Is Collaboration the Only Way to Do DH?

Image from EducatorsWeb2-0

Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Elon University

While collaboration is a huge part of digital humanities, is it the only way to do DH? If you are working on a digital humanities project by yourself, does it count as DH?

I thought about these questions during the NITLE seminar, “Race and the Digital Humanities,” presented by Adeline Koh yesterday.  During the Q&A, Roopika Risam tweeted, “Q. How to deal w/ collaborative backlash. AK makes excellent pt: even single-authored monographs are collaborative.”  To provide context, she explained that in a previous Twitter discussion, several people challenged the notion that digital humanities projects should be collaborative projects.  Some of the responses during the chat seemed to support the notion that all DH projects are large-scale projects that require collaboration.  Dorothy Kim stated, “Well, it’s kind of hard to do all that work without being collaborative.”  Julian Chambliss added, “There is also the assumption that these project involve ‘big data’ in the project.”

However, during her presentation, Koh cited Matt Kirschenbaum‘s definition of digital humanities:  “At its core, then, digital humanities is more akin to a common methodological tool than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies” (Koh, “Introduction”).  This definition does not say anything about the size of the project where technology is used in a humanist, scholarly endeavor.

Surely, large-scale digital humanities projects invite collaboration.  There is no way the project I manage, KPOPIANA, which collects and organizes information of Korean popular music, could be done by one person.  That is why there are several dedicated people working on the project! 😀  However, I’m also working solo on iFans: Mapping Kpop’s International Fandom, a more specific project that examines K-pop Internet fan culture through case studies of 12 K-pop groups.  For context, over 400 K-pop groups have debut since the early 1990s.  I’m not interested in documenting fan production and activity for 400 groups (although someone should!).  I’m interested in the fan production and attitudes of the 12 groups I’ve chosen for the case studies.  This is a smaller, more targeted project. I kinda like working on that by myself. Does it mean that’s not a digital humanities project?

Risam’s question also pointed to the dynamics between collaboration and the single-author monograph, which some consider to be the gold standard for publication for promotion and tenure. During the seminar Q&A, some questioned  how to articulate our digital humanities projects in terms that are recognized by P&T committees.  Koh suggested that we explain how our work parallels the type of intellectual endeavor represented by more traditional types of publications.  Since P&T committees are familiar with critical editions and bibliographies, it make sense to use those as a basis for describing digital humanities projects that aggregate and curate material.  However, when we argue for mostly collaborative DH projects, what happens to the DH analogue to the single-author monograph? Wouldn’t that be the DH project where one person is working by his/herself?

But I also think that this discourse on collaboration is also complex in other ways. It’s great that DH allows us to provide credit to the other persons working on a collaborative project. For KPOPIANA, everybody gets a credit on the work they do.  However, all persons do not contribute equally to the project.   My interns that work on KPOPIANA are doing substantially different work than my cataloguers and curators.  Everyone should get credit, but collaboration does not mean individuals receive equal credit.

During the chat, Lee Skallerup pondered, “Is using tools that someone else created “collaborative”? But then again, is traditional humanities scholarship REALLY truly not collaborative?”  On the road to creating my book for publication, I depended on editors and readers along the way, but does their input equal my work, which includes doing the theoretical contextualization, crafting the argument, writing the manuscript and doing the research? And there are ways that these individuals claim credit for that important work they do in their own professional service documents and resumes. Maybe academia should consider making such intellectual work more transparent, but for now, there is not a way to capture their contribution.  Does such contributions rise to the level of collaboration as most people think about it? How can the discourse of collaboration also lay bare the different levels of contribution?

I’m not against the collaborative approach to digital humanities, but I definitely think that DH needs to make space for individuals working on DH projects. Otherwise, it runs the risk of creating an orthodoxy that privileges the collaborative over the individual, which simply inverts what some see as a flaw in traditional humanities research: the privileging of individual work over collaboration.


Adeline Koh,  “Race and the Digital Humanities: An Introduction (NITLE Seminar),” Adeline Koh

—–.  “Race and the Digital Humanities: An Introduction (with tweets),” Storify
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.