Originally published as O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. 2016. “Customized Pronouns: A Good Idea That Makes No Sense.” The Globe and Mail, October 15. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/customized-pronouns-a-good-idea-that-makes-no-sense/article32373933/.
The latest thing on campus is to introduce yourself by name and “preferred pronoun.” “Hello, my name is Dan and I prefer he/him. Read the rest of this entry »
A quick, and still partially undigested, posting on metrics that might favour the humanities over the sciences in “open” competitions. I’m working this out in response to a discussion I had recently with a senior administrator who argued that the University’s tendency to channel resources disproportionately to the Natural Sciences was simply the result of their comparative excellence as measured in “open” competitions.
- For a supposed “Liberal Arts” University, the University of Lethbridge is exceptionally bad at supporting the Humanities
- Poor performance can be attributed in part to administrative monocultures.
- Or could it be that our Humanists are simply worse than our scientists?
- There is no such thing as a truly “open” cross-disciplinary competition
- Using the wrong criteria can reward sub-optimal behaviour and hide excellence Read the rest of this entry »
On my way home now from a fascinating and fun two day visit with Kay Walters to Brigham Young University. I’m going to write more in a little about some of the great ideas I saw there having to do with research and the Digital Humanities. But I also want to comment on something more systemic that I saw there.
BYU, for those who don’t know, is a Mormon University (in Southern Alberta, which also has a lot of Mormons, we tend to prefer saying LDS over “Mormon”; in Utah, “Mormon” was by far the preferred term, as far as I could see). It is a church-owned, private university with a religious as well as an academic mission (this is, of course, not unusual: Western Universities largely began in the same way, except as Catholic universities, and there are still many universities around the world that have strong ties to various religions).
The connection to the church is visible every where on campus. There is a strong dress and conduct code and one oc Read the rest of this entry »
The Lethbridge Journal Incubator: A new business model for Open Access journal publication (Elsevier Labs Online Lectures February 18, 2014)Posted: February 19, 2014
The Lethbridge Journal Incubator: A new business model for Open Access journal publication by Daniel Paul O’Donnell with contributions from Gillian Ayers, Kelaine Devine, Heather Hobma, Jessica Ruzack, Sandra Cowen, Leona Jacobs, Wendy Merkeley, Rhys Stevens, Marinus Swanepoel, and Maxine Tedesco. Elsevier Labs Online Lectures February 18, 2014.
Apparently in 1917 people had a different view of the centrality of English professors…
When we consider our educational position, we teachers of English composition are in a fair way to become conceited. In view of certain featuresof our daily experiencethe dangerof becoming conceited may not seem imminent. But the outstanding feature of our position among pedagogues surely spells danger in that very direction. The practically universal assumption that our work is educationally indispensable is truly ominous (William Hawley Davis. 1917. “The Teaching of English Composition: Its Present Status.” The English Journal 6 (5) (May 1): 285–294. doi:10.2307/801590).
The New Humanities. The Place and Practice of the Humanities in an Age of Ubiquitous Networked Computing.Posted: July 19, 2013
This is the Letter of Intent submitted by Cathy Davidson, Neil Fraistat, Alex Gil, Allan Liu, Geoffrey Rockwell, and me to the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Global Call for Ideas Competition.
Interested in the project? “Contact me”:mailto:email@example.com.
This proposal is about the future of the humanities. But it is not a story of despair, neglect, or decline.
Although humanities scholars and students are increasingly and vitally engaged with issues of broader societal import, discourseabout the humanities often seems stuck in an oppositional register—defining, and indeed at times perversely celebrating, their status as outsiders to or even foes of developments in the worlds of science, technology, and commerce (see Bivens-Tatum 2010).
This is despite the fact that there has never been a more exciting time to be involved in the humanities. The digital revolution that is transforming our world is vitally concerned with questions about the discovery, communication, and reception of culture, knowledge, and self-representation—questions that lie at the heart of humanistic research. The industries that have been most transformed by these new technologies include those with which humanities students traditionally have been most closely engaged. New forms of communication and social organisation are allowing the public greater access to—and opportunities to participate in—humanistic and cultural research. As a proponent of this LOI, Duke Professor and HĀSTAC founder Cathy N. Davidson, has argued, “if the humanities cannot make a case for themselves in the Information Age, something is very very wrong” (Davidson 2013).
It is time to address this disconnect. Our proposal to the CIFAR Global Call for Ideas is to establish a research network that will explore the place and practice of the humanities in this age of (near) ubiquitous, networked computing: investigate how humanities research can help us understand the impact of the ongoing technological revolution and how the technological revolution, conversely, can transform the way humanities research is carried out and understood.
These are questions that have broad implications. The place of the humanities in contemporary society is a current topic in policy, education, business, and technological circles. The impact of the digital on traditional humanities research methods and questions is being taken up by our major humanities funding agencies and scholarly societies. The conclusions this project will reach have the potential to affect the way governments set priorities, businesses and public institutions allocate resources, and individuals and families make decisions about their educational and employment futures. What is needed now is a high-profile, agenda-setting research network that will explore these issues and lead a transformative discussion of the role and place of the humanities in contemporary, networked society.
The humanistic web
The relationship between the humanities and contemporary networked society extends back to the creation of the Web itself. Although it was first developed at CERN, the World Wide Web was not designed to solve a physics problem. As the title of Tim Berners-Lee’s original memo suggests (“Information Management—A Proposal”), the technology that eventually became the World Wide Web was instead proposed as a method for addressing the age-old problem of document preservation, organisation, and discovery. The web’s unexpected value as a conduit for social and cultural information, moreover, became apparent almost immediately: the earliest web photo came not from a CERN experiment but publicity material for Les Horribles Cernettes, a comic singing group made up of lab employees and spouses (Riesman 2013).
The connection between the humanities and the web is also reflected in its engineering. Two of the most important technologies underlying the modern Social Web—XML and Unicode—were developed in part under the leadership of humanities researchers and drawing on the work of humanities research projects such as the Text Encoding Initiative, a twenty-year old humanities and library-science consortium led subsequently by the lead proponent of this LOI, Daniel Paul O’Donnell.
How the web was built, however, is far less important for our proposal than how it is used. From the moment the general public was first allowed access, communication, self-representation, information discovery, and cultural dissemination have been key to the web’s strong growth and global penetration. All but one of the ten most visited sites on web focus on these core activities: search engines and portals (Google , Baidu , Yahoo , Windows Live ), social networking (Facebook , Twitter , TencentQQ , YouTube ), and reference (Wikipedia ). Even the first pure vendor on the list, Amazon.com (8), began its existence as an online seller of books (Wikipedia contributors 2013). Similar activities, with the addition of games, also comprise the ten most popular smart phone applications.
The web’s overwhelming interest in the creation and dissemination of information and cultural material, coupled with an ethos that encourages users to research issues for themselves, has led to greater-than-ever popular engagement with the work of professional humanities researchers. Libraries and archives that post information about their collections online invariably see an increase in demand for their physical holdings. Humanities scholars with a strong online presence receive more requests for advice and enquires about their research than any but the most famous researchers of the pre-web era. New approaches to crowd sourcing and the rise of popular initiatives such as the Wikipedia have created a culture of popular participation and engagement in humanities research that has few historical parallels. And whether it is Steve Jobs arguing that an interest in the humanities provides Apple with a competitive advantage over its arch-rival, or Google developing high-profile tools and research programmes of immediate relevance to students of the humanities, business leaders too have begun to see the ability to understand technology and its place in the world from a humanistic perspective as a core economic and technical skill rather than a simply virtuous adjunct to more practical concerns.
The time is right for this kind of work. The last fifteen-to-twenty years have seen the rise of a critical mass of researchers with the requisite digital skills and humanistic training, a process in which Canadians and Canadian institutions have played an outsized role. These scholars are leading the introduction of new research techniques to the humanities and adapting more traditional methods to the digital age.
Just as importantly, they are also now leaders in the broader domain. Most organisations focussing on the integrative value of humanities research are led by digitally-active researchers, including the authors of this LOI: e.g. HĀSTAC (Davidson), 4Humanities (Liu and Rockwell), CenterNet and ADHO (Fraistat), GO::DH (Gil and O’Donnell), and the Praxis Network (Davidson). Many traditional humanities organisations and agencies, likewise, are led by scholars with a significant digital profile, including, in North America, SSHRC, the Modern Language Association, and numerous disciplinary societies. Funding agencies too have begun to cooperate internationally in the development of competitions on the integration of technology and humanities research. Recent government initiatives, such as the Canadian consultations on the New Digital Economy and, in the U.S., the appointment of Digital Humanists such as Davidson and John Unsworth to President Obama’s National Council on the Humanities, demonstrate the impact the “digital turn” is having at the policy level.
The pieces, in other words, are in place. What is missing is the catalyst that will allow this sense of moment to develop the kind of high-profile, transformative agenda a CIFAR-supported research network would support.
Canada has a history of excellence in pioneering the use of digital technology in humanistic study.
Early and innovative funding programmes such as the SSHRC Information, Text, Sound, and Technology (ITST) networking grants and the Canada Research Chairs programme helped Canadian researchers develop a strong national infrastructure of expertise in the area. Building on the work of Canadian pioneers, including Ian Lancashire, Willard McCarty, Christian Vandendorpe, and the Dictionary of Old English project, these initiatives have established Canadian researchers of the current generation as world leaders in both the new discipline of the Digital Humanities and the integration of technology into more traditional forms of humanistic research. Important contemporary Canadian projects include Synergies, Erudit, the Public Knowledge Partnership, INKE (Implementing New Knowledge Environments), ArticIQ, Global Outlook::Digital Humanities, and the world-leading Digital Humanities Summer Institute. Canadian researchers of the current generation with extensive international leadership in the discipline include Ray Siemens, Rowland Lorimer, Susan Brown, Peter Robinson, Christine McWebb, Kevin Kee, Chad Gaffield, Michael Sinatra, Stéfan Sinclair, and the Canadian members of the team behind this application, Rockwell and O’Donnell.
These people and projects are part of a wide and increasingly diverse global network of researchers, centres, and projects. These include the non-Canadian proponents of this LOI, Davidson, Fraistat, Gil, and Liu, and others ranging from Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations and the Consortium of Humanities Centers to individuals with well-established international reputations such as, in the U.S., Kathleen Fitzpatrick (MLA), Laura Mandell (TAMU), Ian Bogost (Georgia Tech), and John Unsworth (Brandeis); in the U.K., Andrew Prescott (KCL) and Melissa Terras (UCL); Ernesto Priani and Isabel Galani (Mexico); Jieh Hsiang (Taiwan); Domenico Fiormonte (Italy); and Amlan Dasgupta and members of the Sarai project (India)—to name only a few of the many researchers and organisations around the globe who are engaged with topics of relevance to this call.
The core group behind this application are all leaders or emerging leaders in the Digital Humanities (corresponding authors marked with an asterisk). Cathy N. Davidson* is John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, co-founder of HĀSTAC and the Praxis Network, and co-director of the MacArthur Foundation/Gates Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition. She was appointed by President Obama to the National Council on the Humanities in 2011 and is the first educator to join the six-person Board of Directors of Mozilla. Neil Fraistat is Professor of English and Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland. He currently chairs the international Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), is Co-Founder and Co-Chair of centerNet, and is Vice President of the Keats-Shelley Association of America. His is also Co-Founder and General Editor of the Romantic Circles Website. Alex Gil* is a recent PhD (Virginia) and textual scholar at Columbia University, where he is Digital Scholarship Coordinator at the University Library. He is a founding officer of Global Outlook::Digital Humanities and organiser of the first and second Caribbean THaT (The Humanities and Technology) camps. Alan Liu is Professor of English at UC, Santa Barbara, founder of the pioneering early humanities portal, Voice of the Shuttle, co-founder and -leader (with Rockwell) of the international 4Humanities advocacy initiative and director of the NEH-funded Teaching with Technology project. Daniel Paul O’Donnell* is Professor of English at the University of Lethbridge, editor of Digital Studies/Le Champ Numérique, former chair of the Text Encoding Initiative, and co-founder of Digital Medievalist and Global Outlook::Digital Humanities. He is Principal Investigator of both the Lethbridge Journal Incubator and the Visionary Cross 3D visualisation project. Geoffrey Martin Rockwell* is Professor of Philosophy and Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta and a former Director of the Humanities Media and Computing Centre at McMaster University. He is currently the Director of the Canadian Institute for Research in Computing and the Arts and a network investigator in the GRAND Network of Centres of Excellence that is studying gaming, animation and new media.
Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. 2010. “The ‘Crisis’ in the Humanities”. Blog. Academic Librarian. November 5. http://bit.ly/19mSkN3.
Davidson, Cathy N. 2013. “It’s Not a Crisis in the Humanities, It’s a Crisis in the Society | HASTAC.” Accessed May 12. http://bit.ly/175HGuQ”.
Wikipedia contributors. 2013.“List of Most Popular Websites.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. http://bit.ly/14m3Mq3.
Riesman, Abraham. 2013. “Crossdressing, Compression and Colliders: The First Photo on the Web.” Motherboard. Accessed May 26. http://bit.ly/13jqWeb
(An unpublished piece from 2006 for CBC Radio Commentary)
Last fall, for the first time since I started working in the University, I signed up to take an undergraduate course.
I was beginning a sabbatical and I thought a first-year class in some other discipline might make for a nice hobby alongside my regular research. Most of my undergraduate students take four or five courses a semester and manage to hold down jobs. With the study skills developed over a lifetime in Academia, I thought I would have no problem fitting in a single course alongside my paid work.
The semester began all right. I had a little trouble getting into class—it turns out enrolment for non-majors starts at 5 am and is over by 5:10. And the textbooks were expensive: mine ended up costing almost $200 by the time I left the store. But I soon started enjoying myself. My high school math came back quickly, and I aced the early problem sets. I was so pleased with my progress, in fact, that I ended up showing my first lab report to our University president when I ran into him in the hall one day after class.
The course was good for me professionally as well. As an undergraduate the first time round, I was pretty focussed. I majored in medieval English and took ancient languages to meet my breadth requirement. The last course I took with a lab was probably over 20 years ago in high school. It was good to watch somebody trained in a different discipline teach an introductory course. The basic pedagogical problems turned out to be for the most quite similar to those I face, and it was good to see what did and did not work from a students’ perspective.
The thing that most impressed me, however, was how hard today’s undergraduates work. As the semester went on, I found it very hard to keep up my grades while working full time. I have a renewed respect for my students who are able to balance the competing demands of three or more courses and work at one or two part-times jobs. With the mid-term looming and professional deadlines closing in, their professor ended up having to choose between work and school: I dropped Physics 1000 by the beginning of November.
Over the next couple of weeks, undergraduates begin the new semester at universities across Canada. Here’s a salute to their hard work—from a professor, and (for now) college drop-out.
CBC Commentary: Air date 15/3/2004
Did you know that most researchers at universities are in the Humanities and Social Sciences? Dan O’Donnell is an English professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. On Commentary he says many of these researchers are being overlooked for grants.
Recently, Prime Minister Paul Martin called for an increase in funding for scientific research. This is great news. After years of falling behind our competitors, Canadians are now putting real money into the natural and health sciences.
But natural and health scientists are not Canada’s only research community. More than half the faculty in our universities and colleges work in the social sciences and the humanities. These are our historians, our English professors, our linguists, our anthropologists. They are the people who study the world’s languages, cultures, and social organization.
They are also very poorly funded. Six out of ten researchers in Canadian universities work in the social sciences and the humanities. But these disciplines get less than 15 per cent of the $1.7 billion Ottawa spends each year on university-level research.
They also lack prestige. Of the more than one thousand Canada research chairs appointed by the federal government since 2000, less than one third have gone to scholars in the humanities and the social sciences.
Now it is easy to see why a pragmatic government might kid itself into dismissing this work. Research in the social sciences and humanities can seem far removed from our daily lives. Studies of Beowulf or of the suppression of homosexuality in children’s novels seem like frills when money is tight and the books need to be balanced.
But this is a mistake. The social sciences and humanities study the things that really matter to us. They are what we talk about. Recent debates about the historical definition of marriage, about the line between child pornography and legitimate artistic expression, or even about whether European hockey players are really less macho than their Canadian counterparts all involve questions studied by humanities and social science researchers.
More importantly, these researchers were studying these questions long before the rest of us discovered they were interesting or that they affected our daily lives. Ten years ago a professor of mine at Yale, the late John Boswell, was laughed at in newspapers across North America for writing a book about of the history of gay marriage. Nobody’s laughing any more.
More recently, a colleague of mine at the University of Lethbridge, Inge Genee, began a project looking at the influence government funding has on the survival of immigrant and aboriginal languages. And the source of her idea? previous research she did on the way scribes combine Latin with other European languages in medieval Irish manuscripts.
The point is that you can’t tell where the next big idea will come from. Research in the humanities and the social sciences forms what you might call a strategic knowledge reserve for our national debates.
We’re going to discuss these questions anyway. We may as well do it properly.
For Commentary, I’m Dan O’Donnell in Lethbridge.
Originally Published: Edmonton Journal, 21 July 2010: A.15
A local high school asks you to speak to a graduating class about careers in the new digital economy. What would you urge them to study?
Computer science? Engineering? Philosophy? Classics? Celtic studies? You might be surprised at how useful those last three could prove to be.
Engineers and computer scientists are not the only ones who have played important roles in building our new digital economy; students of the humanities and social sciences have played an equally significant role.
Just ask Larry Sanger, the cofounder of Wikipedia, who earned his PhD in philosophy, or Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, who initially applied to Harvard University to study classics or Michael Everson, who did doctoral research in Celtic studies before becoming a lead developer of Unicode, the technology used to transmit the different alphabets on the web.
What makes the new digital economy so exciting and so different from what came before is the emphasis it places on problems humanists and social scientists have always studied: organization and communication; finding the balance between the group and the individual; and producing, disseminating and sharing cultural work.
The Internet is no longer primarily an engineering problem. Its basic technological building blocks have been in place for 20 years. What is new is how this technology is being used. Time magazine nominated “the PC” as its machine of the year way back in 1983. In 2006, its person of the year was “You,” the person who contributes to social networking sites such as Facebook and helped build Wikipedia into history’s largest encyclopedia in less than a decade.
The significant thing about the new digital economy is not its technology, but its applications. Wikipedia reinvented a new way of writing reference works on the basis of relatively simple pre-existing technology. Services such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are revolutionary because they helped create the blogosphere, a social phenomenon in which ordinary people are able to organize themselves and share their opinions in ways never before possible.
The humanities and social sciences are important to the new digital economy not simply because they help people think about technology in new ways. They are also directly responsible for some of the fundamental protocols that allow this technology to function.
By far the most important of these is XML, or eXtensible Markup Language. XML is a computer language that allows webpages to reuse data from different sources and to reformat themselves for display on different devices. If you have ever posted a video to YouTube, written on a friend’s wall in Facebook or checked the weather or your stock portfolio online, you have used an application that depends on XML for its core operations. Even the fact that you can choose to read this newspaper online, on your smartphone or in print is a result of the adoption of XML in the newspaper industry.
XML owes much of this success to the work of humanities and social science researchers.
C. Michael Sperberg-McQueen, the lead designer of XML, has a PhD in comparative literature. Before starting work on XML, he was lead editor at the Text Encoding Initiative, a consortium of universities, libraries, dictionaries and other scholarly organizations that developed a similar earlier language for exchanging data, such as dictionary entries, bibliographies and ancient texts. In fact, one of the biggest users of this earlier language was the Dictionary of Old English at the University of Toronto, a pioneering project that was also the first completely computerized dictionary.
Making Canada a digital nation will require challenging the assumption that the digital age is purely a question of science and engineering. In the digital age, technology is a powerful enabler. Our ability to connect virtually using digital technologies, to access information and knowledge and to use digital content in every aspect of our lives will determine our success as a digital nation.
The next “killer app” is probably sitting right now on the computer screen of a student in the humanities and social sciences.
Daniel Paul O’Donnell is a professor of English at the University of Lethbridge. He is also co-president of the Society for Digital Humanities and a vice-president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.
Credit: Daniel Paul O’Donnell; Freelance
Some great columns on the current funding crisis in Alberta’s Post Secondary Education sector by the University of Lethbridge’s outgoing Dean of Arts and SciencePosted: May 2, 2013
Our outgoing Dean of Arts and Science, Chris Nicol, has been a very active participant in recent local public discussion of recent funding cuts in Post-Secondary Education introduced unexpectedly by the provincial government.
His position, as both a Dean and an economist, give him a very strong basis for explaining the history, impact, and correctness (or not) of the assumptions underlying the government’s recent about-face on University funding.
Some of the pieces are quite detailed rather than popular, but it is always thrilling to see somebody actually in administration speak truth to power. Or perhaps that should be “finally thrilling”?
Here’s a link to the directory with the relevant PDFs: http://people.uleth.ca/~nicolc/Alberta_PSE_Reports/
Chris has recently revamped his webpages. The look like they will be well worth paying attention to in the immediate future!
A great statement today in Slate by Siva Vaidhyanathan about the value of public research:
We Americans take these institutions for granted. We assume that private enterprise generates what is so casually called “innovation” all by itself. It does not. The Web browser you are using to read this essay was invented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The code that makes this page possible was invented at a publicly funded academic research center in Switzerland. That search engine you use many times a day, Google, was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation to support Stanford University. You didn’t get polio in your youth because of research done in the early 1950s at Case Western Reserve. California wine is better because of the University of California at Davis. Hollywood movies are better because of UCLA. And your milk was not spoiled this morning because of work done at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
These things did not just happen because someone saw a market opportunity and investors and inventors rushed off to meet it. That’s what happens in business-school textbooks. In the real world, we roll along, healthy and strong, in the richest nation in the world because some very wise people decided decades ago to invest in institutions that serve no obvious short-term purpose. The results of the work we do can take decades to matter—if at all. Most of what we do fails. Some succeeds. The system is terribly inefficient. And it’s supposed to be that way.
Along the way, we share some time and energy with brilliant and ambitious young people from around the world.
Important to realise this is also a selective list. Other things generated in whole or in part by publicly funded researchers and institutions include Unicode and XML.
Can anybody think of others?
Educating scholars: doctoral education in the humanities has an interesting set of chapters addressing the question of what happens to PhD students after they leave their programmes, with or without a degree.
The study of focussed on graduates of prominent departments in ten elite universities who were in programme in the period between 1991 and 2001 and so is looking at both a fairly strongly marked class of student and a strongly marked time period: the students they are following had what they describe as high “departmental prestige” when they entered the job market; and, while predictions of the faculty shortage in humanities that in part prompted this study (4) never actually appeared, their subjects do appear to have graduated into an academic job market that was more open than that immediately before or afterwards.
So with all these provisos in mind, what happened to the students? A number of sets of figures stand out.
Love and marriage and progress-to-degree: Surprising effect of marital status and gender on PhD completionPosted: June 7, 2012
We ask “Do the gender differences in attrition and completion patterns that we have observed reflect differences in family status by gender?”
To preview our findings, we find that there are no gender differences in the attrition and completion among students who are single. The overall gender differences in completion rates and attrition rates that we observed… are driven by the fact that married men are less likely to leave graduate school and more likely to earn degrees, whereas married women and single women do not differ in these respects. Having children at the time of entry to doctoral study is associated with increased chances of completing the degree within 10 years among men (but not significantly so), but this is not the case with women. Furthermore married men with children at the time of entry to doctoral study have shorter TTD [Time to Degree] than single men. In short marriage and fatherhood are beneficial for men when it comes to completing degrees. At the same time, contrary to popular expectation, marriage and motherhood are not detrimental for women (157, emphasis added).
I’ve long felt that the greatest pressure on attrition in graduate school, particularly PhD programmes, but also lower levels, is life. I.e. one is in graduate school at exactly the same time in one’s life when people with similar abilities and training are establishing themselves in careers, business, and, especially, families. As with the “popular expectation,” I assumed this would result in greater attrition pressures on women.
So it was a surprise to see that marital status has its real effect on the attrition of male students and that it doesn’t affect women.