Tooling Around the Neoliberal Elephant

“It is going beyond observation to assert there is not an elephant in the room, for I cannot observe what is not”  (Oxford English Dictionary‘s oldest example of the “elephant in the room” phrase, from 1935)

Last week, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an article by Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia, “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities” (NT). Instantly controversial in some circles and virally spreading in others, it has spawned a number of important responses, some of which have already been, with a dash of irony, digitally archived.

My aim here is not to defend DH—it isn’t my area of expertise. I’ve crossed paths with it a few times, mostly as an administrator: I’ve co-organized a couple of Digital Humanities Summer Institutes; I organized, for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), a Future Challenge Areas research showcase, about a quarter of which was DH-related; I’ve done some basic Humanities Computing over the last 20 years (a.k.a. webpages).  I took Computer Science in high school and undergrad, but didn’t pursue it then for the same reason I don’t pursue DH now: I’m just not that interested. I know some of the scholars mentioned in the article, I’ve read some of the works, and I likely heard about the conferences, but I never paid much attention, just as I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to medieval studies. My research interests lie elsewhere.

Today, the LARB published a nicely nuanced and carefully balanced response to “Neoliberal Tools”: “Beyond Resistance: Towards a Future History of Digital Humanities,” by Juliana Spahr, Richard So, and Andrew Piper. The authors note they have had “similar worries that DH receives a disproportionate amount of governmental funding” but add, on this and related questions, “At this point we need more evidence.”  They are gesturing to passages in the original article that concerned me too, particularly the dramatic claims about the Canadian landscape:

The priority accorded to Digital Humanities by the Canadian government in its support for humanities research funding is directly comparable. Digital Humanities projects are compatible with two of the six “Future Challenge Areas” currently named by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). In the first, priority goes to research that answers the question, “What new ways of learning, particularly in higher education, will Canadians need to thrive in an evolving society and labour market?” In the second, researchers are enjoined to study how emerging technologies can be “leveraged to benefit Canadians.” (NT)

This lacks important details and context, in some measure reproducing the concerns many of us have about distant reading.  Here’s some close reading. The Future Challenge Areas have always had the veneer of inclusiveness and collaboration rather than centralized priority-making: the initiative was announced in summer 2011, followed by a year of extensive consultations and reports to define the six “areas,” which were eventually launched in a spiffy webpage in 2013.  Short version: if SSHRC had then made those areas a priority for funding there almost certainly would have been a national outcry, not least because of the timing. The success rate for SSHRC’s then newly established research funding program, Insight Grants, was nearly half that of the program it replaced (Standard Research Grants). Prioritizing specific areas of research would have made things exponentially worse both for Social Science and Humanities (SSH) researchers who need funding to do their work and for their universities (here in Canada, universities get research support from the federal Research Support Fund, and how much they get depends on the “grant capture” of their researchers). SSHRC was very careful, if a tad awkward, in trying to promote the FCAs while making it clear that research that fits the six areas will not fare better in grant competitions (governed by rigorous merit review):

SSHRC invites all applicants to its funding opportunities to review the six future challenge areas and subquestions, and to consider addressing one or more of these areas in their research proposal. While this is not an evaluation criterion for merit review, research that addresses one or more of the future challenge areas further positions the value of the social sciences and humanities to meet Canada’s future, long-term societal challenges and opportunities. (“Future Challenge Areas”; emphasis added)

This is rather short of “priority” or “enjoin,” though there is a small program, Knowledge Synthesis Grants (KSG), that has recently been directed to these six “areas.” In the last round, it funded 24 applications worth a maximum $25,000 each, or under $600,000 in total; by comparison, a recent round of the Insight Grant program funded 466 projects, for a total of nearly $82m (see Competition Statistics).  There are other “funding opportunities” as well, and SSHRC’s 2015-16 budget for research grants (excluding graduate and postdoctoral fellowships) was nearly $181m, making that FCA KSG competition worth about 0.33% of the total.  There have been other one-off programs, such as the Digital Economy (2011) before the FCA initiative, and now a special program on Syrian Refugee Resettlement (no DH there…), but the vast majority of SSHRC research funding is not targeted in this way (you don’t need to take my word for it: there’s a searchable database of SSHRC awards).

To see the two Future Challenge Areas that may be open to DH as the problem for the Humanities, however, is to notice a crease in the carpet instead of the elephant in the room. The six “Areas” have an overwhelming, if tacit, emphasis on disciplines in the Social Sciences, including business (“the quest for energy and natural resources”; “labour market”). That last KSG round? Not a single funded application was identified as being in Philosophy, Literature, or History (though there are quite a few on the Insight list). SSHRC “invites” scholars “to consider” Social Sciences’ research on economic issues as the way to demonstrate the value of SSH research, reinforcing neoliberalism’s message that the Humanities have little public value.  The rhetoric of the Future Challenge initiative is fundamentally neoliberal, promoting the short-term economic benefits of scholarly research, and the openness of two of the six questions to DH projects marks most of the precious little bit of room it affords to Humanities at all.  So, the evidence suggests that there is a neoliberal bias in SSHRC’s FCA “messaging” that impacts one very small program of $25k grants, rather than much “specific targeting of large-value grants toward Digital Humanities projects” (NT).

Sure, there are other federal funding programs that are tech-friendly and often industry-friendly too (CFI, Compute Canada, MITACS), but they are also heavily science-dominated and few Humanities scholars of any stripe apply to them, let alone benefit from “specific targeting.”  And much of the digital work in Humanities research applications is a result of the push for “Knowledge Mobilization,” not DH research: putting research-related content onto a website is a straightforward way for Humanities scholars to meet SSHRC’s requirement of a “Knowledge Mobilization Plan” that shows some effort to distribute research results beyond academia. Knowledge Mobilization, of course, comes out of neoliberal pressures on research: it mandates rapid ROI through content available to taxpayers or other forms of impact (policy, for instance), devaluing the general public good of advancing knowledge and reducing hours spent on research activity by mandating that researchers spend more time distributing results.

Knowledge Mobilization also lies behind another significant drain on research activity, and even threat to academic freedom:  research councils across the West are mandating open-access publication of funded research, and doing so under the UK Finch Report’s model of Open Access (the author-pay model), in which researchers pay fees (often $1,500-$3,000/article) to publish their work online via peer-reviewed journals that are mostly owned by a handful of large multinational academic publishers. Thus, the business model goes, 24 authors pay to publish a year of a journal instead  of 800 subscribers.  In Canada, all three research councils now require open-access publication of peer-reviewed journal articles and allow public funding to be used to pay these fees. Millions of dollars may float out of Canada’s research economy, where public funding supports graduate students, equipment, library purchases, and other actual costs of research, and into the coffers of wealthy publishers.  They’re willing to defend those profits, too.  Readers may recall a recent controversy involving charges of “censorship” over a peer-reviewed article critiquing the dollars and sense of this kind of so-called “Open Access.” And, of course, in medical and scientific fields, this gives industry unfettered and free access to university research, potentially reducing industry’s contribution to the national R&D (worrying given the “historically low rate of investment in IR&D in Canada compared to other countries“) and even the costs of scholarly publishing.

The Finch-driven version of Open Access is arguably at odds with the internet idealism to which many, inside and outside of academe, DHers and non-DHers, are committed—a vision of the free and open sharing of knowledge, ideas, perspectives, and code. Research-council support of the author-pay model is neoliberalism exemplified: under the guise of civic freedom, it facilitates the transfer of public money into private hands. It responds to large corporations’ questionably high pricing for academic publications (significant burdens on university libraries) by sending them more public money rather than by regulating the industry’s pricing.  This neoliberal elephant is treading on all researchers’ toes.

So, we have reasons to be concerned about the impact of neoliberalism on Canadian research policy, including at SSHRC, but they have very little to do with DH or even grant amounts.  We do need to discuss how we study the humanities, debate how effectively to expand our methodological reach to include the digital world, and steadily work to improve how we share our research in a world complicated by multiple lines of media, corporate control, copyright restrictions, different international requirements, and our own bias towards dominant paradigms that can make us so gosh darn conservative. It may be comforting amidst all of these complications to treat DH or some other discipline as a scapegoat, attaching to it all the sins of the neoliberal university as if sending it out of the bounds of academic legitimacy will somehow purify (and save) us. Doing so, however, not only echoes the neoliberal sidelining of the Humanities in general, but would also taint our ethical commitment to academic freedom of inquiry, impoverish our debates about culture and the Humanities, and distract us from the more significant incursions of neoliberalism into the academic production and dissemination of knowledge.



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