Defining Digital Humanities, Redefining the University

By Andy Hines |

You may not have known it, but you are doing digital humanities right now. Whether you got here from your Twitter timeline, a Google search, or, by just visiting Blind Field, you have become a digital humanist. To one practitioner skeptical of the definition, digital humanities is a “catch-all term for people doing stuff with computers.” Yet, at the same time, another says that, “if you call a class ‘digital humanities’ there is not a student on earth who takes it, because they don’t know what it is.” Basically, what creates digital humanities are attempts to define the digital humanities. No one seems to understand what it is, but there is an urgency to define it, since due to increased funding and hype, it seems to suddenly be everywhere.

Despite the digital humanities’s expansiveness and evasiveness, administrators and academic granting agencies have found some cachet in the label. The last fifteen years have seen incredible digital humanities (DH) growth across academia. There are research centers, conferences, courses, jobs, and even majors in DH. So much of the definitional calisthenics exerted on DH seek to define what digital humanities work looks like. Most of what DH claims to do is something familiar, but digital: it is an archive, but online; it is a character network, but computer generated; it is critique, but with software assistance. Granted, computational tools have allowed programs to read thousands of books at once (called a corpus) instead of a few at a time and, under the direction of scholars like Franco Moretti, Ted Underwood, Hoyt Long and Richard Jean So, have supplied long histories of genre development and literary affiliation. Yet the roots of many of these projects are in empiricism more than they are in the digital per se. Moretti, for example, cites his desire to consider literary forms in terms of evolutionary theory as the catalyst for his “distant reading.” All told, the digital in the digital humanities has come to be understood as more of a positioning strategy to gain access to the shrinking funds offered to humanities department during an era of university austerity.

If the digital serves as the lightning rod in debates about digital humanities, then the logic of the positions for or against it come into clearer view, as does the relevance of this academic turn to the many who never knew they were doing digital humanities all along. David Harvey has argued that “information technology is the privileged technology of neoliberalism.” [1] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello point out that new technologies do not liberate laborers from work, but rather expand the “psychological obligation” of workers by monitoring their work activity even when granting them more independence from the workplace. [2] Observations like these on the ramifications of the digital have led a number of skeptics to call attention to the neoliberal affiliations of digital humanities. In the Los Angeles Review of Books in May, an essay by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia declared the field a neoliberal tool.

Controversy ensued. DH advocates rushed to defend the work itself, not the label. The advocates often do not recognize that the struggle over digital humanities is actually a struggle about labor in the university. If advocates recognize the struggle over labor and the restructuring of higher education, they suggest that even critical forces are implicated within that restructuring, meaning that there is little effect in calling DH neoliberal above anything else. In an interview with LARB, published a few weeks before the “Neoliberal Tools” essay, Laura Mandell says that “I don’t object to critique itself, but I do object to critique that says, ‘you are part of the neoliberal corporatization, and we are not.’ By using the ‘I’m an outsider’ stance, you opt out of crucial discussions with the administrators, board of regents, government officials, and venders that we need to be participating in.” Here, Mandell overestimates the power of faculty governance, a power that has been ignored by state legislatures and boards of trusts all across the U.S with little consequence. More importantly, there are many who work in higher education who never have an audience of administrators because their contingent positions make them irrelevant to the university’s future.

To ask about the effect of DH is not about decrying an esoteric scholarly development or even technology itself. It is instead to ask about what counts as knowledge at a moment when knowledge is capital, if not power. It is about the labor behind knowledge production, and how that gets calculated. It is also about how institutionalization can erase the political capacity of certain ways of knowing the world. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have written that critique doesn’t operate outside the university, but has been incorporated within it. It could be in the undercommons, “where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong” that the futurity of critique may reside. [3] Harney and Moten are not interested in the digital per se, but their account of the university’s reliance on the criminal forces of professionalization and debt has made it clear that critique’s relationship to the university is “in but not of.”

I invoke the undercommons and its reminder that the university’s privatization is also a phenomenon of racialization in order to speculate about ties between the digital humanities, neoliberalism, and the latter’s tendency to be an instrument of white, patriarchal nationalism. To make this suggestion, I focus on faculty hiring. The impact of DH on faculty hiring shows its impact on both the epistemological priorities and the forms of labor in the university. If administrations, for example, are approving or encouraging positions in Digital Humanities over other fields that are more broadly oppositional to the neoliberal university, like African American studies, then there is at least some indication that DH functions as a neoliberal tool and there is further evidence for neoliberalism’s embedded defense of whiteness. There need not be coercion for neoliberalization to operate; the sense that an argument for a DH position will sway the upper administration to grant a faculty line over some other field still puts these forces to work.

Opening up a position in a particular field is an endorsement of the broad-based understanding of that field, not necessarily an endorsement of a particular individual’s work. There is certainly “critical” work being done with digital and computational aid. But as long as that critical work falls under the wide umbrella of the digital humanities, it is being counteracted by university administrators. At a structural level, the idea that some corner of DH may be opposed to neoliberalization seems besides the point. This isn’t a new problem, even to those who are active digital humanists. Yet it still deserves continued attention as scholars working in minority studies have yet to find a consistent and effective way to counter the depoliticizing strategies of the university.

I have found that the magnitude of DH’s growth within advertised faculty positions in English over the last fifteen years has been staggering. While the annual number of faculty positions advertised in the MLA Job Information List – English Edition (JIL) has decreased by nearly half since the year 2000, the number of DH positions advertised annually has increased almost eightfold (Figure 1). [4]

Figure 1: Percent Loss/Growth in Advertised Position in the MLA JIL from 2000-01 to 2004-15

That means that the percentage share of DH positions advertised in the 2014-15 JIL was 17.8% of all English jobs, up from a baseline of around 1% in the early 2000s (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Annual Percentage Share of Total Jobs Advertised in MLA JIL, English Edition

To grow in this particular phase of the university’s development should, at the very least, raise some questions about DH. Other indicators that have grown significantly in higher education during the last fifteen years include the amount of student debt, the number of adjunct and contingent faculty, and administrative salaries. While the JIL data I describe here cannot show a correlation between DH and those factors, thinking about DH in relation to the crisis imposed upon higher education can help to clarify DH’s use as a neoliberal tool.


The Politics of Incorporation

To contextualize the extent of DH’s faculty growth and how this could shape the field’s politics, it is worth considering a different, but related history of the incorporation of minority studies into the U.S. university. The university has a history of shaping fields to favor its institutional aims, particularly when those fields won space on campus through protest. Roderick Ferguson suggests that these strategies paired the American university with the forces of global capital as a “means of production for a strategic use of minority culture.” [5] Further, administrative interventions with the university have affected not just academic fields, but also the political and aesthetic arms of related movements. Sylvia Wynter writes:

Once established, these new programs and departments functioned to enable some of the major figures of the then far more powerful and dynamic Black Arts and Black Aesthetic Movements to carry some of their work into the academic mainstream, even where they, too, like Black Studies as a whole, were to find their original transgressive intentions defused, their energies rechanneled as they came to be defined (and in many cases, actively to define themselves so) in new “multicultural terms” as African-American studies; as such this field appeared as but one of the many diverse “Ethnic Studies” that now served to re-verify the very thesis of Liberal universalism against which the challenge of all three movements had been directed in the first place. [6]

As Wynter intimates, the trajectory towards “multicultural terms” resonates with other fields found under the rubric of Ethnic Studies, as well as under Gender and Sexuality Studies. (We’re entering a new phase of this trajectory as many Black Lives Matter movement demands are being incorporated on campuses under the sign of “diversity.”)

Tara McPherson has argued that the modular forms of computer code in vogue in the 1970s—modular meaning particular functions can be easily added, deleted, or substituted—resonated with parallel developments in liberal anti-racism, a key instrument for the “strategic use of minority culture.” McPherson doesn’t marshal the university’s history of depoliticization to defend DH, but it is not difficult to imagine others who would. The fact that university administrators eventually embraced black studies even in “multicultural terms” shows that a warm administrative embrace is not necessarily coterminous with a field’s neoliberalism. Yet, to see it that way would be a misrecognition. I am not aware of campus protests, buildings occupations, or widespread social movements that have demanded departments for the study of the digital. DH advocates have met some resistance from administrators to secure funding for DH projects and faculty, but those projects have not been a demand levied from active public unrest.

“Digital” and “tech culture” does have its own set of antagonisms to the university and its liberalism. Many of those frustrations, however, are based on the ideas that various liberal protections actually function as market restrictions, meaning a check on neoliberal liberty. Yet tech has been careful to figure its market machinations in the form of a social movement. For example, the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) revolution masked its attempts at “disrupting” higher education, a code for restructuring an industry and its labor practices, by suggesting that MOOCs provided the masses access to elite education. The hype around MOOCs was based on the argument that this access put a figurative wrecking ball through the ivy-covered walls of the U.S.’s elite colleges and universities. However, the “just-in-time” delivery system of MOOCs, their promise of displacement of a number of academic workers, and their unbundling of degree programs belied populist promise of MOOCs, accelerating the deterioration of the Keynesian-liberal university.

Of course, the MOOC revolution has largely fizzled out at the nation’s elite colleges and universities. Yet it has had more significant impact on the delivery of “course content” in many community colleges and public universities. Indeed, MOOCs show just one way digital culture reinforces existing divides by attempting to disrupt them. Admittedly, Digital Humanities is not the same thing as Uber, Coursera,, or other tech companies. But, as others have argued, DH often relies on or has become of great interest to tech companies. University administrators, particularly at elite institutions, have recognized this and find value in the economic potential of DH to acquire prestigious grants and private donations to university endowments. Compared to the existing economics of humanities grant-getting, DH offers a way to offset budgets that are either stagnant or in decline.

State governments reward administrations that deploy neoliberal reforms to make the university more financially austere. In turn, administrations reward faculty for supporting these austerity measures. A recent report from the Institute of Policy Studies argues that public university presidents are remunerated based upon their success in employing more contingent faculty and saddling students with more debt. The idea that state governments reward neoliberal reforms casts a different light on the fact that “there has been more support [for DH centers] at the state university level.” Instead of reinforcing a reading of DH’s populism spreading to “Ivies-come-lately,” high levels of state university support suggest that DH centers and DH faculty positions appear to be a solid strategy for administrations to satisfy state demands for austerity. Even though academic departments are often directly responsible for a number of aspects of hiring decisions and those appointments are presumed to receive a rubber stamp from upper administrators, administrative priorities stated in public or behind closed doors can frequently pressure faculty choices. Receiving institutional endorsement in the form of faculty positions and research centers, DH benefits from the university’s privatization.


A Digital Humanities Growth

I have examined the MLA JIL from the last fifteen years but, because of some limitations of the data, I am able to draw only two conclusions about the Digital Humanities that help to contextualize its function as a “neoliberal tool.”

  1.  The number of digital humanities jobs advertised annually has increased significantly, while the total number of jobs advertised annually has decreased.
  2. The share of DH jobs within the total number of jobs has risen while the share of other categories, such as American Literature, African American Literature, Other Minority Literature, and Postcolonial Literature, has declined.

I want to be measured about these conclusions. This data cannot show that Digital Humanities positions replaced positions otherwise slated for minority literatures or other fields that might be gleaned as oppositional to the neoliberalizing tendencies of university administrations. Nor does the data show on its own that the digital humanities gain is correlated with the decrease in positions in other fields, including African American literature. These general trends, however, do open up questions about how DH may be protecting forms of whiteness via its association with neoliberalism and the extent to which it has extended those protections.

Before going any further, I need to say more about my method and what we are actually observing on these charts. To tabulate the number of DH positions advertised in English Departments, I searched the PDF versions of the English edition of the JIL for “digital.” I counted positions advertising for candidates specializing in “digital rhetorics,” “digital narratives,” “digital cultures,” among others, in addition to those advertising “digital humanities.” [7] However, I did not count positions in film studies that called for familiarity with “digital production skills,” advertisements that asked for expertise in teaching online courses, nor advertisements that emphasized a department’s “strength in digital humanities,” unless the ad specified that candidates should contribute to that strength, in which case I did count it. I also counted positions that asked for digital humanities as a preferred, additional, or secondary qualification. I did not make distinctions between tenure-track, non-tenure-track, part-time, and administrative positions in my count. For all other fields, I’ve used the figures gathered from counts of the MLA’s categories in their annual reports on the JIL. [8]

The numbers I observed reflect advertisements, not positions filled. It is entirely possible that advertisements counted here have resulted in a failed search or have hired candidates that did not have a secondary interest in digital humanities. At the same time, this count does not reflect candidates who identify themselves in some ways as digital humanists who were hired for positions that did not advertise for DH and, given my argument about administrative endorsement, this matters less towards identifying DH as a neoliberal tool.

My primary points of comparison for DH are fields that could be identified as broadly oppositional to the university’s privatization, fields whose practitioners may be more likely to identify with the non-place of the undercommons: critical race and ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, etc. These fields have performed worse than DH over the last fifteen years. Advertised positions in African American literature have decreased to a 5.5% share from a 10% share a decade earlier (Fig. 2) and the total percentage loss of positions in the field (in 2014-15 approximately 76% of what they were in 2000-01) have been worse than the percentage decline of the discipline as a whole (45% for the same comparison).

These numbers prompt further speculations on DH’s relation to whiteness, which neoliberal policies work to secure. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young have done similar data-driven work with regards to creative writing to understand the relation of poetry’s “mainly white room” to academia’s ivory tower.  One effect of universities being the means of production for the “strategic use of minority culture” is their inclusion of fields of study that focus on minority culture within the curriculum and hiring minority faculty members to research and teach in those areas. While this has been the site of crucial gains within the university, it also has a resulted in a prevalent racialization of so-called minority fields, while leaving others seemingly unraced, or white.

It is easy to imagine the form this logic takes, perhaps in concerns about minority candidates who do not perform well for a position in a minority studies field, leaving departments having to justify hiring a white candidate when they were otherwise seeking a “target of opportunity.” The idea that positions in certain scholarly fields, like African American literature or Latinx literature come with unspoken subject-position requirements and not others is an effect of white supremacy. While there are scholars working in DH who identify as members of minority groups, that DH doesn’t seem to have an implicit subject-position requirement suggests that it has been wrapped tightly within the invisibility cloak of whiteness and may explain the perception of the field as predominantly white and male even if it isn’t actually. While the “strategic use of minority culture” indicates the persistence of white supremacist logics within the university, the massive growth of subfields where “race doesn’t matter” point to nefarious regimes of colorblindness, or rhetorical assertions that whiteness should be returned to its status as a default and therefore invisible subject position. That is, DH offers the university a different path to racial co-optation by increasing job searches where colorblindness can more comfortably operate.

With this in mind, let’s return to the numbers. Figure 2 shows that DH has increased its share of advertised positions, while African American literature has declined. Yet what if this simply reflects the fact that DH is an emergent field, albeit a highly successful one? Perhaps, the decline in share of African American positions is part of a move towards more positions in other ethnic American literatures? Jobs categorized as “Other Minority Literatures” have had a similar decline, though they have traditionally had a larger share of positions than African American literature. This larger share is because most jobs in African American literature are categorized under “Other Minority Literature,” even when those positions do not ask for additional qualifications in fields other than African American literature. From the JIL data alone, a fine grain answer about which race and ethnic studies fields have fared better than others is not possible. Overall, though, the share for ethnic American literature fields, including African American literature, has declined during the span of DH’s rise.

The “American Literature” category provides a baseline against which to compare DH and minority fields. American Literature has not had the same magnitude of decline as the African American and Other Minority Literature categories and its share has not increased like DH’s has. That is to say, there has been a slight proportional growth in Americanist positions that do not specify expertise in a minority literature of any kind over the past fifteen years. We do have to read the separation between American Literature and minority American literatures carefully (Fig. 4) because jobs listed in these categories are likely counted three times over. Any increase in American Literature’s share when those other fields are decreasing obscures a larger percentage increase in Americanist positions not advertising for ethnic literatures. When the reverse happens, African American and Other Minority Literature positions are actually keeping the American share artificially high. Even with those subtleties, the graph shows that American minority literatures have fared worse during the job market decline than American literature and significantly worse than DH.

Figure 4: Annual Percentage Share of Total Jobs Advertised in MLA, JIL, English Edition

The only other field that I tracked that did not have a decline in its share of positions is “World Literature” (Fig. 5). That World Literature is DH’s partner in growth should not be surprising. Waïl S. Hassan compares World Literature’s functions to multiculturalism fueled by the “depoliticizing, homogenizing, and idealizing dynamics of global capitalism.” [9] Even those skeptical of Hassan would be remiss to ignore that World Literature’s contemporary renascence has stemmed in part from Franco Moretti’s “Conjectures on World Literature,” a crucial essay for the formulation of his “distant reading.” Even if distant reading makes claims on considerations of scale for literary studies, not computation, since Moretti’s essay was published in 2000, World Literature has been tied to DH and its alignment with global capitalism.

Figure 5: (Line, left axis) Annual Percentage Share of Total Jobs Advertised in MLA JIL, English Edition (Bar, right axis) Annual Total of Jobs Advertised in MLA JIL

Given the neoliberalizing tendency of the university and administrative backing for that restructuring, the increase of digital humanities positions during this phase provides support for claims that understand digital humanities as neoliberal. At the very least, this data allows us to say that digital humanities has benefited from the policies of the contemporary university much more so than other subfields within English Departments. Given other measures of the university that have increased significantly during this period (tuition, student debt, ratio of contingent to tenured faculty), it is worth taking seriously the question of DH’s relationship to these factors.



As described by Harney and Moten, the fugitive non-space of the undercommons emerges from the fissures produced by liberal multiculturalism. Those fissures are essential to the university’s larger social and political function; in The Imperial University Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira argue that “debates about national identity and national culture shape the battles over academic freedom and the role of the university in defining the racial boundaries of the nation and its ‘proper’ subjects and ‘proper’ politics.” [10] That is, the university becomes a site to produce “proper,” meaning nationally acceptable, narratives of different forms of minority culture. As I understand it, Critical Ethnic Studies sees the university as one of a number of fronts for the systematic dismantling of liberal multiculturalism and the construction of new models of sociality, economy, and politics. DH, like tech, embraces a similar antagonism to liberal multiculturalism and the restrictions liberal multiculturalism places on its operations, but has a much different model of the world to come.

The most compelling case for DH seems to be for the return of the social relevance of the humanities. DH propels the humanities to again speak in the language of the public. Apparently, the language of the public is productivity. Once the fog surrounding the social relevance argument burns off, we are left with serious questions about who or what benefits from the digital humanities. Reading through the LARB interview series about DH, one notices how even those that embrace aspects of DH recognize that the public or the people do not seem to benefit from its growth. Many of those interviewed state that they could only start DH work once tenured. Others acknowledge that early-career faculty who are being hired in these glut of DH positions face serious doubts about how and if they’ll receive tenure. Others recognize that the group-work, which differentiates DH from other forms of humanities labor, fails to credit workers in more precarious positions. DH’s professionalization project appears to be a way for the university to reorganize its labor formation by threatening the status of tenure and creating even more contract positions.

The rise of DH only creates additional openings for administrative intervention and for encouraging the neoliberalizing tendencies with which it has become inevitably associated. Those who defend DH’s critical capacity implicitly suggest that DH can transcend the very forces that reshaped radical political movement in the 60s and 70s into multicultural units, without reference to minority studies discourse, which has carefully outlined that history. To take the work of minority studies scholars seriously, may turn the digital humanities away from the fetishization of digital tools as such and direct attention toward examining methods for counteracting the long histories of racialization via quantification and abstraction. If that discourse is ignored, however, the DH label is poised to continue the university’s production of U.S. nationalism.


Works Cited

[1] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), 159.

[2] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2007), 249.

[3] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013), 26.

[4] Literary Studies is not the only field that has been part of the digital humanities, though some argue that it is at the heart of the formation. Regardless, DH’s reach extends beyond English Departments to other humanities departments and programs, as well as to libraries.

[5] Roderick A. Ferguson, The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2012), 181.

[6] Sylvia Wynter, “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory and Re-Imprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre: Black Studies Toward the Human Project,” in Not Only the Master’s Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice, ed. Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon (Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2006), 109.

[7] This explains why my numbers are so different from Brian Lennon, who has been doing a similar tabulation. He exclusively searches for “digital humanities.”

[8] Given my choices and the fact that advertisers can tag a position with multiple field categories, the same position can be counted in multiple categories. For example, an Assistant Professor of African American Literature and Studies of Race and Literature job, which lists digital humanities as a secondary qualification, could be counted towards a category’s share of the total number of positions in four different areas: “Digital Humanities,” “American Literature,” and “Other Minority Literature.” When these repetitions significantly affect the interpretation of the charts, I have provided explanations in the body of the text.

[9] Waïl S. Hassan, “World Literature in the Age of Globalization: Reflections on an Anthology,” College English 63, no. 1 (2000): 45.

[10] Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira, “The Imperial University: Race, War, and the Nation-State,” in The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, ed. Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 7.



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