinary Studies and the digital humanities, as well as some of trends she’s following in digital humanities scholarship.

MPublishing: What do you hope your students will gain out of the University of Michigan’s first “official” course in digital humanities in the Fall & the HASTAC V conference experience in December? What do you hope to learn from teaching this course?

Julie Thompson Klein [JTK]: I hope students will understand both the breadth and depth of the emergent field of Digital Humanities (DH). In addition, they will have opportunities to engage in peer learning, about each others’ immediate interests as well as the work of HASTAC Scholars around the country at the December HASTAC V meeting being hosted this year by the University of Michigan. As a result, they will understand the heterogeneous “community of practice” evolving around the notion of DH. In parallel fashion, they will meet not only some of the key people on the U-M campus (including the School of Information and the Press) but also have a rare opportunity to learn from national leaders in DH at HASTAC V (while blogging and tweeting for HASTAC as well). In our post-conference reflection, I’d also like to help them think about strategies for positioning themselves as they head out into the job market.

As for myself, I hope to test ideas for teaching DH as a field as well as identifying meaningful ways of using new tools in presenting ideas. Students will be able to present their work in digital formats, so we will enjoy learning both intellectual contours of the field as well pragmatic tools for use in our own teaching and professional presentations. That kind of reciprocal learning is a hallmark of DH—challenging hierarchical notions of expertise of teacher versus student.

In what ways, if any, has your work in Interdisciplinary Studies, especially your outreach efforts and thinking about structural and cultural changes on campuses, enabled your work & teaching in the digital humanities?

JTK: I love this question! Thank you so much for asking it. I am currently completing a new book called “Mapping Digital Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Field Guide.” Scheduled to appear in the Digital Humanities Series @ digitalculturebooks, it’s an attempt to bridge the large literature on interdisciplinarity and the widening discourse on DH. The term “interdisciplinary” is popular in DH, but rarely anchored in rigorous thinking about what that ubiquitous and casual label means. At the same time, interdisciplinary theorists need to test their theories in the forge of practices. I envision the following chapters that enable the bridging:

Introduction: (Interdisciplinary Claiming),
Part 1: Mapping (with chapters on Defining and Historicizing),
Part 2: Locating (with chapters on Institutionalizing, Learning, and Professionalizing),
Part 3: Connecting (with chapters on Interdisciplining and Resourcing).

The book is nurtured in no small part by being a co-editor of the DH series at digitalculturebooks – a great testing ground for thinking not only about what “DH” means but the challenge of institutionalizing change. That challenge is particularly strong in the academic career reward system, which includes publication and tenure and promotion — always leading me to quote when speaking publicly an old saw among administrators of programs of interdisciplinary and general education that trying to change a curriculum is “like trying to move a cemetery.”

As for my work as a teacher, I have gained enormous insights from being a Faculty Fellow in the Office for Teaching and Learning (OTL) at Wayne State University, focusing on building DH initiatives across campus, including a team project supported by a Digital Humanities Start-Up grant from the NEH. The staff of the OTL and my colleagues in the Technology Resource Center have been some of my best teachers in utilizing new technologies in teaching and learning.

Where do you hope to see digital humanities in relation to campus culture in the future?

JTK: One of my major answers in my most recent book (Creating Interdisciplinary Campus Cultures) is “depends on the campus.” U-M and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example have been proactive in jump-starting the process, with cluster hires in Digital Environments and Digital Studies, in particular. At U-M, the director of the Humanities Institute Daniel Herwitz, Paul Conway in [the School of Information], Tom Dwyer at the Press, and Sid Smith in English have been exemplary in paving the way. On other campuses, getting to such a level would be not just difficult but impossible. So, when we think about institutionalizing new and interdisciplinary practices and fields, we need to be weighing feasibility while at the same time thinking creatively about where new horizons might be advanced. Doing so in a difficult economic climate for higher ed, though, is a formidable challenge. My greatest worry is that dollars will exacerbate the divide between the Haves and the Have Nots. Claims to a “digital revolution” in humanities, then, are checked.

What trends in (or examples of) digital humanities research & scholarship are you currently following or particularly excited about?

JTK lists four important trends in the digital humanities that she is following:

●      Watching digital practices change the nature of traditional disciplines from the inside (challenging the superficial dichotomy of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity);

●      Watching digital technologies catalyze change among the Have-Nots I mentioned above (through the boundary-crossing power of new forms of communication and social networking);

●      Watching growing interest in DH as not only a tool/method-based field but also critical cultural studies;

●      Watching the new generation of teachers/scholars move into the professoriate (something we at HASTAC are especially excited about stemming from the HASTAC Scholars program).

According to Klein, these trends have implications for the structure of research institutions that may impede full assimilation, but DH thinking and practices are also leading to increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative work, and projects that are international in scope. This trend has been evident in recent grant projects of the Office of Digital Humanities at NEH, and signals the possibility of permanent shifts in the way we think about and do digital humanities.

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