One of the most evocative memories recalled during the oral history interviews is what we refer to as the motif of the underdog. It refers to interviewees’ recollections of how they or their research was ignored, ridiculed, or, more rarely, blocked by the mainstream academic community. Space will not allow all references to this motif to be included here; rather, an exemplary selection that also goes beyond the interviews included in this book is presented.
Geoffrey Rockwell discussed at length the opposition he encountered c.1994 when he developed and set up early courses in Humanities Computing in Canada, for example, the ‘Combined Honors in Multimedia and Another Subject program’ at McMaster University. He recalled, in particular, the opposition he faced when presenting the details of such courses to Faculty Council for approval:
In the early years, taking courses through, you would hit Faculty Council and … people would get up and go, you know, “I don’t understand why we are running computing classes, this is like ‘Pencils in the Humanities.’” … I distinctly got the feeling that there was a class of people for whom this was seen as a Trojan horse. The Humanities were under attack, people felt that back then and ... now the Humanities were not even the Humanities! (Rockwell 2012)
He also recalled the opposition he encountered over hiring decisions and at various committee meetings:
A second type of response was “you guys are intellectually lightweight.” I can remember one way that that manifested itself was through hiring. Because we were not a department until 2005, whenever we hired a tenure track Prof …. there was the question of whether or not the department that they would naturally fit in would host [them]. [A]nd Chairs, especially English, would inevitably tell me that, you know, “you may think this guy is interesting because he can programme, but I gotta tell you, intellectually he’s a lightweight.” ... The third type of argument that we got … was just blatant sarcasm and ignorance. … I think there was a class of older Profs who just literally felt: “I’m too old to understand this” and, you know, sometimes that could mean that they’d be quite supportive – “I’m too old to understand this, I was before the computer generation, you know, I wish I could know about this and I respect your knowledge but I don’t get it at all.” So that’s a positive spin on it, but there were also people going “I don’t understand it, it must be bullshit,” you know, “[t]his isn’t the good old stuff; we used to do Philology.” (Ibid)
A hint of the ‘intellectually lightweight’ refrain is also detectable in the interview with Nitti (see Chap. 9) who recalled how a colleague gibed that he had been given his tenured position only because he was able to attract grant money.
In his interview, McCarty recalled that ‘the coolness of the reception is what I felt from the people that weren’t using computers’ (McCarty et al. 2012). Indeed, this coolness seems to have contributed to his founding of the online, international seminar Humanist which has been running since 1987. Of its founding, McCarty wrote ‘Humanist was initially founded for those who worked in computing support and who encountered, among other things, a ‘lack of proper academic recognition” (1992, p. 209).
Towards the use of computing in Philosophy more generally, Huitfeld (see Chap. 15) recalled that an attitude of ‘scepticism’ and ‘even sometimes … hostility’ was to be found. However, he portrays the Wittgenstein scholars as pragmatic and reasonably open to such developments such was their desire to access the material. He also commented ‘there was a certain scepticism towards whether an electronic edition could ever substitute a real, connected publication in book form, but apart from that there was no problem’. This comment implies that it was the more pedestrian (at least conceptually) uses of computing that were acceptable to the wider discipline. This issue is also touched on by Bradley (see Chap. 14) who recalls how most academics routinely used email, the web and word processing in their research (that is, tools that have not emerged from the DH community). The resistance he encountered mostly pertained to potentially disruptive uses of computing in research: ‘there was also the group of people who had a natural resistance to the whole approach that text analysis represented. Text analysis is a more fundamental disturbance of how you look and think about the text you’re working with and I think most people just don’t see it as relevant to what they’re trying to do’. Within the context of electronic publishing, Unsworth recalled that his decision, as a junior faulty member, to set up a peer reviewed journal raised some eyebrows, and all the more so because it was published electronically (Unsworth et al. 2012).
Others recalled stronger opposition. Thaller (see Chap. 13) said that some historians viewed computing as an affront to the methodological basis of their discipline or ‘as a kind of vulneration against the principles established by Ranke’. Yet, he emphasises that their primary objection was to the use of quantitative methods in history and the computer was, in turn, rejected as a facilitator of this. Harris (see Chap. 8) recalled that while undertaking her PhD in the 1970s ‘one of the graduate advisers swore that I was trying to destroy literature by using the computer’. Both Harris and Sperberg-McQueen raised the issue of employment. Harris recalls that when she was finishing her PhD ‘in this oddball field’ she was initially unable to secure an academic job. She went directly from working as a bar tender to teaching in a Computer Science department.
Perhaps the most poignant recollection is that of Sperberg-McQueen (see Chap. 12), who described his mounting disappointment and dismay at his unsuccessful academic job search. He recalls that the regret he felt over the loss of an academic career afflicted him on a daily basis for many years after finishing his PhD. He communicated the deep sense of loss that he felt by recalling a conversation with his wife where he asked her ‘if someone loses their leg do you expect them to forget that they ever had a left foot?’ Though not captured in the transcript, the emotion in Sperberg-McQueen’s voice whilst recalling these events is notable on the audio recording. Careful to emphasise that ‘causality … is probably a far step’ he recalls how ‘I always thought that in later years [the tutor who had warned him off computing in the Humanities] must have told his students the same thing and pointed to me as an awful example: “he’s never gotten a job in Philology”, as indeed was the case’.
Interviewees did not all interpret the scepticism they encountered negatively. Some, such as Craig (see Chap. 3), discussed how (albeit from the perspective of one who had secured a tenured post) such scepticism could be beneficial because it offered a ‘very good sort of proving ground’. Nevertheless, he regretted not having persuaded more colleagues to take up such work and said that many feel that the time it takes to learn such techniques is not outweighed by the quality of the results they can facilitate.
Notwithstanding the discussion above, it is important to note that feelings of marginalisation were not universally experienced. While discussing the advisor who warned him off computing, Sperberg-McQueen also recalled the advisor who had set him to work on computerising the bibliography of the Elder Edda, thus evoking the range of attitudes to the role of computing in the Humanities that existed. Hockey (see Chap. 6), Ott (see Chap. 4) and Nitti (see Chap. 9) stated that they had encountered little hostility. Hockey and Ott believed this was due to the positions they held where part of their job was to support those interested in using computing in Humanities research. Nitti, Short and Hockey also recalled how they benefitted from collaborations with well-known, mainstream Humanities scholars and Hockey speculated that many of those working in DH benefitted from such alliances (this may well be the case and it is interesting that it is rarely discussed in the interviews we have carried out).
Most significantly, Rockwell carefully points out that the resistance that he encountered (discussed above) ceased:
In fact, one of the things that strikes me the most is how quickly it changed from something I had to fight to explain … It seemed like overnight there was no longer a battle, it was just accepted (2012).
These are issues that we will return to below.
Cross-Referencing the Evidence
Before moving on it is important to address the context in which the motif of the underdog tended to be recalled. In many cases it was raised in response to a particular question asked of all interviewees, namely ‘what about scholars who were not using computers in their research – do you have some sense of what their views were of Humanities Computing?’ Therefore, it might be argued that this motif may not arise with the same frequency were this particular question not asked. This may be so. Indeed, in contrast with documentary research a hallmark of oral history is the active participation of the researcher in the creation of the resource. As Portelli put it: ‘The content of oral sources … depends largely on what the interviewer puts into it in terms of questions, dialogue, and personal relationships’ (2006, p. 39). Far from being an unmediated, autobiographical account of the past ‘as it was’, the dialogic nature of oral history is multi-layered. It includes ‘a conversation in real time between the interviewer and the narrator and [also] what we might call external discourses or culture’ (Abrams 2010, p. 19).
Nevertheless, it is important to state that there is no evidence to suggest that the motif of the underdog is a fiction that came into being in response to this question. Rather it was a narrative (or ‘myth to live by’) that circulated about the community and formed part of shared DH ‘discourses and culture’. This can be demonstrated with reference to the wider literature of the field where the theme is variously and independently mentioned. For example, as cited in Chap. 1, in his retrospective on the occasion of the quarter century anniversary of the journal CHum, Raben discussed the peripheral nature of the field and how its publications were often not accepted by conventional journals (1991, p. 341). Brink evoked the cold-shouldering referred to above when he wrote that despite years of work ‘here we still are, looked at as somehow slightly suspect, slightly irrelevant to the core activity of humanities research’ (1990, p. 105). That employment prospects could be hampered by computing was blogged about by Rockwell. Referring to conditions that had been prevalent during an earlier stage of his career he asked ‘How many times were we warned not to do computing or not to put it on our CV if we wanted to be taken seriously as humanists?’ (Rockwell 2011). Various references to the ‘odd ball’ nature of the subject referred to above can also be found, for example, Spiro uses the term ‘misfits’ (2012) to refer to its practitioners.
We find an echo of the ‘intellectually lightweight’ charge in Kaltenbrunner’s study of a COST-funded, international and collaborative project that aimed to build a digital resource based upon an existing digital database. Senior scholars working on the project deemed the digitally-mediated work to essentially be non-scholarly (though they had engaged with it in a superficial way only) and delegated the development of this aspect of the project to graduate students and research assistants because their time was allegedly ‘not as valuable’ (2015, p. 219). Various articles have also addressed the low take up of DH methodologies and outputs by mainstream Humanities (see, for example, Olsen 1993; Juola 2008; Prescott 2012a). That this has become less true in recent times is suggested by a 2014 survey of four institutions in the USA that revealed that ‘nearly 50 % of respondents reported not just making use of digital tools and collections, but also creating them’ (Maron and Pickle 2014, p. 5).
Questioning the Motif
For all the references to the motif of the underdog discussed above its consistency can be questioned in various ways. Firstly and most obviously is that the motif is often recalled by those who occupied, or went on to occupy, senior academic positions such as professor. Appointment and promotion boards tend to comprise senior staff representatives of all faculties in a university and not just representatives from a candidate’s immediate faculty. The fact that such boards approved senior appointments in the area of DH can be construed as evidence that such marginalisation was not as systemic as might be assumed (which is not to say that it did not happen). It also suggests a temporal dimension, and the possibility that ambivalence was stronger in the earlier period and eventually receded to a point where academic appointments and promotions where approved. Further interviews must be carried out with those who worked in the field at a later stage before such a claim can definitively be made. However, in general we have noted that the motif of the underdog does occur less frequently in oral history interviews with younger members of the field (see, for example, Siemens et al. 2012). So too, in the interviews included in this book the very many forms of support and assistance that individuals received, not only from the mainstream Humanities but also from the commercial and other sectors are in evidence.
Secondly, as argued in Chap. 1, DH has (in terms of ‘institutional hallmarks’ such as the founding of centres and teaching programmes, the appointment of faculty and other tenured positions and the expansion of the community) been undergoing a process of moving from the margins towards the mainstream. This process has not followed a steady upward trajectory and individual experiences of it may vary depending on one’s geographical location, institution, position or disciplinary interest (cf., for example, Gold 2012). Yet, on the whole, the subject has been growing in strength and vitality. In this context, the frequent mention of the myth of the underdog in oral history interviews is especially interesting because in light of more recent developments other narratives are also available to interviewees, for example, the (albeit rather trite) narrative of ‘triumph over adversity’. Perhaps it is not surprising that interviewees should recall painful memories more readily than pleasant ones. Viewed from this angle we may interpret the motif as one that grants an insight into interviewees’ individual experiences and narratives of personal struggle and sacrifice that triumphal stories of the forward march of DH do not accommodate.
It is interesting that few references to the word revolutionary are to be found in the oral history interviews. Thaller was one of the few to mention it, noting that ‘the people at [DH] conferences considered themselves, well, if not as a group of elite, at least as a group of revolutionaries who grumbled against the conservative people trying to keep away from their inter-disciplinary work, which at that time was rather innovative in many humanities disciplines’. While the motif of the underdog often occurs in the oral history interviews it is the arguably corresponding motif of the revolutionary that often occurs in the field’s scholarly literature, as set out below. Before exploring what we argue to be the deeper interconnections between these motifs an analysis of relevant literature that uses the term ‘revolutionary’ is presented.