Baby Steps, Octopus

I was struck by the abundance of ambitious plans for reforming graduate study of the humanities. Whether it included inculcating critical vocationalism (Jay and Graff), expanding curricula (Grafton and Grossman), charting “a third way” to alt-ac careers (Scheinfeldt), or democratizing the Humanities PhD (Basu), I was heartened by both the scope and novelty of solutions. While there’s little harm in dreaming big, I, being a pragmatist—perhaps a less generous term would be “cynic”—am inclined to begin by reforming what we have, particularly that which is unmistakably broken. Two words, one explicative: research methods.

In my experience, I cannot conceive of a less useful, less edifying course than research methods. It’s simply too diffuse to achieve anything. My class covered everything from book history to accessing online catalogues. When we did stumble across a topic of interest (e.g. a discussion of materiality), we cut the conversation short to discuss something the library could very well accomplish in a thirty-minute tour (using ProjectMUSE). Limbs thrashing in all directions, the class is a bodiless octopus, long displaced from its native habitat.

Take the counsel of both Lisa Spiro and Bethany Nowviskie and kill the octopus—kill it immediately—and replace it with something that possesses a spine. I would appropriate the Digital Humanities curriculum outlined by Nowviskie:

  • intellectual property and open access;
  • the intersection of scholarship with the public humanities;
  • publishing, preservation, and scholarly communication;
  • funding and material support for research and teaching;
  • interdisciplinary collaboration;
  • matters of credentialing and assessment (peer review, tenure and promotion);
  • faculty self-governance

However—and this is important—I would take Spiro’s approach to that core curriculum. By treating these objectives as a starting point, faculty would be encouraged to tailor the class to their interests and the interests of their students. Such an approach would calcify the methods course around a [somewhat] coherent community and set of methodologies (the Digital Humanities), while at the same time enabling it to remain as fluid as the field it addresses.

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