The Basic Humanities

By Matt Cohen

I PROPOSE two concepts, to the end of shaping material, institutional consequences. These emerge from the last few years of conversation I have had with folks running digital humanities projects and centers. The first is that of a “humanities training grant,” in part–but only in part–based on the training grants for cohorts of graduate students in the sciences funded by various federal agencies. The second term, which is related and the motive for the first, is that of the “basic humanities.”

In the sciences, they’ve got phrases–“pure science” or “basic science”–for that risky, sometimes theory-driven, sometimes inspired and to all standard notions zany research, research not obviously oriented toward the acquisition of grant funding or the execution of an already existing grant project. The history of these phrases is doubtless fascinating, and there’s a good discussion of the related cluster of terms (fundamental, applied) on Wikipedia. Basic science as I have heard the phrase used speaks both to the broadest envisionary potentials of science–insights that change whole fields’, or many fields’, ways of seeing–and to a kind of work that simply produces new and unanticipated directions in a researcher’s path. It is a check, in the sense that thinking about basic science helps a researcher step back from the heat and focus of the specific problem to rethink its place in the larger set of experiments, or its significance more broadly. At the same time, it’s the golden ring.

How do you fund “basic science”? My sense, mostly derived from observing biologists, is that it’s done in the interstices of more specific projects, though it is often described as their grandest justification. The hierarchical model of most laboratories, too, puts the day-to-day bench work in the hands largely of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, in theory leaving PIs “free” to think big. Sometimes.

There are good reasons to be shy of imagining an “applied humanities” and a “basic humanities.” But I wonder what might be yielded by a conversation about these categories, which are emergent from a condition in which external pressure is applied in various forms to make demands of, or shape the intelligibility of, or operationalize the work of intellectuals. And in the case of the digital humanities, I think it’s important to acknowledge that dynamic. We don’t want to get on the hamster treadmill of relying upon external funding–however much it seems to give us institutional leverage with administrations not accustomed to, but excited about, talking to humanists about bringing in big grants–without learning some lessons from our colleagues about how to maintain those intellectual passions that really drive us.

The “Public Sciences”: in the sciences, there’s a somewhat standard (always of course with exceptions) trajectory whereby a scholar begins with startlingly precise, not terrifically human-readable papers, usually based on work in someone else’s laboratory, for a small audience, and then, with age and growing experience, vision, or what have you, evolves to writing for much wider audiences. (See E.O. Wilson, an avatar of this sort of move, on the value of the humanities here–charmingly still data-driven and about solving problems, rather than studying their very formation. It is telling that only middle- and high-schoolers need to be convinced of the value of science. I’d like to see a companion piece by somebody like Drew Faust about why we should continue to fund science.)

In the humanities, the expectation seems to be that you’ll come up with your own project, worthy of book-length elaboration and informed by thousands of years of philosophical and historiographical precedent, sometime in your early 20s. It seems as if it’s “basic” from the start, in that sense; digital humanities work, with its collaborative, operational, and spectacular dimensions, seems like a healthy adjustment. I vividly remember the feeling of relief and relaxation while encoding nineteenth-century reviews (in HTML, heaven help us, back in the mid-1990s) of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass while I was in graduate school. It felt so much more concrete and rewarding, so free of the anxieties of influence, competition, and delayed revelation that were the fabric of grad school life otherwise. It still feels a bit that way, even in XML.

Hence my second concept, that of the “humanities training grant”: I think we may need some new administrative-level notions and structures to take advantage of this new realm of feeling and working without either giving in to the demand for relevance (always in the eye of the beholder, or usually, the funds-holder) or to the patterns of funding that can stifle surprise, quick changes of strategy, or honesty about the failure of this or that project. There are a number of these already in existence that may bear fruit, from changes in the evaluation of tenure files to the creation of programs that integrate pedagogical and research directives under institutionally supported computational humanities umbrellas. And I certainly don’t mean to imply that public humanities work, tool-building, or other operational modes of work in the digital humanities should not be rewarded in the way other kinds of research or teaching are, though I do think this entails some clarifying discussion about the role of peer review in academic work. I’m trying to find a way to promote digital humanities work that might accomplish the opening of, and at the same time on the part of faculty and grad students, the imagination of, new possibilities in humanities careers.

A humanities training grant would provide first-year funding for students that would abate teaching assignments and help universities–within structures their faculty design and propose, adapted to their advantages and circumstances–create digital humanities training and research opportunities. It would maintain the beauties of the “basic humanities” by making training in computational methods, approaches, and theories an integral part of curricula from the start for students with interests in such training (though not necessarily with an interest in becoming “digital humanists”). It would acknowledge the overhead involved at this point in creating those opportunities, but also provide incentive for faculty to involve early stage graduate students; indeed, frankly, to compete for them, so that there’s mutual benefit from the start (not just grunt-work, though if only for the sake of building character there must always be grunt work). A partnership between specific universities and external funders (I confess I am thinking of the NEH and NSF here) would send the right message about the way this investment needs to be a broad one, and its publicity might get folks thinking and talking about the humanities in productive ways. Finally, this could be an alternative to the digital humanities center, for institutions at which such a center is not the best fit.

I propose these concepts under the belief in the university and its degree programs as simultaneously an expression of a human society’s commitment to the development (however long in time) of intellectual potential and vision, and as a set of processes–with few parallels–through which revelation of an unusual kind and without a specific product in the way of worldly work at its end is made possible.


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