What Is Humanities Research Now?
Roundtable at the Modern Language Association 2020 Convention
Today, the discipline of modern languages and literatures faces both challenges and opportunities. Although humanities research and the liberal arts education model have come under public scrutiny, new methodologies and ways of disseminating information, including “public humanities” and “digital humanities,” hold out promise for reinvigoration of the discipline. On Friday, January 9, I had the pleasure of joining six participants from Ithaka S+R’s Supporting Research in Languages and Literature project, sponsored by the Modern Language Association (MLA), to discuss these and other issues in a roundtable at the MLA 2020 Convention in Seattle.
In 2017 and 2018, 13 teams of academic librarians interviewed faculty members in language and literature at their own institutions, with a 14th team made up of MLA staff interviewing faculty at regional comprehensive colleges and universities across the United States. During the roundtable, participants each shared one key finding that arose in their team’s interviews. Mary Onorato (MLA) chaired the session.
Panelists discussed findings that shed light on the state of the discipline–and ways in which academic libraries can partner with scholars in moving forward. Matt Roberts (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) opened the panel with the provocative observation that the scholars his team interviewed were generally neither involved with digital humanities research nor enthusiastic about the digital humanities field. In contrast, Julie Frick Wade (MLA) shared that many faculty at regional comprehensive colleges and universities are enthusiastic about “public humanities”–an orientation toward making humanities research accessible and valuable to the non-academic public.
Moving to the subject of the role of the library in language and literature research, Amanda Watson (New York University) pointed out that the discipline is highly interdisciplinary, and that scholars may need methodological and bibliographic support when engaging with unfamiliar disciplines. Ashley Champagne (Brown University) also spoke about helping scholars embark on new methodological paths, underlining the importance of library staff adapting their training provision to match the changing demands of faculty. Identifying another training opportunity, John Tofanelli (Columbia University) observed that many scholars are confused about copyright issues, including open access and the reuse of their own previously published material, and may turn to librarians for help in this area. Finally, Darby Fanning (University of Utah) described the host of challenges scholars face in discovering and accessing special collections materials, emphasizing that these challenges vary significantly depending on archival policies.
A lively discussion ensued following these presentations. While audience questions engaged with a range of the findings presented, the conversation coalesced around three central questions. What is digital humanities? What is public humanities? And what are libraries doing to support digital humanities and public humanities scholarship? While it would be impossible to answer these questions fully in a single conference session, panelists offered several key insights. Both digital humanities and public humanities are expansive and difficult to define precisely–but they encompass unique methodologies and even philosophies of research, not just alternative methods of disseminating scholarship. While there is significant interest in using digital research and dissemination methods on many campuses, tenure requirements still pull most junior scholars toward publishing traditional monographs with prestige presses. And libraries have a long tradition of being the first port of call for language and literature scholars looking for support with new methods. One question I walked away from the session pondering was what can be done to address the gap between, on the one hand, the quality and range of supports libraries are currently offering for digital and public humanities–and on the other hand, the structural forces that hold many scholars back from fully engaging with these emerging fields.
The Research Support Services and Teaching Support Services programs illuminate the unique practices and needs of scholars in a variety of disciplines–as well as the common challenges they face. Participants work alongside Ithaka S+R to conduct a deep dive into their faculty’s needs and craft evidence-based recommendations. We recently published a report on the support needs of instructors in undergraduate business programs, and we will soon be launching projects on Supporting Teaching with Data in the Social Sciences and Supporting Big Data Research. We are currently in the process of exploring the development of new projects, including on the field of psychology, scholars across disciplines who conduct field research, and teaching and research practices leveraging academic museums. For more information about these and future projects, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.