Aaron Jaffe: D and H

            Aaron Jaffe's presentation was supposed to be held in Herring Hall, but it was clear that he was speaking from inside the belly of the beast. He came to Rice to discuss digital humanities and their place in the university. Jaffe sees the term "STEM" as a marketing ploy that has achieved a great deal of success in receiving funding and status within universities. "Digital Humanities" (or "DH") has acted as an analogous tactic for gaining resources from the other side of campus. The problem to Jaffe, is that while STEM fields have obvious practical value and benefit the university through more easily quantifiable projects.  Here he notes that T and E are the central letters in the acronym. The humanities don't produce things of the same clear economic output and so DH attempts to align in some ways with STEM. It demands more resources and the projects result in some sort of visible product, often a technical image. 

            Jaffe doesn't raise a problem with the digital humanities as a whole, but he has some significant qualms. To him, it seems that academic faculty are losing too much ground to IT, administration, "functionaries," and vested interests in their ability to set curricula and research projects.  In addition to the politics, he also sees the generally misguided attitude toward the digital humanities. When someone, for instance, tracks the use of a word in literature across history, they have access to extremely powerful technology that enables them to do work that no one could ever do over the course of several lifetimes; however, the way a scholar analyzes and presents the information they find through technology requires a humanist education. This, Jaffe says, is missing too often. Digital humanities researchers produce things, but these things don't always say much. In this sense, data, metadata, and visualizations can be inferior to the smaller, but more critically understood, datasets used in more traditional humanities projects.

         Jaffe's presentation style, like his writing style, is fairly unconventional.  He doesn't pose arguments in a clear and systematic way. Rather, his arguments seem to emerge from the large body of ideas he discusses. I personally find this mode interesting, engaging, and very challenging. He also didn't want us to record his Sawyer Presentation. Whether or not it was his intent, Jaffe's stipulation enacted some of his arguments about digital humanities. He doesn't want to be reduced to data and metadata.  Although I found his talk provocative, I didn't see it as offensive to either "STEM" or "functionaries" as some did, though I would definitely be interested in hearing arguments from those sides as well. I took his criticism of academic politics as disagreements with the nature of the modern university and not on those working in scientific fields or functionaries. I'm glad to see people from around Rice engaging with these ideas, even if they disagree strongly.      

            I tend to agree with Jaffe on many of his points. I think it's a shame that disciplines have to justify themselves in terms of a narrowly defined "value." Schools within the university don't answer the same questions or have the same goals, something that these grabs for resources don't seem to consider. The bigger question then is why don't we have enough resources for all? Call me naive, but it seems wrong that our universities can't support the work happening within them to a necessary extent. If we could solve the issue of funding, then I predict that many of the problems with the projects themselves would also work themselves out. There is a huge amount of potential for the deployment of technology for humanistic ventures, and I don't want to see this potential wasted because of a limited idea of what the humanities can and should be.