If the value of history, languages, literature and art is increasingly being questioned that’s partly the fault of people like me.
We haven’t spoken loudly enough, or often enough, about how we practice and share the humanities.
The way we work and the way we communicate is not as divorced from our times – or from the realities of industry and the economy – as some opinion columnists and think-tank commentators might have you believe.
The academy, in the form of universities and other institutions, was created centuries ago to be a separate space with clear boundaries from the rest of the world. Today, however, that stereotypical ivory tower is an outward looking open-concept room with a welcome mat on the doorstep.
My own experience illustrates the massive changes we have seen to scholarly culture. In the 1990s when I was a PhD student, I faced a scarcity of information and limited access to resources. When I did research, I went to 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. Today, like everyone else, I am overwhelmed by information. To reach my needle in the haystack I use sophisticated search tools developed by my colleagues in the university.
Years ago, when my library research was complete, I had a single option when it came to sharing the results of my research: print publication. There are many good things to say about books, but in the humanities we know that we cannot limit ourselves to print. Sometimes it makes more sense to use another medium.
Nearly a generation ago, I conducted interviews using a tape recorder (remember them?), then transcribed them and then quoted from the transcription in my articles and book. Today, if a scholar wants to present her findings on the Holocaust, to use an especially important example, the experience is quite different. If she uses a source like the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, she can present her analysis alongside actual, video-recorded testimony. She can include her analysis, as well as the speaker’s emotion, facial expression and tone of voice.
Seeing Holocaust survivors speak of their experiences is very different from reading what they said. The presentation might have the feel of a scholarly guided tour of the archive. This isn’t book-based history, but it is still scholarship.
As history and the other humanities are stripped down to their roots, the cultural experiences we study are more grounded in time and place. Of course, we can still write books describing the relationships between the people and information, but we no longer limit our readers’ abilities to explore issues we haven’t considered. For that reason alone we also have to present the reader with the news clips, archived photographs or video and oral histories that inform our analyses.
Two decades ago this wasn’t an issue. Following my first academic presentation I submitted my article to a journal. If the editors decided that the article benefited their readers, they guided the process by which the article was slowly and carefully reviewed, revised and then sent to copy editors, typesetters and eventually printers. The process itself, often lasting several years, was a scholarly coming-of-age ritual.
Today, this system of peer review and publication is changing. New forms of digital scholarship, such as audiovisual interviews and interactive maps, can’t be communicated with ink on paper. Knowledge is now being posted directly to the web, and anyone can provide instant feedback.
And because this digital scholarship is instantly available, communication around timely topics is moving more quickly. Humanities scholars, like everyone else in the developed world, are a community that is online and always connected, and our research topics emerge, expand and contract in days or weeks.
This is not the end of the reflective, careful and curated scholarship of traditional university publishing. There are times when we need to go slow. Instead, it is a sign of the support for alternative ways of sharing knowledge with the world.
The ivory tower now has wi-fi and an open door.
Kevin Kee is Associate Vice-President of Research at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and the Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities.