Bonn Notes

On 28. May, 2015, members of the GAAS's Electronic Publishing and Digital Scholarship Initiative (EPDSI) convened a roundtable as part of the association's twenty-sixth annual conference in Bonn. The roundtable was attended by approximately fifteen American studies scholars and facilitated a lively exchange about the current state of digital humanities in (German) American studies.

Digital American Studies?

In a first round of exchange, participants discussed digital humanities projects in German American studies, a conversation that resulted in two observations: 1) There currently is very little information on (and hardly any exchange among) digital humanities projects in German American studies. 2) More fundamentally, it seems that many DH projects currently are pursued by German studies programs (in Germany) and by English studies departments (in anglophone contexts). If DH continues to be as dynamic (and as attractive to funding) as it currently is, the lack of American studies-oriented DH work will not only hurt American studies in disciplinary competition; it also means that many of the academic (and political) goals of American studies are lost to DH scholarship. Indeed, participants pointed out, many DH projects seem to show a noticeable bias to conventional canons and to conservative scholarly positions.

Areas of Digital American Studies

Over the course of the discussion, four different subject areas emerged in which digital developments will continue to increasingly impact (German) American studies. Despite their overlap, they still seemed distinct enough to warrant individual categories:

  1. Digital Humanities as Method
  2. Digital Tools and Electronic Publishing
  3. Digital Pedagogy
  4. Digital Culture as Subject Matter

1. Digital Humanities as Method

Digital humanities methodologies are becoming increasingly popular. These methodologies typically use quantitative or algorithmic methods and machine-based forms of (textual) analysis to generate new insights into cultural artifacts, often engaging corpora that would otherwise be too large to meaningfully process. Typically, such projects consist of two main steps: 1) digitization and annotation of material to make it machine-readable and 2) automated, statistical analyses performed on this body of material to unearth new insights. For editorial projects, the first of these steps (making primary texts machine readable) can constitute a DH-angle that only peripherally impacts the project's main thrust but that nevertheless adds a DH surplus.

In their affinity towards datamining, statistical analysis, and quantitative work, some of these DH methodologies borrow from computer linguistics. In many cases, funding offered for DH projects (or a DH angle in a project) goes toward making material machine readable.

2. Digital Tools and Electronic Publishing

In contrast to the first cluster, this one does not come with its own methodologies. Instead it encompasses tools scholars can use to make their work more efficient without changing their research interest or method. Bibliography tools (such as Citavi, Endnote, or Zotero), note-taking tools (such as evernote), collaboration platforms (from dropbox to blogs) all make scholarly work easier without entailing a new research direction or new methods.

Some tools occupy a middle ground between this cluster and "Digital Humanities as Method" (1): Mapping tools, such as ArcGIS, for example, first of all offer a more efficient way of organizing material by geographic metadata. They can also be used, however, to discover new connections or patterns and can thus also change the direction of research projects.

This cluster also comprises questions of electronic access to scholarly resources, the reputation of electronic publishing, open access, the various struggles over overpriced journal subscriptions, and the future of the DFG Literaturversorgung for American studies.

3. Digital Pedagogy

Beginning with E-Learning platforms and including the short-lived MOOC hype, digital pedagogy constitute a third realm in which digital technologies and methodologies impact American studies. Ideally, digital learning environments can offer students new, interactive, immersive learning experiences and allow for different types of learners to learn in the way that works best for them. However, the promises of digital pedagogy seems to outrun its uses so far (and there is an ongoing controversy over the potential for digital technologies to replace human-human interaction in the classroom).

Outreach-Tools (such as blogs for a general public) and crowdsourcing interfaces (such as www.historypin.org) can again occupy a middle ground between digital pedagogy (3) and digital tools (2).

4. Digital Culture as Subject Matter

A fourth cluster consists of scholarship on digital culture (video games, hypertext, cyberculture, virtual reality, blogs, etc.), whether it employs traditional or DH methodologies. Its determining characteristic is the medium of the primary material, or the textual qualities of it, and the interest in the particular electronic dimension of their production, circulation, and consumption.

Future Plans

All four areas already impact German American studies, and they will continue to create challenges and opportunities in the years to come. As a methodological impulse (#1), digital humanities matter not least because they have increasingly become a priority to university administrators. Understanding this and being able to position oneself with respect to these methodologies might become increasingly important for projects that rely on (financial) support from universities. Digital tools, questions of access to published materials (#2), and the field of digital pedagogy (#3) are, in different ways, of obvious importance to the GAAS constituency: Knowing the tools that are available can greatly enhance research quality and efficiency as well as teaching, and questions of how we will publish in the future (or how we can access material published by others) have an immediate impact on the work we do.

Since "Digital Culture as Subject Matter" (#4) can most easily be covered by topical workshops, the Digital American Studies Initiative will focus its roundtable format on the first three. It will also offer space (and expertise) for critical commentary on DH developments. The dominance of quantitative methods, often coming with conservative corpora, at times works to undo a critical interest in the politics of texts, in race, class, and gender, or in cultural work understood most broadly. Digital tools, in turn, often come with thorny politics of intellectual property, when content organized on a presumably 'free' online platform ends up belonging to the company operating the platform, when the promises of easy electronic access come at a high price for libraries, or when journals, offering to publish papers under an open access license, take a steep fee from the authors to cover their cost. In digital pedagogy, the MOOC debate has offered a first glance at how the promise to make human teachers expandable is attractive to university administrators, and how scholars and educators need to engage this debate. All these areas thus require critical discussion, and the Digital American Studies Initiative can offer a space for that.