Humanities Category


Monographs are important in the humanities – but consider open access

On Monday, The Guardian’s Higher Education Network posted an item by Melissa Terras “Want to be taken seriously as scholar in the humanities? Publish a monograph“. The entire short post is worth reading, but here are a few excerpts:

We don’t write humanities monographs for riches. We may do so in an attempt to earn academic fame. But the career kickback for me was rapid promotion. In the humanities, the monograph’s the thing.

With digital publishing comes the uncoupling of content from print: why should those six years of work (or more) result in only a physical book that sits on a few shelves? Why can’t the content be made available freely online via open access?

Isn’t this the great ethical stance: making knowledge available to all? Won’t opening up access to the detailed, considered arguments held within humanities monographs do wonders for the reputation and impact of subject areas whose contribution to society is often under-rated?

The humanities’ dependency on the monograph for the shaping and sharing of scholarship means that scholars – and publishers – should be paying attention. How will small print runs of expensive books fare in this new “content should be available for free” marketplace? How will production costs be recouped?

The latest Jisc survey on the attitudes of academics in the humanities and social sciences to open-access monograph publishing makes an interesting contribution to this debate, showing how central single-author monographs remain to the humanities, and how important the physical – rather than digital – copies are. People still like to read, and in many cases buy, them.

The monograph is still the thing: anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a scholar in the humanities should work towards having one. Open-access requirements are on the horizon, so broach them with the publisher. Don’t accept £10,000 costs. Brandish this survey, and say “people still buy books”.


UI Libraries Join Knowledge Unlatched to Support Open Access Books in the Humanities and Social Sciences

The University of Iowa Libraries has signed up to support Knowledge Unlatched, a collaborative initiative to make scholarly books in the humanities and social sciences available open access. Knowledge Unlatched uses a model that brings library funds together to a set of books that academic publishers have agreed to make open access with a Creative Commons license.

Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. -Peter Suber [source]

The first collection of books in this pilot collection cover History, Political Science, Literary Studies, Anthropology and Communications  [The full title list is here]. This project is the first of its kind and is expected to pave the way for more scholarly books to be freely available online without the usual licensing restrictions of eBooks. If 200 libraries sign up by January 31st, these books will be “unlatched” and future collections will be expected to emerge in 2014.


On the Permanence of Open Access, by Ed Folsom

Today’s Open Access Week guest post comes from Ed Folsom, Professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. He is the co-Editor of the Walt Whitman Archive, “an electronic research and teaching tool that sets out to make Whitman’s vast work, for the first time, easily and conveniently accessible to scholars, students, and general readers.” It is published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln under a Creative Commons License. Learn more here about open access and Open Access Week at the University of Iowa.

On the Permanence of Open Access

Ed Folsom

Why even talk about Open Access at this point? It is here to stay, has grown tenfold in the past decade, and is so obviously the way scholarship will be distributed and read in the future that all the reservations about it simply continue to dissolve as the months roll by. Journals that remain print only are becoming among the least read, and journals that are Open Access watch their readership increase exponentially. The concerns that continue to get expressed are almost all financial in nature, but online finances are changing as quickly as the technology: things have had a way of sorting themselves out remarkably well in a very short period of time. What seemed like major drawbacks five years ago are almost forgotten today. Whatever vestiges remain of the valuing of print and paper over online publication are quickly disappearing, too, as more and more universities are rewriting tenure and promotion guidelines to reward online scholarship. As fewer and fewer of us pick up print copies of journals and turn instead to the electronic copies of journals, we are producing a scholarly world only dimly anticipated a decade ago, a world where particular articles become the product sought (rather than complete issues of journals). Open Access allows articles in different journals to promptly engage each other, as social networks become scholarly networks, passing the most exciting new scholarship on via email, Twitter, Facebook. It may not be a great time to be looking for a job in the humanities, but it’s an amazing time to be a scholar of the humanities


Ed Folsom is Roy J. Carver Professor of English at the University of Iowa. His teaching and research have focused on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American poetry and culture, and he is particularly interested in the ways American poets have talked back to Walt Whitman over the years, and how Whitman tapped into American culture in surprising ways to construct a radical new kind of writing. In addition to running the Walt Whitman Archive, he has published many articles and books on Whitman’s relationship to art, culture, and technology. These include Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song (Holy Cow! Press), Re-Scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work (Wiley-Blackwell), and Walt Whitman’s Native Representations (Cambridge University Press).


Defending the Cultural Commons: the Avant-Garde and Information Activism, by Stephen Voyce

Today’s Open Access Week guest post comes from Stephen Voyce, Assistant Professor in the University of Iowa’s English department. It is an excerpt from an essay titled “Toward an Open-Source Poetics: Appropriation, Collaboration, and the Public Domain”, originally published in the journal Criticism (53.3 [Fall 2011]: 407-38). Professor Voyce will be participating in today’s panel discussion on academic publishing and open access. It will be held at 3 pm in room 1117 of the University Capitol Centre, and refreshments will be served. Find more details here about this event and Open Access Week at the University of Iowa. We hope you’ll join us.

Defending the Cultural Commons: the Avant-Garde and Information Activism

Stephen Voyce

In many ways the practices of appropriation and distributed creativity in recent poetry are part of a broader movement to enlarge and protect a public cultural commons. The term commons can refer to natural resources, public spaces, transportation, social institutions, information and research, government infrastructure, and network technologies. Thus, the commons contains material assets (e.g., parks, forests, water), intangible resources (e.g., the public domain, government research), and virtual environments (e.g., public radio, the Internet). A motley array of resources and public spheres converge within its signifying power and receive its protection from collective, democratic control. The radical market exploitation of the commons in recent decades has muddled distinctions between private and public realms of ownership (and since so many of the spaces in which subjects interact are now devoted to consumer practices, there is also a comparable muddling of our roles as citizens and consumers). Moreover, there has been little discussion of the public domain outside the disciplines of law and economics. Jessica Litman observes that, in the legal field, public domain works are often referred to as “unprotectable or uncopyrightable”; not only does this account of the public domain ignore its central role in subsequent literary production, it seems also to confer a peculiar nonstatus on any noncommercial object. We are led to conclude that an object not defined by property lacks proper existence. Since we lack a precise language to describe the commons, it has by default come to denote the residue of property. Responding to this challenge, James Boyle calls for a twenty-first-century information movement akin to the formation of the environmental movement during the 1960s. For this to take place, however, scholars like Boyle and Litman contend that a reinvigorated language of the commons is a necessary precondition if one hopes to mobilize communities to protect it.

The cultural activities of open source programmers and literary organizations like the Poetry Research Bureau, UbuWeb, and Information as Material afford both a theoretical and practical point of departure. Beyond the already multifarious range of meanings we give to the commons, from at least the fourteenth century onward, the term also affords a synonym for community (L. communis). Digital networks create countless possibilities for storing, distributing, and sharing cultural resources. These are the principles upon which networked collectives such as UbuWeb establish affiliations, codevelop their ideas, and present their work. Hence, UbuWeb functions both as a site of shared resources and as a site of community formation, and should be thought of and defended as such. Parks, squares, campuses, recreation centers, and social networking sites historically function as spaces in which communities form and mobilize as political subjects. One must apply this same logic to the public domain.

Next, we should conceive of the commons as a practice—and thus inject a logic of the commons into the fabric of our thoughts and actions. Again, both open source code sharing and UbuWeb’s commons-based poetics are instructive. Theories of authorship often mystify creativity by concealing the collective production of culture and its reliance on past traditions. Critiques of individual creativity appear all the more convincing with reference to contemporary poets, musicians, and authors whose challenge to proprietary definitions of authorship is the very hallmark of their practice.

To this end, the role of the avant-garde in the twenty-first-century is finding renewed purpose. The militaristic origin of the term avant-garde is well known. Renate Poggioli, responding to the legacies of futurism, imagism, and vorticism, argues that the formation of an avant-garde is essentially agonistic: the movement is defined “against something or someone”—and typically the academy or the general public. Although agonism appears within Greek, Christian, and Romantic traditions, “avant-garde agonism” refers to a radical form of opposition, a paradoxical affirmation of “self-sacrifice” by a “collective group” on behalf of the principles it advances. This now canonical definition of modernist experimental practice overshadows the intensely social projects of community building undertaken by artistic communities throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is this social imperative that gives direction to contemporary practice. The role of artistic and literary collectives today need not jettison agonism as such, but rather its sometimes elitist, chauvinistic, fascistic, and eschatological associations. The responsibility of the avant-garde will instead require an activistic obligation to create and fortify public domains of open source knowledge, to challenge excessive restrictions placed on language and information, to bring forth marginalized knowledges from a position of inaccessibility to the public at large, and to produce and share artistic tactics and works that challenge intellectual property. That which is at stake is nothing less than open accessibility to culture. Hence, writers and artists are becoming more collaborative and interdisciplinary, drawing on the general and specialized skills of archivists, programmers, academics, and community organizers. Recalling the syncretic logic of Wershler-Henry’s the tapeworm foundry, this form of political organization is recognizable in the formal politics of the poem: literary communities begin to participate in the struggle for the commons by advancing an open source artistry as the central axiom of their practice by insisting that the signifying codes that one develops belong to a community that shares, adapts, and transforms its many possible uses. 


Stephen Voyce is an Assistant Professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His work examines twentieth-century poetry and culture, print and digital media, and the history and politics of literary movements. His recent book, Poetic Community: Avant-Garde Activism and Cold War Culture (University of Toronto Press, Spring 2013), addresses several key poetic groups collaborating after World War II. He is currently working on a book project titled Open Source Culture: Literature, Appropriation, and the Public Domain, which investigates how late-twentieth-century poets, fiction writers, and artists creatively subvert intellectual property law and the regimes that enforce these policies. He is a member of the University of Iowa’s Digital Studio for Public Arts & Humanities and the director of the Fluxus Digital Archive.


On Not Being Published, by Stephen Ramsay

Open Access Week 2013 begins today, and all week we’ll be running posts by guest bloggers on open access and contemporary scholarship in the Humanities. Today’s post comes from Stephen Ramsay, Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Professor Ramsay is the University of Iowa’s open access guest-scholar this year, and he will be delivering a lecture, “What is a Publisher?” at 2 pm in the Illinois Room (room 348) of the IMU today, Monday, October 21st. He will also be participating in a panel discussion on open access and trends in academic publishing Tuesday, October 22, at 3 pm in Room 1117 of the University Capitol Centre. Find more details here about these events and Open Access Week at the University of Iowa. We hope you’ll join us.

On Not Being Published

Stephen Ramsay

I’m going to risk a certain immodesty by talking, in rather self-aggrandizing terms, about an essay of mine called “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do With a Million Books“.

This essay began as a talk I gave at Brown University in 2010. The talk was a bit rough, but reasonably well received. Later on that year, I was invited to a workshop in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario (the organizers had taken advantage of off-season rates to hold it in a stunningly beautiful resort town). The workshop was called “Playing with Technology in History” (later rebranded as “PastPlay”) and focused on bringing notions of play and the ludic (using, for example, role-playing games, Arduino boards, and even Lego bricks) to teach history. The plan was that we would spend a day playing games, hacking things, and participating in other sorts of activities — in other words, trying things out and exchanging ideas to see what might work and what might not. On the second day, though, we would get down to business. We were all supposed to bring an essay to be workshopped in traditional seminar format. University of New Brunswick Press had agreed to publish the resulting volume (subject to the usual terms of peer review). So, I revised my essay from Brown — making it a bit less “talky” — and submitted it to the group.  Reactions were, I thought, more positive this time, though one participant told me I was dead wrong on one particular point. He was right; I fixed it, and fiddled with it some more. Publishing takes a while, as we all know, but being generally anarchic digital humanists, we all agreed that it would be a good idea to put all the essays online in advance of them being formally published.

That essay is now, far and away, the most successful thing I’ve ever written. It has been cited countless times, is a regular feature on course syllabi throughout the land, and was even discussed at some length by Stanley Fish on the New York Times “Opinionator” blog.

But here’s the thing.  It is 2013 — three years later — and that essay still hasn’t been published.

Now, there are several reasons for this, none of which includes lassitude on the part of the workshop organizers. Nonetheless, when I write my annual review, I still list it as “forthcoming,” which means that it doesn’t yet “count” as something next to which my department can put a check mark. It’s not yet accepted as one of my “scholarly accomplishments.” The question, therefore, is whether I should actually care about this.

In one sense, the answer is “yes.” Academics tend to think of success as adding to the list of items on their CV, and this one still isn’t on mine. On the other hand, this essay made me famous (not Miley Cyrus famous, but you know what I mean). To be more precise, it gave me readers — people who actually care what I have to say. I cannot possibly communicate my astonishment that this happened. For years now, I have been putting everything I’ve ever written online (or rather, everything I can legally put online). I don’t really know why this one caught fire. “Hermenutics” isn’t, I suspect, high on the list of most-googled terms, and while “screwing around” likely is, I imagine that most in search of content related to the latter are disappointed by the marked lack of prurience in a piece that mostly talks about libraries.

On the other hand, it shouldn’t have surprised me at all. For years, I had been tweeting things like, “Hey everybody! New blog post!” As with spam, someone always has to investigate further. But even if that response rate is minuscule, the effect might be just as the old shampoo ad put it: “I told two friends. And they told two friends. And so on and so on . . .” After a while, people started to read other things I’d written.

I’m uncomfortable telling this story, because it sounds like any number of absurd narratives (“rags to riches,” “the entrepreneurial spirit,” and so forth). But I cannot deny a very important aspect of this tale: it happened because the piece was open and online. It was, in other words, open access.

These days, we are likely to speak of open access in terms of the economics of publishing and libraries. Occasionally, we speak of open access as a way to make scholars’ work available to a wider public. What is seldom discussed, though, is the role of naked self-interest on the part of academics. If you’re interested in having readers (and you should be), does it really make sense to bury your work in the stacks of a research library to be discovered by the six graduate students who find it while researching “Hermeneutics–Data Processing”?

Back when I started working on digital libraries (as a graduate student, not too long after the Web appeared), one often heard professors talking about their fear of having their work “stolen” if they put it online. Twenty years on, one still hears it from time to time. We used to say, “You should be so lucky!” My work wasn’t stolen (so far as I know), but one thing I know for sure: I was so lucky, and I certainly wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t put it out there for all to see.

Hopefully, it will never be published.


Stephen Ramsay is Susan J. Rosowski Associate University Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a Fellow at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. He is interested in the digital humanities, theories of new media, theater history, applying computational methods to humanities scholarship, and designing and building text technologies for humanist scholars. His publications include Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism (University of Illinois Press, 2011) and, with Patrick Juola, the forthcoming Mathematics for the Humanist (Oxford University Press).




The Open Library of Humanities

Open Library of Humanities

The Public Library of Science (PLoS) is a non-profit open access publisher of scientific research with the mission to accelerate progress in science and medicine. Each PLoS article is free to read and is available through a Creative Commons license, optimizing the ability for researchers to build upon the work. Since its founding in 2000, PLoS journals have risen to the top of their fields and has help revolutionize the ways in which scientists communicate their work. In the spirit of PLoS, the Open Library of Humanities (OLH) will bring sustainable open access publishing to the humanities.

The Open Access movement is partly a response to the rising costs of the traditional publishing system, but it is mostly an effort to bring scholarly communication into the age of the web. No longer bound by the timetables and infrastructure necessary for a print-based publishing system, the OLH will offer rigorous peer-review and publish each work online when it is ready and offer article-level metrics to track each work’s impact in the scholarly field.

The OLH is still in the early stages of planning but is expected to fill a much needed gap in open access options for humanities scholars. To get involved, you can subscribe to their email newsletter or contact Chris Diaz to receive updates as the project develops. Right now, the OLH is recruiting editors and is asking interested authors to Pledge to Publish in the OLH’s first year.


Modern Language Association issues new guidelines for evaluating digital work

Articles in Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education describe the MLA’s new guidelines and quote from their contents.

“Institutions and departments should develop written guidelines so that faculty members who create, study, and teach with digital objects; engage in collaborative work; or use technology for pedagogy can be adequately and fairly evaluated and rewarded,” says the MLA guidance. “The written guidelines should provide clear directions for appointment, reappointment, merit increases, tenure, and promotion and should take into consideration the growing number of resources for evaluating digital scholarship and the creation of born-digital objects. Institutions should also take care to grant appropriate credit to faculty members for technology projects in teaching, research, and service.”

“Digital media are transforming literary scholarship, teaching, and service, as well as providing new venues for research, communication, and the creation of networked academic communities,” the updated guidelines say. “Academic work in digital media must be evaluated in the light of these rapidly changing technological, institutional, and professional contexts, and departments should recognize that many traditional notions of scholarship, teaching, and service are being redefined.”


Do ‘the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, the director of scholarly communication at the Modern Language Association, recently wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education called Do ‘the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities.  She recounts a story where she encouraged a graduate student to do the risky thing and pursue an innovative project rather than a traditional dissertation. Fitzpatrick added  “Make sure that someone’s got your back, but do the risky thing.” She adds:

“That is not to push experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but it is to say that reining in a project a graduate student really wants to do to conform with a traditional structure is counterproductive, deflating both the student’s passion and the thing that makes her work distinctive.”

Fitzpatrick continues by identifying the support from an adviser as more critical. This support continues through helping graduates in their first jobs explain to senior faculty about their work.

“Too many young digital humanists find themselves cautioned away from the very work that got them hired by well-meaning senior colleagues, who now tell them that wacky digital projects are fine on the side, or once the work necessary for tenure is complete.

“In giving that advice, we run the risk of breaking the innovative spirit that we’ve hoped to bring to our departments. And where that spirit isn’t broken, untenured digital scholars run the risk of burnout from having to produce twice as much—traditional scholarship and digital projects—as their counterparts do.”


Open Data for Historical Research: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database

Culminating several decades of collaboration between researchers and archives spanning four continents, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database comprises the most comprehensive source of historical data on the slave trade, and is freely available over the Internet. The Voyages Database, its core tool, offers researchers an intuitively friendly interface for searching among nearly 35,000 discrete slave voyages undertaken between 1514 and 1866. Data points for individual voyages include things like: ship name; flag(s); owners; place(s) of slave purchase; place(s) of slave landing; numbers of slaves that died in transit; and much more.

Three ancillary databases provide estimates of the volume of trade for particular periods, regions, and itineraries; images of documents, maps, and illustrations; and the African names of individual slaves that were recorded for particular voyages. Additional resources include a series of interpretive essays by contributing scholars, and a set of lesson plans for the K-12 audience.

Access the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database at


Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research

by Mark Bauerlein, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, July 20, 2009.

Excerpts from his opinion article:

It was sometime in the 1980s, I think, that a basic transformation of the aims of literary criticism was complete. Not the spread of political themes and identity preoccupations, which struck outsiders and off-campus critics like William Bennett, a former secretary of education turned radio host, as the obvious change, but a deeper adjustment in the basic conception of what criticism does. It was, namely, the shift from criticism-as-explanation to criticism-as-performance. Instead of thinking of scholarship as the explication of the object—what a poem means or a painting represents—humanists cast criticism as an interpretative act, an analytical eye in process.

…In a working paper I wrote recently for the American Enterprise Institute, “Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own,” I reported that over the past five decades, the “productivity” of scholars in the fields of languages and literature had increased hugely: from approximately 13,000 publications to 72,000 a year. Consider the output in literary studies. From 1950 to 1985, 2,195 items of criticism and scholarship devoted to William Wordsworth appeared. Virginia Woolf garnered 1,307, Walt Whitman 1,986, Faulkner 3,487, Milton 4,274, and Shakespeare at the top, with 16,771. Type any major author into the MLA International Bibliography database and more daunting tallies pop up. In each pile lies everything from plot summaries to existentialist reflections. But for all practical purposes, such as teaching an undergraduate class, they impart the meanings and representations to the full.

The accomplishment of the enterprise, however, was a curse for young aspirants, the graduate student in search of a dissertation (like I was in 1985) and the assistant professor in need of a book. They had to write something new and different. Theories and valuations that displaced the meaning of the work and prized the unique angle of the interpreter didn’t just flatter the field. They empowered novices to carry on. The long shadow of precursors dissipated in the light of creative, personal critique. The authors studied might remain, but there were new theories to rehearse upon them and topics to expound through them, controversies in which to “situate” oneself, and readerly dexterities to display.

…Foundations, university humanities research centers, and other organizations that subsidize humanities research also should recognize the audience decline. When they financed research in 1960 on, say, American literature, they helped scholars fill gaps and fissures in literary history and understanding. But in 2009, after the publication of 225,749 more items of scholarship and criticism on American literature, the same support means … what?

Unless institutions adjust criteria, the incentives will continue, and so will labor-intensive but audience-indifferent publishing in saturated areas.

Two policy changes would go a long way to remedying the problem.

One, departments should limit the materials they examine at promotion time. If aspirants may submit only 100 pages to reviewers, they will publish less and ensure that those 100 pages are superb.

Two, subsidizers should shift their support away from saturated areas and toward unsaturated areas, in particular toward research into teaching and even more toward classroom and curricular initiatives.

…Read the complete article at:

The article is generating quite a few comments from readers as well, so check those out as well.