When Ed Ayers has something to say about the digital humanities I tend to listen–attentively. Today the Chronicle of Higher Education is running a piece by Ayers titled “A More Radical Online Revolution.” He introduces his readers to the “History Harvest” project at the University of Nebraska and the “Visualizing Emancipation” project at his own University of Richmond (Ayers is the president). In the process he makes a compelling argument for the role that digital history might play in the entire MOOC, online learning, and technology conversation.
Here is a taste of his piece:
Ironically, the advocates and skeptics of online teaching might find common ground by thinking more boldly, beyond the terms of the current debate. The skeptics might ask whether the new technologies cannot offer useful amplification to our scholarly work of discovery; the advocates of the new technologies need to think more directly about how to reach broad audiences while also fostering meaningful conversations across the disciplines and bridging a division between teaching and scholarship.
Two crucial parts of higher education that have received little attention in the debates thus far—the humanities and the creation of new knowledge—can help advance those conversations.
A deeper engagement with the methods and purposes of the humanities is essential for any online enterprise that claims to offer a university education. Though humanities courses appear on some of the listings from the new consortia, and though some courses have proved extremely popular, much of the attention devoted to MOOCs focuses on the procedural, cumulative methods of teaching of computer science, statistics, and the basic sciences. The humanities, by contrast, flourish with different ways of thinking and teaching, more ambiguous, open-ended, and interpretive.
Whatever the discipline, the new online world must find ways to help create new knowledge. Online education cannot run indefinitely, as it does now, on borrowed intellectual capital, disseminating what we already know. Higher education takes its energy, its purpose, from a charged circuit between teaching and research, between sharing knowledge and making knowledge. New forms of teaching must be able to generate new ideas.
Scholarship expressly built for electronic environments has been slow to develop. Perhaps surprisingly, given how slow online teaching methods have been to adapt to the humanities, those disciplines are in the forefront of developing this new kind of scholarship. The digital humanities are growing rapidly, establishing centers at many institutions, hiring professors and researchers, sustaining rich conversations online and in national and international conferences. Indeed, the digital humanities can serve as a model for other disciplines, and for the larger online enterprise.